Photo by Cheryl Gerber Most Americans know that sake is made from rice. This, unfortunately, is also the only thing most Americans are bound to know about the brewed adult beverage from Japan. The end result is that fine sake's high approachability (light and refreshing, crisp yet complex, pairs well with food) often gets undercut by uncertain accessibility (hot or cold, Junmai or Ginjo, Ginjo or Daiginjo).
For many beginners, it's a steep learning curve resembling Mount Fuji. And thus one of the world's great liquid pleasures remains largely a mystery.
'It's a matter of just taking the leap," says Marc Pelletier of Martin Wine Cellar. 'There are so many different styles. Going to one of the better sushi establishments in town is a good way to start, because you can get a smaller bottle (300 ml) to have with your meal " though I've not found some of the places to be real giving with information about the sake. It's kind of up to the consumer to go out and try things and find something they may enjoy."
To that end, Pelletier offers five helpful tips that will simplify the search:
Stay cool. 'The majority of sake that is served hot is of very low quality," he warns. '[You] wouldn't take a bottle of Cristal and make a mimosa out of it. [Hot sake] is not something that I'm real fond of. Finer sakes should definitely be served chilled."
Salute the kernel. 'Just as a winemaker in France would say it's all about the grapes, (with sake) it's all about the rice. The quality and percentage of milling that is done, how much of the kernel is polished away. This makes the kernel more soluble and releases the sugars that then help to start the fermentation process." Seimaibuai refers to the degree of polish " generally, the more the kernel is milled, the more refined the sake.
Go Ginjo. There are three primary classes of premium sake: Junmai (pure rice with no added alcohol, at least 30 percent milling); Junmai-Ginjo (fermented longer at a lower temperature, often hand-pressed, at least 40 percent milling); and Junmai-Daiginjo (the best of the best, with 50-65 percent of the kernel milled away). '[Our bottles] run from $7.99 (300 ml) to $50-plus (720 ml)," Pelletier says. 'When you get up to that (Junmai-Daiginjo) level, you're talking about sake with really amazing body and complex character that would equal some of the finer white wines I've had in my lifetime."
Make a connection. '[Martin supplier] Vine Connections has a great Web site (www.vineconnections.com) with an overview of sake types that you can print out in a PDF form. It gives you some of the basic information about sake and their classifications " what goes into the styles in general, the different quality levels."
It's not in the name. '"Divine Droplets' " an amazingly complex bottle of wine " came about because the literal translation of the sake did not have a name that was appealing for sales. The actual translation was "Drips All Night.' They decided that to market the product, it was probably better to give it a little nicer name."
What's in a Name?
Sake producers often choose poetic or romantic sounding names, but can you distinguish the sake bottles from the Danielle Steel novels in this list?
A. Garden of Eternity
B. Season of Passion
C. Heaven's Door
D. Hawk in the Heavens
E. Lone Eagle
F. Wings of Fortune
G. Leap of Faith
H. Root of Innocence
I. Voices in the Mist
J. Answered Prayers
K. Time of Reflection
L. Mirror Image
M. Southern Beauty
N. Amazing Grace
O. Silent Honor
P. Silent Stream
Sake A,C,D, F, H, I, K, M, P
Steele B, E, G, J, L, N, O
- Cheryl Gerber
- Unless you read Kanji, you'll need the help of barstaff to choose a sake at Yuki Izakaya.