Sake: A Primer


My first taste of sake, a Japanese rice wine that is fermented like beer, was cheap stuff, overheated in its tetra box hooked up to the restaurant’s dispensing machine. It went down like a slug of jet fuel. Yum, I said sarcastically. Perfect if you’re the Millennium Falcon and have to make that jump into hyperspace!

But I continued my exploration of sakes because, after all, my first sip of a house white wine from a box wasn’t all that great, either. With sake, I quickly found high-quality examples, distinguished ambassadors for a unique treat that’s been perfected over the past thousand years or so. When I visited Japan, I enjoyed sake in restaurants, bars and private homes. I even shared sake with some rowdy businessmen on a commuter train in Tokyo, an experience I remembered fondly as I wrote my honors thesis on sake for my master’s degree in wine marketing back in California.

Here in Sacramento, the number of hip Asian restaurants is growing fast, and many offer long sake lists, overstuffed with impossibly flowery descriptions. Shall you order the Tinkling Tears of a Young Bride, or the Demonhunter With Rippling Pectorals? Here’s your guide to enjoying sake with confidence.

Peaceful Pottery&emdash;

Ever wonder why those darling ceramic sake cups, called sakazuki, are so small? In Japan, the most important part of the sake ritual revolves around o-shaku, in which drinking companions pour for each other. With a small cup, the need to top off arises more often. This gesture of generosity punctuates the conversation; old friendships are strengthened and new alliances are cemented.
Wooden drinking boxes, called masu, are made of cypress. The wood can mask the flaws of inferior sake but, by the same token, will dumb down the good stuff.
While I love my collection of sakazuki, a small wine glass is the best way to fully enjoy the aromas and flavors in a pour of premium sake. Wineglass mogul Riedel even makes a Daiginjo glass, which is similar in shape and size to a glass for young white wine.

Just My Type&emdash;

Sake comes in many styles. Look for these terms on menus and labels:
>   Junmai: The first grade of premium sake, made only with rice, kojii (inoculated rice,
used like sourdough starter in the fermentation), yeast and water.
>   Honjozo Sake: with brewer’s alcohol added to stabilize it and prolong its shelf life. More mellow and with lower acidity than pure junmai sake, honjozo brands can vary in quality.
>   Nigori: This one’s supposed to be cloudy, and served cold, too. It’s unfiltered, which leaves some interesting flavors in the mix. You’ll find fun tropical aromas like banana and vanilla, with a slight sweetness on the palate.
>   Ginjo and Daiginjo: These terms refer to the top grades of polish, 40 percent and 50 percent respectively, on the rice before fermentation. Ginjo and daiginjo junmai sakes are more refined, with floral and fruity aromas, and are the most handcrafted of all the sakes. They typically are served chilled, although you may enjoy the evolution of flavor as you warm the glass in your hand. Expect to pay top price for these, much as you would for a single-vineyard wine from a premium appellation.

• Elaine’s Pick of the Month
Wakatake Onikoroshi Junmai Daiginjo Sake ($33, Taylor’s, Nugget Markets, Corti Brothers, Kozen). Onikoroshi translates as demon slayer; this one from Shizuoka wields its power with a velvet glove.
Get Fresh&emdash;
Sake is best enjoyed from a new bottle. In restaurants, feel free to ask a server how long a bottle has been open&emdash;any premium sake more than a couple of days old should be demoted to cooking wine. If it tastes flat or bitter, send it back.

Avoid buying sake from dusty shelves in shops where you suspect turnover is low. Most sake, even at the high end, should be consumed as young as possible. At home, keep it in a dark, cool place until you chill the bottle or gently warm the sake before serving.

Just Say No, Nicely&emdash;
As a student in Japan, I astounded my hosts with my capacity for sake. In truth, I wasn’t a lush; I just had no idea how to say no to their constant generosity.

Here’s how: Hold the cup in your fingers and, as the sake is poured, lift the cup up almost immediately after the sake hits the bottom to indicate that the pour is done. Then pretend to drink the tiny amount, and repeat as needed. In case of emergency, or if your host doesn’t seem to know the lift the cup rule, you may politely refuse sake by silently placing your hand, palm down, over the mouth of the cup as your host makes the rounds.

A Wine Lover’s Guide to Japan’s Sake Regions
>   Niigata Prefecture: Located in the Japanese Alps, with the best rice in Japan and pristine water. Dry and light, ethereal on the palate, this style of sake is called kire, which means both clean and beautiful in Japanese. The Alsatians feel the same way about their Rieslings.
>   Shizuoka: Because sakes from this region are soft, fragrant and low in acidity, they are a good choice for first-time sake tasters, much like the friendly red wines of Beaujolais.
>   Nada: This area in the Hyogo prefecture brews up large quantities of straightforward, assertive sakes, analogous to big Lodi Zinfandel.
>   Fusshiimi: Soft, delicate and just off-dry, Fusshiimi’s reputation matches the refined nature of surrounding Kyoto City, full of exquisite shrines, gardens and cultural history. Think Chenin Blanc from the Loire.
>   Kochi: This region brews sake that is kara kuchi, dry. Sakes in the Southwest tend to be deep and expansive, and dangerously easy to sip for hours, like Chianti Classico served in a Tuscan enoteca.

Local Potion&emdash;
Did you know there is a traditional sake brewery in the Sacramento area? Gekkeikan, sake brewers in Japan since 1637, uses both ancient and state-of-the-art methods right here in Folsom.

Duck in for a taste, enjoy the beautiful garden and koi pond, and take a self-guided tour if you’d like to learn more.

1136 Sibley St., Folsom; (916) 985-3111; open Monday–Friday 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m.