Sake is one of those spirits whose chemistry is so complex, we’re guilty of shrugging and sipping rather than trying to understand what’s in our cup. But it’s worth doing some homework, especially given the increasing number of Japanese restaurants on the fine-dining scene; ordering confidently is a perk.
“People are getting on board with sake and legit sake programs,” says Alex Bachman, bar manager at Chicago’s Yusho, a streetfood-inspired Japanese restaurant. “People come in now and ask for crazy unpasteurized sakes.”
But it’s still a widely misunderstood category, burdened with the misnomer “rice wine” when it’s technically closer to “rice beer.”
What’s easier to understand is its logical quality scale. Sake’s base ingredient is rice — an entirely different grain from what’s in your sushi roll — whose outer husk is milled down to get to the desirable starch, called shinpaku, in its core. The more the rice is milled, the better the sake’s quality. Premium sakes require at least 30 percent of the rice’s rough exterior to be milled away, and some superpremium sakes are made from rice that has been polished down to less than half of its original size.
Sake shopping can be daunting, as there are eight categories of premium sake, and within them hundreds of breweries and subgenres. A few tips:
Look for gin. Eric Swanson of sake importer Tenzing Wine and Spirits says to remember the word ginjo — a category that tends to be more expressive. “A lot of people can’t remember ginjo, but if you can see the word ‘gin’ on the label, it’s a ginjo.”
Cloudy? Cool. Unfiltered sake, called nigori, appears cloudy or milky in color because of the tiny particles of rice in the mix. Sweeter in flavor, nigori sake is popular among trendsetters in the U.S.
Hot sake? Not so hot. When sake was introduced 50 years ago, consumers believed it should be drunk hot, which couldn’t be further from the truth, says sake expert Yoshi Yumoto, national sales manager of Gekkeikan at Sidney Frank Importing Co. Better-quality sakes, like ginjos or daiginjos, are best chilled.
Pure rice; milled at least 30 percent
Tentaka Kuni “Hawk in the Heavens,” $27
Smell: Rice-y and full
Taste: Hearty, only slightly sweet; reminiscent of beer
Shichi Hon Yari “Seven Spearsmen,” $17
Smell: Faint and just the tiniest bit sweet
Taste: Mildly sweet and rich, like a dessert sake; excellent with a heavier meal; a favorite in this category
Hiro Junmai Red, $30
Smell: Very faint; inoffensive
Taste: Faintly grassy, easy and drinkable, but not remarkable
Ty Ku Silver, $15