Five years ago, sake was typically served hot in Japanese restaurants. Now premium sakes, usually served cold, are more popular,” notes Yoshihiko Takao, sake sommelier for importer The Jizake Inc. Today, he adds, 20 different sakes may be offered.
Sake is also moving into other cuisines besides Japanese, says John Gautner, the Tokyo-based sake expert and author of the “Sake Handbook.” The rice-based brew is prevalent in other Asian concepts and popping up in steakhouses and trendy cocktail lounges. Gautner adds that the quality of sake poured in restaurants is hugely improving as well. “We’ve added a larger number of better-quality sakes,” confirms Anne Lee, owner of Sushi Twist in New York City. Some 16 sakes are on her list, which includes top-shelf sake for as much as $80 a bottle along with $15 carafes of house sake—served both hot and cold. Sake outsells wine at Sushi Twist, Lee reports. Kaori Junmai Ginjo ($20 for a 300 ml bottle) is one of the best sellers. Customers who don’t know much about sake start with hot sake and graduate to premium cold sakes as they learn more. To aid that educational effort, Sushi Twist recently hosted a directed sake and sushi pairing and is planning to do more. “It’s a good way to get people to try sake and see how well it goes with food,” says Lee.
Sake pairs well with rich American foods—even better than wine does, explains Takao, because sake contains an amino acid conjuring up umami, the so-called fifth taste.
Rice to riches
Although called “rice wine,” sake is closer to beer because it’s made from a fermented grain, rice. First the rice is milled or polished to remove the husk, fat and protein. Sake is rated by the percentage of grain milled away; top-quality sake is made from rice with half the original kernel polished off. The rice is washed, soaked and steamed, then inoculated with Koji, a mold that changes starch to sugar. Yeast then ferments that sugar into alcohol. Sake is typically filtered (except for negori or “cloudy” sake) and pasteurized. Generally, the fresher the sake, the better—refrigerate for serving; once opened, it doesn’t keep well.
To help guests sort out sake, Sushi Twist is developing a five-variety sampler. Another way to introduce sake is via cocktails like the saketini and sakepolitan. Shochu—a Japanese spirit distilled from sweet potatoes, rice or barley—is also on mixologists’ radar. “It’s where sake was five years ago,” says Jizake’s Takao. “Both are good mixers.”
Takao and Sushi Twist’s Lee cite the increasing number of wine and liquor distributors that carry these spirits. Distributors that specialize in sake and shochu, however, will have a wider selection and offer more buying assistance to operators. As a starter kit, Takao suggests stocking one house sake, a mid-range offering and one premium selection.
From Sushi Twist
Umekanon Plum (500ml) $55
Plum wine made from 100 percent premium junmai sake with balanced sweetness and a pleasant acidity
Yukiwatari Negori (300ml) $20
Dry, rich, smooth unfiltered sake
Mizunoshirabe Ginjo (720ml) $35
Slightly dry, rounded, clear tast
Ohtouka (300ml) $15
Gentle sweetness with refreshing feeling of spring water
Kaguyahime Junmai (500ml) $30
Light and rounded; sweet aroma
Shoin Junmai (500ml) $35
Blossoming bouquet of floral fragrances and tartness of apples
Kaori Jumai Ginjo (300ml) $20
Medium dry; melon and banana aroma
Kuromatsu Junmai (300ml) $20
Very dry taste with rich full body; smooth on palate with sharp finish
Ai San San (300ml) $20
Medium dry with clear, refreshing taste
Ginju Sizuku (720ml) $80
Well balanced, aroma of fruit, light and refreshing
Oni No Shitaburi (500ml) $23
Light and dry sake, a perfect match with seafood