Wine and cheese? So eighties. Microbrew beer? So aughts. Sake? So now.
If you haven’t spotted a sake bar near you, or visited a Japanese restaurant with a dazzling selection of the drink, chances are you will soon. Sake is the hottest new beverage on the sipping scene, with artisanal makers from around the world bringing innovative techniques and creative artistry to this ancient beverage.
Perhaps you’ve only experienced mediocre brands, warmed at a sushi counter; if so, you’ve never had sake the way it was meant to be imbibed. A common misconception about sake is that it must be served warm, and that it’s a clear, distilled liquor, like gin or vodka. The truth is, sake is not distilled at all, nor is it a beer or a wine. It’s the result of a complex and unique process that’s as much art as science, that yields delicious results.
Tradition Meets Innovation
Sake, made in the traditional way, produces an exceptionally pure alcoholic beverage, one that’s gluten-free, sulfite-free, and histamine-free. Yet, the exacting guidelines don’t limit variety. Filtering, varying the amount of polishing, choosing which of the many varieties of sake rice to use, mixing different amounts of untreated steamed rice with the koji-treated rice, fermentation time, the addition of water, and whether to pasteurize once, twice, or not at all, are only some of the many choices that influence the final product.
American artisanal producers are among the most ardent in replicating true Japanese-style sake in the US. In Portland, Oregon, where an annual sake festival is held each year, SakéOne is entering its third decade of producing traditional sake. In Minneapolis, Blake Richardson uses Minnesota’s long winters to his advantage and brews as the Japanese do—only in cold weather. “We have cold air and water, ideal conditions for brewing sake,” he says.
Yet many sake producers—often young millennials—are combining tradition with experimental techniques to redefine the drink. Ironically, many of those most eager to bend the rules are located in Japan. For example, a manufacturer in Fukushima Prefecture has been producing high-quality sake by piping music (Mozart’s Symphonies 40 and 41) over the barrels during fermentation on the proven theory it stimulates yeast activity. Several manufacturers are experimenting with aging bottles undersea in hopes that the gentle current will produce a mellower brew. Others are experimenting with new forms of yeast, including yeast that has been sent into space and yeast extracted from cherry blossom, rhododendron, and begonia petals.
When it comes to sake, most of us are newbies, and finding your way through the welter of choices can seem overwhelming.
For guidance, we went straight to the top to Steve Vuylsteke, CEO of SakéOne, one of America’s premier makers of traditional sake. With a solid background in Oregon’s burgeoning wine industry, Vuylsteke is an expert in both wine and sake, and was quickly able to give us several helpful pointers. “Many people think sake should be warmed,” he says. “The truth is, premium sake is best served chilled, like a white wine.”
White wine, in fact, turns out to be a good reference point for understanding sake. Its alcohol content—usually in the fifteen- to eighteen-percent range—is similar to wine and like white wine, sake also comes in a sparkling version. One big difference between sake and wine? Acidity. Sake has only about one-third the acidity level of wine, which makes it a better companion for appetizers, entrées, and even desserts. “The lower acid content works with all kinds of food,” Vuylsteke observes.
Much of the same language used to describe wine is used with sake, so if you know whether you like a light, crisp wine or prefer something bolder, look for a sake with those same qualities. “And if you’re not a wine drinker,” Vuylsteke advises, “let your taste in beer or spirits guide you.” Do you like the roasty taste of stout? Prefer the astringence of gin to the smokiness of scotch? Food preferences work too, so think of flavor notes that ring your chimes—the earthiness of mushrooms, for example, or the sweetness of fruit.
Wait staff in well-stocked restaurants and sake bar mixologists are fonts of information, and many manufacturers offer small bottles, perfect for experimenting and figuring out what you like. With the trending emphasis on sake, there’s never been a better time to explore this centuries old beverage.
Mix It Up
Sake’s versatility makes it a good choice for adding flavor and dimension without significantly upping the alcohol content. Here are some recipes to get you started. Happy sipping.
2 fl. oz. Momokawa Pearl Saké
1/2 fl. oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
1 fl. oz. Cranberry Juice
Splash of Lime Juice
Combine with ice in a shaker, shake, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.
4 1/2 fl. oz. SakéMoto Saké
1 1/2 fl. oz. Reed’s Ginger Beer
1 1/2 tsp Monin Pomegranate Syrup
Combine sake, syrup, and ginger beer in a tall glass filled with ice. Stir gently to combine.
1 fl. oz. Momokawa Silver Saké
1 fl. oz. Grand Marnier
1 fl. oz. Lime Juice
Rub the rim of a cocktail glass with a wedge of lime, dip into coarse salt, and set aside. Blend drink ingredients with crushed ice and pour into the prepared glass.
*Recipes and photos courtesy of SakéOne.
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