It may come in a gorgeous bottle, at several temperatures and in a variety that rivals the wine list at a good French restaurant [with graph and box]
“Kanpai,” says Jessie Nelson, the bartender at Satsko sake bar in New York’s Alphabet City, as he clinks his small sake glass to mine, then to the bar, and sets it to his lips. I do the same, shakily hitting the bar, wondering if that is tradition or just an odd tic he has. Tradition, it turns out. By hitting the bar with the glass you show reverence to the house that is serving you. We both sip. What I taste isn’t what I was expecting. Far more complicated than what my younger self had dropped into beers and gulped down, this sake was light, floral. This was something to get excited about. There is a world of sake beyond the house bottles most of us have come to know.
Sake, or Japanese rice wine, is growing in popularity in the United States. Sales have nearly tripled in this decade, to $29 million by the end of 2007, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Sake bars are cropping up, and demand has produced several sake-only stores: True Sake in San Francisco –the first – followed by Sake Nomi in Seattle, and Sakaya in Manhattan. Japanese restaurants are handing patrons sake menus that rival the length and variety of wine lists at expensive French restaurants.
Yet Americans don’t know much about the “drink of the gods,” as it is called in Japan. Let’s say you’re ordering fish, a dish you might pair with a white, fruity wine. Sake virgins might do well with Nigori, unfiltered sake, Nelson suggests. If you want to drink something bigger, dryer and more like a red wine, then you choose a Junmai - pure distilled rice without added alcohol, or a Shokubai.
But it gets more complicated. Sake, like wine, has different levels of refinement and class. Grades are determined by how much of each grain of rice is removed. “You have fewer impurities; [the fats and proteins that surround the starchy center] tend to contribute to flavors that are undesirable,” explained Sakaya owner Rick Smith. The house sake at your local sushi bar is usually domestic, and served hot – to hide its imperfections, and strong alcohol taste.
As an example of sweeter sake, Nelson pours first the house, a Nigori Shochikubai, which came in a green bottle bigger than a bowling pin. Since Nigoris aren’t filtered, the saccharine liquid was almost thick, like corn syrup. In contrast, the higher-tier sake Kamoizumi, a Nigori Ginjo, is much more refined. Though still opaque and white, it is subtly sweet at first taste, then dry at the end.
A young couple walks in. They order a tasting of three hot sakes and sip cautiously, pulling the clay bottles out of the perfectly warmed water and pouring generously for each other, just as it should be done. They talk about friends, jobs, and then agree they prefer the middle one, the same higher-quality sake I tasted. These are the people who are starting to discover sake. Nelson says that this is the crowd that comes in on nights and weekends, looking to find something new, something different than a beer.
Different occasions and types call for hot, cold, lukewarm or room temperature sakes. While Nelson would not have hot sake with a meal—he would rather nurse it on a cold night — some sake sommeliers will use the same bottle at different temperatures for different points of the meal. Changing the temperature can endow one bottle with many different flavors and mouth-feels. In Japan, “in certain local sake pubs, there are people whose specific job it is to warm the sake to a specific temperature for that sake and also for a particular customer,” according to Smith. Beginners should take the sommelier’s temperature recommendation– and maybe wait until they are regulars to start asking for it hitohada (lukewarm).
Another hurdle: remembering what you drank, without having to learn Japanese. “The main way in which you get to know these things,” Smith says, “is the same way you get to know wine; you just build up a reservoir of experience.” He even suggests “taking pictures with your phone, or writing down things about it that struck you as being pleasant or unpleasant.” There are also usually translated names underneath the Japanese title: Heaven’s Door, Otter Fest. Nelson has simpler advice. “The only way to really know this stuff,” he said before finishing off a glass, “is to drink a lot of it.”
A bottle you buy is lovely, perhaps even arty. The tiny cups are used in Japanese culture to encourage sharing, Smith said. “The small cups are made that way with the intention of being refilled over and over again,” he said. “What you do is you fill your companion’s and they in turn fill yours. It’s meant to encourage bonding and be a sharing experience.”
My sake tasting at Satsko ends with a glass of Wakatake (in my notes, walkie talkie, which makes me like it even more). It’s floral, oaky and creamy, much more complex than anything I’d drunk with a sushi dinner. “Kanpai,” Nelson and I say together, and this time I deftly clink my glass to his, then clink the bar. The couple in the corner looks at us with curiosity, probably wondering if we both have odd tics.
76 South Washington Street
560 Hayes St
San Francisco, CA 94102
New York City
324 East 9th Street
New York, NY 10003
Tel 212-505-7253 (SAKE)