Sake and wine have more in common than you might think. Like, way, way more. For starters, both are ancient beverages, with histories stretching back thousands of years. Both are governed by strict production guidelines, upon which stringent quality ratings are assigned. And both can take a meal from everyday, run-of-the-mill to mind-blowing. But even full-on wine geeks remain mystified and intimidated by this rice-based brew.
In spite of all that, sake consumption is on a serious upswing, and you wanna know what else? It's not just for sushi anymore. Here are ten juicy droplets of sake wisdom to soak up before your next trip to a Japanese restaurant.
10. Don't go local: Ninety to 95 percent of sake is produced in the United States. That's right: The typical entry-level sake on the list at your corner sushi joint was likely brewed in California, Washington State or, hell, even right here in Colorado. Sake brewed in the States is to the premium sake industry what Corona is to premium Mexican beer -- which is to say, it ain't. Premium sake depends completely on the quality of rice used to make it. Guess where premium sake rice is grown? Japan.
9. The big four: Okay, so we've established that premium rice is one of four ingredients critical to quality sake production. The other three are 1. water, 2. yeast, and 3. koji (a kind of magical mold that's used to start the sake fermentation process). When sake is produced following these guidelines, it's called "junmai" -- or rice only, and only nine percent of sake produced earns this designation.
8. Ingredients equal quality: "Futsu" (aka table sake) is the term used to describe the majority of sake produced in the world, and is most likely what you've been swilling all these years. You might not think this is any big deal, but consider this: There are absolutely no minimum (that's right, zero) rice-quality or production standards associated with futsu sake. Considering that there are only three other ingredients in sake, is futsu really what you should be drinking with that $12 piece of toro you just ordered? Of course it isn't.
7. Use your words: You want the good stuff, so look for the terms "junmai," "junmai gingo" or "junmai daiginjo" on the label (or sake list), the latter representing the very best of the best in terms of rice quality.
6. Pairing up: Like wine, the highest-quality (and possibly the most expensive) option doesn't necessarily make an ideal pairing partner for every dish. The more delicate flavor profiles typical of a junmai daiginjo are usually better suited for drinking alone or with a simple, perfect piece of sashimi -- so you might want to skip that volcano roll.
5. It's all about the Benjamins: Having said that, price does matter when it comes to sake. You know how finding a killer pinot for less than $20 is about as easy as getting an 8 p.m. Friday-night reservation at Rioja? Same thing applies to sake: Don't be fooled by a $10 bottle of junmai ginjo, because it's probably too good to be true. Since the sake's quality is 100 percent determined by the quality of raw ingredients used to make it, it's damn near impossible to get a truly amazing bottle for less than around $30.
4. Keep your cool: Hot sake equals inferior sake. You know how, back in the day, folks used to cook something to death to mask its, shall we say, not-so-fresh qualities? Yeah, it's pretty much the same deal with sake. Premium sakes are always served chilled.
3. But don't be too cool: Just like their white-wine cousins, sakes are best served at around 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (which can be achieved with ease if you just pull your sake out of the fridge about fifteen minutes before you plan to drink it). This serving temp allows all the subtle flavors and nuances found in premium sake to shine. And while we're talking about chilling out, unlike their white-wine cousins, premium sakes can last (and by last, I mean still taste great) for an entire week stored in the refrigerator.
2. Youth rules: You might have heard that most wine produced and sold (particularly in the United States) nowadays is meant for immediate consumption. Same thing applies to sake. No need to fret about building up an impressive sake cellar: Check the date printed on the bottle and drink up within eighteen months.
1. Match game: Premium sakes are as versatile as just about any wine when it comes to pairing with food and will easily stand up to everything from duck to dessert.
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Check out a few of the not-so-standard matches below and consider pouring sakes at your next dinner party:
• Rihaku "Wandering Poet", Junmai Ginjo ($17): Super floral, full of amaretto, melon and banana peel aromas that melted into creamy, mouth-filling flavors of pear and candied orange zest. Ideal love match? Pumpkin curry or miso-glazed salmon.
• Tentaka Kuni "Hawk in the Heavens", Junmai ($32): Wow. This sake will hit you upside the head with all kinds of soy, roasted mushroom and umami overtones which then magically transform into caramel and more melon on the palate. All I could think of eating with this manly sake was a giant plate of risotto with braised short ribs and pearl onions.
• Tozai "Snow Maiden" Nigori ($17): Nigori means "cloudy" in Japanese, which makes perfect sense, as this sake is a creamy, milky white. Sweeter than other styles of sake, the ripe banana and tropical coconut notes would make it a perfect partner for vanilla-bean crème brûlée or a creamy key-lime panna cotta.