First Look

A sake lesson from Izakaya Den's international sake-pairing event

Sake, with its range of styles, light body and crisp finish, is ideal for food pairings as well as an easy thing to sip all night long. Plus, you can take down a lot of it and escape a hangover. Those factors should have long ago propelled it into a full-blown gastronomic trend, on every list alongside beer, wine and cocktails -- and not just in Japanese restaurants. So far, though, sake bombs at raucous sushi joints seem to be the only way the Japanese rice spirit has really caught on in this country.

Maybe that's because sake is intimidating.

The Japanese rice alcohol has a complex certification system and associated pricing, plus a variety of styles that fall outside of the usual classifications. Last night at Izakaya Den, distributors and producers treated sixty guests to a seminar to help them decipher the drink -- and figure out what they liked.

The basic sake production process goes something like this: First, sake rice is polished with a stone mill. After washing, steeping and steaming, yeast and mold are added to the blend, which starts fermentation, breaking the rice down into sugar and then sugar down into alcohol. Once fermentation is finished, the alcohol is pressed, and, often, pasteurized before going into bottles.

That process, however, has several points at which tojis (head sake brewers) make decisions that determine the style of their sake. It starts with the rice. The more the rice is polished, the higher grade of sake you'll end up with. This step of the process is also where a sake's ultimate classification is determined: Rice, polished 50 percent or more, is dai-ginjo, which is the top of the line; rice polished 40 percent or more is considered ginjo, which is super premium; rice polished 30 percent or more is honjozo, which is still premium; and rice polished less than that is fustu-shu -- or regular sake. This, by the way, is the stuff that's usually served hot to mask the bad parts of its flavor.

Not all dai-ginjos will taste alike, though. Different yeasts and mold produce different flavors and aromas, creating sakes that are fruity and fresh, earthy and complex or sweet and viscous. And many tojis add alcohol before bottling, which leads to a more aromatic sake. Sakes without added alcohol are classified as junmai, which means pure (so a dai-ginjo with no added alcohol is specified as a junmai dai-ginjo).

Once you've wrapped your brain around those terms, there are other factors to consider in selecting a sake. For instance, tokubetsu indicates a special style of brewing, like, say, yamahai style, which relies on natural yeast production and takes several weeks longer than regular sake production. And in America, according to Andy Lum, the owner of Unity Selections and the distributor who led the tasting, we've become partial to nigori style sakes, which are unfiltered and cloudy -- and made sweet for our market.

Rather than focusing on a classification system, Lum recommends knowing what you like in terms of a flavor profile -- whether it's fresh and fruity, earthy and complex, or cloudy and sweet. That will help you ask the right questions in a liquor store or restaurant (and a lot of sake labels actually list this information on the back of the bottle). He also suggests making selections from smaller prefectures, like Niigata (considered the Napa Valley of sake) or Iwate, because the process is more craft-oriented than in huge sake breweries in the cities.

If you're looking for a few to get you started, you might try Snow Shadow, a crisp, clean junmai or Four Diamonds, a dai-ginjo that's smooth and fruity. Both would pair well with fish. Emperor's Well offers a taste o the effect of the Yamahai style -- and it's umami producing so it would pair nicely with richer, heavier foods.

Lum says Divino, Colorado Liquor Mart, Mondo Vino, Grape Expectations and Incredible Wine & Spirits all have good sake selections if you're looking for retail providers. Izakaya Den, Ototo and Sushi Den all have broad selections for restaurant sampling.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk