Sake, that fermented alcoholic rice beverage from Japan, has a long tradition in bars, but in Denver it's just starting to make a splash. Many people think of the drink as simply something served warm in a white carafe or as flavorless shots while downing sushi rolls — but, oh, it's so much more.
"Practically speaking, sake is easier to enjoy than beer or wine," says Frank Buatti, a certified sake professional and Departure's restaurant manager. "It doesn’t fight with food, so you don’t have a risk of bad pairings. And the chemical makeup of sake makes it more agreeable with other food flavors — nothing is off limits." Here are some ways to get into the trend and make sake your next drink of choice.
Order Some Sake Next Time You're Out for Sushi
The best way to learn about a beverage is to start drinking it — an easy task in theory, but one that's better with a little guidance. Some of Buatti's favorite places to drink sake (other than Departure) include Matsuhisa, Sushi Den and Mizu Izakaya. "Matsuhisa and Sushi Den have more high-end lists, and Mizu is very approachable and has a diverse list with different styles to explore," he notes. "I like to think that ours [Departure] is in between, since we have premium bottles and low-cost bottles, but I stand by all of them as high-quality bottles that anyone can enjoy."
Also keep in mind that you don't have to be eating Japanese food in order to enjoy sake. "It’s amazing with all foods. I had sake with pizza Monday, and right now I’m drinking a junmai ginjo with my Smashburger, and it’s delicious," the GM adds. "Sake pairs surprisingly well with cheese, which flies in the face of this idea people have that sake shouldn't be around Western food."
Other places with a good sake list and knowledgeable staff include chef Corey Baker's Sushi Ronin and Izakaya Ronin, which both offer an uncommon sparkling sake. At Izakaya Den (Sushi Den's swanky sibling), you can order a sake flight selected by chef/owner Toshi Kizaki; and at Bamboo Sushi in LoHi, you can find a detailed menu along with the restaurant's signature sake, made by the Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan brewery in Japan.
Learn As You Drink
From now until mid-September, Departure (249 Columbine Street) in Cherry Creek hosts a sake pairing dinner each Tuesday night. Run by Buatti, this menu is offered à la carte and includes suggested sake and food matches as well as half off all sake bottles (a great way to sample some of those typically out-of-reach rarities). Combinations could include Southern Beauty sake with the grilled octopus; a wineglass full of Hawk in the Heaven served with mushroom gyoza; or Cowboy Yamahai with melt-in-your-mouth Colorado lamb chops. While there, ask Buatti for suggestions; he will bend your ear in way that shows both knowledge and joy.
See How Sake Gets Made
Sake breweries are as common in Japan as craft-beer breweries are in Colorado, but not many people have taken on the task in the Centennial State. Two outliers in the high-altitude sake game are William Stuart and Heather Dennis, two restaurant veterans who opened the Colorado Sake Co. this summer (after pushing to get alcohol laws changed, something that went into just effect on August 8). Located in RiNo at 3559 Larimer Street, this brewery churns out five flavors of sake: blueberry hibiscus, horchata nigori (nigori is unfiltered, cloudy sake), a Palisade peach version, a dry-hopped sake, and American Standard, which is a pure junmai ginjo (a description that indicates how much of the rice grain has been milled away) that's the company's plain sake and the base of the others.
Stuart and Dennis make sake here in a method similar to beer brewing (yeast, grain and water are the common elements), although through multiple parallel fermentations and by utilizing a fune press, a stainless-steel box that slowly presses the liquid from the grains over the course of many hours. You can visit the tasting room and sample some of the creations starting September 1, when the brewery opens to the public. Until then, order Colorado Sake Co. products at Mizu in LoHi, Mister Tuna in RiNo or downtown at Urban Farmer, where the bar will be making cocktails with Colorado Sake Co.'s blueberry hibiscus sake starting next week.
The other Denver-based sake brewery is Gaijin 24886. While the new law helped the Colorado Sake Co. open a tasting room, Gaijin owners Marc Hughes and Keith Kemp say it hindered their operation. The company is still in business, but production is on hold and won't start again until they can find a new space in which to brew. In the meantime, Sputnik in Baker is carrying a few bottles, so taste while you can.
Take Some Home
One benefit to opening a bottle of sake is that it can stay fresh longer than wine, which can sour or oxidize, or beer, which just goes flat. "Sake can sit open in your fridge for weeks or months and be just as good if not better than when it’s first opened," says Buatti, who loves tasting how his sake changes over time after it's opened. "You will find that the flavors and aroma change, but they don’t get worse, by any means."
But how do you go about finding a premium sake? The first thing to keep in mind is that sake labels tend to be written in Japanese, save for a smaller label on the back. "If you’re staring at a wall of sake or pages of words that mean nothing to you in a menu, pull out your phone and google the name," suggests Buatti. "You’ll find spec sheets, reviews and tasting notes that will help you make a decision."
Argonaut Wine & Liquor on Capital Hill has a wide selection of sake. So does Molly's Spirits in north Denver, which has about thirty options and displays the bottles at the front of the shop so you can see them when you walk in.
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"I recommend buying a couple of bottles, opening them, then checking in on them day after day to see for yourself how they transform, if at all, until you’re done — and then buy more," says Buatti, adding that the only exception to this is unpasteurized sake, which can spoil. Some of his favorites include Sho-une from the Hakutsuru Brewery, which he says is a great starter sake; a line of premium sakes called Dassai 50, Dassai 39 and Dassai 23, the number representing the percent of the rice grain remaining after the milling process (the smaller the percentage, the better); and Tozai products such as Well of Wisdom.
He also suggests picking up an array of cans. "There are lots of single-serving sakes you can find in stores for $3 to $10 for a little can," he says. "Those are lots of fun to grab for a little taste of something if you don’t want to commit to a full bottle."