Fun fact: before microbreweries took over Colorado, Golden was home to the state's first -- and so far, only -- sake brewery. The Hakushika Sake U.S.A. brewery opened in 1992 and produced sake for America and the ravenous European market until the Japanese recession tanked the business six years later.
Ubiquitous in much of the world, but still a symbol of decadence in the States, sake is almost exclusively associated with expense account dinners at Japanese steakhouses and sake bombs at sushi bars. But TAG| Raw Bar, the subterranean Larimer Square that lacks the pretensions of either, is an ideal place to rediscover sake.
Or in my case, discover it for the first time. My only previous experience with sake was convincing my mom to buy Napasaki because of its kickass, fish-shaped bottle. It's a complicated beverage for the first-time drinker to understand, so here's a crash course.
There are thousands of sake breweries scattered over Japan's 48 prefectures, all of which have their own quirks and styles of brewing. Though it's called a rice wine, the sake brewing process is more like that of beer, with one crucial difference. All the steps that make beer beer-y--the starch to sugar conversion followed by sugar to alcohol fermentation--occur in the same tank at the same time. If you find that confusing, there's little hope for you, short of learning the trade from a master kurabito.
Learning to drink it is a bit easier. Sake can be pasteurized or un-pasteurized, filtered or unfiltered. And there are three main classes of sake, depending on how polished the rice is before fermentation: junmai, junmai jinjo, and junmai daiginjo.
TAG Raw Bar, the most intimate and Eastern-focused of Chef Troy Guard's restaurants, has always done its part to popularize sake, with a menu of choices from pricey bottles to accessible glasses, and regular sake tasting events. I opted for a glass of the Minato "Harbor" Nama Genshu($7), a robust sake from the Akita region that comes in an aluminum bottle to preserve its unpasteurized flavor.
Like most fine sakes served today, the Nama Genshu came chilled in a simple glass. It's rare for good sake to arrive scalding hot in small porcelain cups anymore. In fact, sake makers are pouring money into ad campaigns to disassociate their product with Joe Sixpack's preconceived notions. A single sip of Minato's Nama Genshu is unlikely to dispel those , with its nail polish taste hitting the palate right up front. Thankfully, on repeated sips the strong flavor blossoms into something fruity and complex, not too far from a good Riesling. But with an ABV of 20-21 percent, it certainly makes an impression.
The sake industry is trying to make you forget about youthful indulgences like the sake bomb -- if you're looking for that kind of hedonism, try the Wasabbinin' shot ($3). After extracting a promise from the bartender that I wouldn't be weeping afterward, I enjoyed this spicy shot, more a sipping drink than a dorm room dare.
TAG| Raw Bar generously offered up this easy recipe, great for when the sake has been put away and it's time to get down to business.
Turn the page for that recipe. Wassabinin' shot (4 oz. shot, can serve two) Ingredients:
1 oz. Sobieski vodka 1 oz. Lime/sugar mix 1 oz. simple syrup 2 slices cucumber 5 leaves basil 2 slices fresh ginger 1 tsp. wasabi (The real stuff, mind.)
In a cocktail shaker, muddle ingredients, shake, and strain twice. Sip, wince, pucker.
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With every installment of Coming of Age with 21 Drinks, I'll be featuring a cocktail recipe cooked up by me or the bar itself. Have a suggestion for a place I should visit? Post it below.