Everyone and their sister is a wine connoisseur these days.
That’s not a bad thing, but the sense of discovery that once accompanied uncorking a new vino has faded. Not so with sake. This rice-based liquor is all the rage in Japan, but American drinkers have yet to embrace it with the same verve that they bring to the noble grape. In fact, most American boozers look very nervous when the sake list hits the table at the Japanese restaurant.
If you want to be a hero next time you go out for sushi, or if you want to host a creative tasting party, buy a few bottles of sake and start exploring. The varieties can be as nuanced flavor-wise as your more familiar red and white wines. Here are some things you need to know.
One reason sake isn’t as prevalent as vino is the booze factor. While wine usually contains around 12% alcohol, sake can go up to 17%. You’ll notice that the traditional serving glass is smaller than a wine pour would be – and that’s a good thing, because you don’t want to be falling out of your chair after having a few. Even though it’s more potent than wine, it’s much less so than spirits like vodka, which clock in at 40%.
Sake, like wine, carries distinct flavor notes based on the different steps taken during manufacturing as well as the location where the rice is grown. Oh, and about that rice: Some 60 varieties can be used to make the spirit. So bottles can be as varied as a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc. Also, keep in mind that non-Japanese sakes are also available, so it is possible to try one that’s made entirely in the USA.
More than a thousand sake makers in Japan churn out a huge variety of product. The everyday sake is known as futsū-shu
(think Two-Buck Chuck, but usually a bit better), while special-designation, premium labels are known as tokutei meishō-shu
. Special types of sake include nigori
, which is barely filtered and has a cloudy appearance; teiseihaku-shu
, a super-premium style that tastes particularly strongly of rice; genshu
, a higher-alcohol, undiluted sake; and muroka
, which is unfiltered but clear, with intense flavors.
Hot vs. Cold
If they serve sake at your local Japanese restaurant, chances are you can order it either hot or cold. While there really is no proper way to enjoy the drink, aficionados will tell you that it’s best enjoyed when it’s slightly chilled. Hot sake makes for an excellent winter drink, but the heat is also a way to make a cheap label seem more appealing. If you’re going to do a sake-tasting party, skip the stove and put the bottles on ice.
Whereas wine bottles bear prominent vintage dates, on sake bottles, they’re either minimized or completely absent. This is because sake is not produced to age – it doesn’t have to sit around in barrels like vino does. When you buy sake in the store, it may be six months old or less. And when you open sake, you should plan on drinking it quickly. Once the air hits it, it affects the flavor. Refrigerating keeps it good only for a day or so, so be prepared to down that bottle if you want to keep up the quality!
Sake as a Cocktail Base
If you still feel intimidated by sake, try a different route: Use it as a cocktail base. Since it has less alcohol than vodka, it provides a way to tipple without making you tip over. Ask your liquor store for a middle-of-the-road brand, and use it in place of vodka in drinks like cosmos. This is a great idea for lunch parities – your guests will be able to have a drink or two and then get back to their day without feeling overly tipsy. Or try a new spin on your weekend bloody mary with this Tigers Blood Cocktail recipe
Watch Your Sake
Hosting a sake tasting party is a lot of fun, especially if you and your friends are new to this rice wine experience. But don't stop there! Nothing goes better with sake than sushi, and if you don't quite have the sushi making chops, don't fear. This post on sushi-inspired appetizers
shows you awesome ideas for finger foods that look sushi-esque.