Chilling out with sake
© Sheral Schowe
(Originally published in the Catalyst newspaper in Salt Lake City)

I must admit, I am an extremely new afficionado for sake. As long as I can remember enjoying Japanese food, particularly sushi, the wine of choice for me has been a dry Alsatian Riesling, and more recently, Austrian Grüner Veltliner.

Many of my friends would order a cute little pottery bottle of warmed sake, accompanied by tiny matching cups. Being an adventurous person, I would try a sip, attempting to warm up to this less than ideal food pairing. That was just the problem. It was served warm. A Japanese wine educator once explained to me that only the lowest quality level of sake is heated up and the quality sakes are chilled like a white wine. Heating a sake is like chilling a cheap, poorly-crafted, wine. It successfully masks the majority of its flaws. At the annual Society of Wine Educators' extensive Sake seminar and tasting, I learned that there was a world of information, tastes, and flavors yet to be discovered, far beyond a mere serving temperature.

I had always considered Sake to be rice wine. Others claimed it to be more like beer. It is actually neither, although with many things in common with both. Like beer, it is a brewed beverage, however non-carbonated, with an alcohol level equal to or just above that of wine.

Sake is made from rice, water, and mold spores called Koji. A very high quality, specially grown sake rice is milled to less than 60% of its original size. This process leaves the highest concentration of flavor and starch. The polished rice is then steamed. After cooling, the Koji mold spores are added to the rice. Koji converts the rice starch to glucose. Water is added, then yeast, to convert the glucose to alcohol. The sake ferments up to a 20% alcohol level. Spring water is added to bring the alcohol level down to 15%. The sake is then filtered, some more than others, then bottled.

Once it hits the stores, sake should be consumed within one year after the bottling date. Look for the freshness dating label on the bottle. After one year, it will lose its clarity and taste flat, with hints of vinegar. After opening the bottle, the sake will maintain its quality for about ten days, if it is refrigerated.

Premium sakes should always be served chilled, at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This will bring out the subtle aromas and flavors that would be lost if served warm. Heated sakes give off aromas of alcohol, called "flashing off." Remember, only inferior sakes are served hot. My favorite way to serve sake is in a tulip-shaped wine glass. It allows you to swirl the sake and breathe in its aromas. Serving sake in little decorative cups is fine, and very festive, as long as it is served cold.

Sake, with few exceptions, should be crystal clear. When swirled, it should sheet, rather than leg down the glass. It will taste smooth and mouth filling, without the harshness of alcohol, or the dryness of tannin. The aromas and flavors will be delicate and pleasant. It is low in acid and devoid of sulfites. It is said to promote heart health, and for those who overindulge, a pleasant morning after without such intense hangover symptoms. When sharing sake with friends, observe the friendly Japanese custom of filling each otherís cups or glasses, never topping off your own.

Sake is produced all over the world. SAKEONE, an American sakery, is located in Forest Grove, Oregon. SAKEONE produces three lines of sakes, including chef Roy Yamaguchiís Y Daiginjo Sake Collection with names like "Wind," "Rain," "Snow," and "Sky." Check out their website; or call them direct for more information at (800) 550-7253. I met some folks from Sakeone last year who recommended a bottle of sake in the bathtub to create a very luxurious bath with incredible skin-softening benefits. I guess that would be the only exception of serving a premium sake warm.

After all of the excitement of discovering the exciting new world of sake, I was pleased to find a relatively large selection available in Utah. With all of the excellent sushi bars in town, it would be great to see a wider variety available on the menus as well.

If you are trying a higher quality Sake for the first time, I recommend the Momokawa line. The elegant sounding names include Diamond, Ruby, Silver, and Pearl. Each of them are priced at an astounding value of $10.20. Beginners should start with the Ruby. It is mellow with a soft mouth feel with sweet yet light aromas of melon. Pair it with fish, salads, and pasta with light sauces. The Silver is dry and assertive with a faint green apple aroma. You can use this one in place of vodka for any cocktail Ė without the after-effects. It is great with grilled chicken. The Diamond is a true "gingo" which means that the highest quality ingredients and methods are used in its production. It has a medium body and pairs well with seafood and grilled meats. The Pearl is an unfiltered, antique style. It is milky looking from the residual rice components, sweet, full bodied, with a higher alcohol level of 17.5%. It has aromas and light flavors of coconut and tropical fruit. Use this one for aggressively sweet dishes like a hoisin sauce, with dessert, or with very spicy dishes. If you want a sake to calm your palate after a big wasabi blast, which I love, try the Momokowa Pearl.

Some sushi bars are gracious enough to allow you to bring your own sake to pair with your sushi dinner, and some are not. I suggest calling the restaurant in advance to check out the rules before you are embarrassed in front of your guests. Or, to play it safe, bring massive quantities of take out sushi home and experiment with several different styles of sake with your friends. Donít forget to chill the sake in advance. When you clink your decorative cups or your elegant glasses together in a toast, say "Kanpai!" which is Japanese for "dry cup" or "letís drain our cups!"

August 2002

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