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Sake it to me

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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My experience with the Japanese rice wine known as sake was like the average adolescent's experience with beer: Given the right context (sushi bar/friend's basement), I'd choke down some of the cheapest and skankiest to get a little buzz. The universal epithet for this kind of warm, throat-scorching sake is "jet fuel."

Sometimes I'd wander into the sake aisle at my local Japanese supermarket and get scared off by the dozens of bottles, whose labels made German wine labels look easy. (German wine labels may be typeset in that scary Fraktur font, but at least they don't have kanji on them.)


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All that changed a few weeks ago, when I had dinner at Tanuki, a little Japanese drinking/eating establishment in Portland, Oregon. Its proprietor, Janis Martin, grew up in Cleveland and learned to cook there while living with a Japanese-American family. Her food is both traditional and wildly inventive, and her sake list is serious but reasonably priced.

Determined to show us the full range of what fermented rice can offer, Martin served about half a dozen sakes. Some were rough and rustic, others floral and refined. Like beer, I learned, sake is fantastically diverse. If you drink, there is a sake for you.

How to find it, though? And do you have to pay $30 a bottle? I can help.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Pour your sake into small sake cups (o-choko) with a sake-pouring bottle (tokkuri)."]

First, ignore the labels on sake bottles. Even if you learn what the terms mean, they’re almost completely unhelpful. Right now, for example, there are three bottles of sake in my fridge. They range in price from $5 to $16 per half-bottle and in quality from undrinkable to world-class (yes, the world-class one was $16). But all three are in the junmai ginjo category of sake, which roughly translates as "sake from highly polished rice, without added alcohol." 

Nothing on the labels of these bottles will tell you which one you'll like. The junmai ginjo category encompasses the majority of high-quality sake, but it also includes a lot of low-quality swill. And the category includes both light, floral brews and rustic, earthy ones.

"I always used to think people would just gravitate immediately toward the fruity, gentle sake, but I’ve come across a lot of newbies, if you will, that love the earthier ones," says Marcus Pakiser, a certified sake sommelier and a buyer for Columbia Distributing in Portland.

To help you figure out your sake-drinking style, Pakiser recommended trying three different sakes. Yuki No Bosha ("Cabin in the Snow"), he says, is a classic gentle sake: "I’ve yet to ever see anyone taste that sake and not go wild." On the earthy end, Pakiser suggested Taiheikai Tokubetsu Junmai. "And the third sake that I would show them would be a sake called Watari Bune Junmai Ginjo 55," adds Pakiser. "That one is a very unique sake, in that it's got kind of a cross between earthy and fruity."

The Watari Bune ("Ferry Boat") is the expensive sake in my fridge, and my favorite one so far. Having tasted all three of these sakes, I concur with Pakiser: If you like sake at all, you'll love one of these.

Everything Pakiser mentioned is of impeccable quality, but it's all $30 and up for a full-size (720ml) bottle. For penny-pinching advice, I turned to Martin, who serves big bowls of noodles for $5 on Thursdays and sells sake at tiny markups.

"Sake really is very expensive," she told me by email. "If you drink a lot of sake — I drink a ton — the large-format bottles are the best value and will hold refrigerated for up to two weeks."

And if you don't drink a lot of sake? 

"If one can't handle much sake, best thing to do is to go into training until you can," wrote Martin, who will not be hired by the Office of National Drug Control Policy anytime soon.

But come on — isn't there something out there for the cheapskate gourmet sake drinker?

There is, and I have to admit that I bought it because of its lovely blue bottle. Hakutsuru Junmai Ginjo is from the largest producer in Japan. A half-bottle costs about $7, and I've seen it on sale for as little as $5. It's really quite good, especially if you like the light, floral style. "Hakutsuru is the best draft sake available," agrees Martin.

All of the sakes I've mentioned are best served chilled, at approximately white-wine temperature. And sake doesn't age well; it's best bought at a store with high turnover and consumed promptly, within a week or so of opening.

Finally, if you do happen to like the cheap house sake served at your local sushi place — [ "de gustibus" newpage=true] and all that — it is trivially easy and inexpensive to recreate the experience at home. If you don't have a Japanese or Korean housewares store near you, you can order up everything you need from and pay about $7 plus shipping for a sake-pouring bottle (tokkuri) and half a dozen sake cups (o-choko). (I bought some slightly nicer cups to enjoy my slightly nicer sake, and they were all of $1.25 each.) 

I haven't explored sake with non-Japanese/Korean food, and don't really find the idea appealing. I've been drinking it with sukiyaki, noodles, Korean barbecue, mackerel — anything Asian and salty is going to be awesome with sake. I mean, OK, it's also going to be awesome without sake, but possibly awesomer with.

Table sake, called futsu-shu,_ costs about the same as mass-market Australian wine. Enjoy it in a friend's basement.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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