Sake to Me

In beverage, dessert on 01/17/2009 at 12:26 pm

Part deux of last night’s romp in the Lower East Side: after-dinner stroll in Astor Place, so many new shops have sprung up since I was last there. Minca itself was new-ish, considering we had dined a couple years ago at the Italian dive next door and remembered there was a boutique or bakery of some sort in that same location instead. Given the economy and the frigid chill, many tiny stores were open, but devoid of shoppers.

Yet, eureka, we stumbled upon a sake purveyor called Sakaya. The store had open cubes of light oak shelving displaying sake and shochu against the walls. Thin red tape traced the outline of Japan on one face of the cabinets. The owner was a pleasant Caucasian who we surmise had an imprisoned Japanese soul. His claim was his was the first sake-only seller in NYC.

Sake is made from rice. Here’s a quick synopsis courtesy of Rice is washed and steam-cooked. This is then mixed with yeast and koji (rice cultivated with a mold known technically as aspergillus oryzae). The whole mix is then allowed to ferment, with more rice, koji, and water added in three batches over four days. This fermentation, which occurs in a large tank, is called shikomi. The quality of the rice, the degree to which the koji mold has propagated, temperature variations, and other factors are different for each shikomi. This mash is allowed to sit from 18 to 32 days, after which it is pressed, filtered and blended.

Unlike wine, a sake sommelier in this month’s Chopsticks magazine explains you CAN buy sake based on the design of the label because manufacturers do attempt to convey the taste of the spirit in the look of the bottle. She also stated shochu is more en vogue these days with natives, another Japanese liquor made from barley or sweet potato. Bad sake can be had in all-you-can-eat sushi and run of the mill Japanese restaurants in middle America. It tastes like rubbing alcohol. Good sake can be sipped in places where sushi is bought at >$3/piece and sake bars. These are refreshing and light, to be sipped and enjoyed with the meal. It doesn’t overpower the food. To whit, I again interview my other half, our resident sake expert.

Q: What is sake and how were you introduced to it?

A: Sake is a rice-based beverage, kind of like European wine but without grapes. The types are based on how much the rice is milled before fermentation; the more it’s polished, the more settled the flavors, and typically more expensive. The three main types are ginjo, junmai and daiginjo. I first had sake in Japan when I went with my high school Japan and East Asia history class. It was an elective. I’ve been back two times since then.

Q: What is the flavor of sake? What’s your favorite type?

A: Sake, like wine, can have many different flavors in the same bottle. There are creamy sakes, very crisp sakes; often they have some sort of floral note, or fruit flavors. It depends on the type of rice you use, and different processes the sake master uses: the type of yeast they use, the limitations of local land and weather conditions. There’s also a type called nigori which is unfiltered, meaning there is still rice and yeast in the final product. It looks cloudy when you buy it. It has a creamy, sweeter flavor, which appeals to me.  I prefer the ginjo and junmai because they have a little more flavor than the daiginjo; the flavor comes from the surface of the rice. Milling it makes for a more subtle flavor, generally.

Q: What’s up with cold vs. hot sake?

A: There can be good cold and hot sake, and in the same bottle. Some sakes are better cold, and some are better hot. It’s just the way the sake is designed. Certain flavors bloom chilled, others, when heated up. However, if you’re at a cheap Japanese restaurant, my tip is to go for the chilled sake. It will generally have a better chance of tasting good, a less ‘alcohol’-y sting. When you heat sake, you can mute some of the cheaper qualities, like the inherent alcohol. It also hides other less enjoyable flavors: bitterness and one-notedness.

Go to a sake tasting if you can; it’s the same as wine tastings, but with smaller tastes. I met my Japanese friend there. She introduced me to sake must, the rice-yeast  ‘waste’ left over from the brewing process. In the best form, it’s a prized dessert, eaten straight up in very small amount. It’s a smooth paste, with larger rice grains, creamy, tangy. It’s great drizzled with a top quality light vinegar.

End Interview

At restaurants, authentic dives or high-end, we usually pick lower-mid end bottles, and ask for suggestions from the server. We haven’t been disappointed yet.

At Sakaya, we discovered another version of sake, namazake, which is unpasteurized, thus it must be refrigerated and won’t last as long. I liked it and bought it because it looks like a classic V-8 can, with one of those Asian pull tab tops that comes off completely. The owner said this method of brewing should preserve more of the enzymes since it wasn’t heated up to kill scary bacteria. I asked him if you could use a wine preserver (nitrogen, carbon dioxide and argon blend) to force out the oxygen off to slow down oxidation; he said he’d never tried it, but should work the same. Just keep leftover sake in the fridge to also stave off expiration.

Name: Funaguchi Kikusui from Niigata

Smell: Fruity, sweet but not floral, a little alcohol, vanilla

Taste: When cold: Chocolate-y third note, sharper than other sakes, but not bitter. At room temperature, it is milder and brings out more flavors like a floral caramel and a rounder note. More heating would obliterate the delicacy of the major components.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s