Sushi is now found seemingly everywhere in the United States, but 30 years ago, the trend was in its infancy. Back then, diners accompanied it with hot sake from porcelain flasks. Those drinks were rotgut, but a lot of people thought the act of consuming sake marked them as savvy world travelers.
Today it’s unusual to find a top-notch sushi bar without an assortment of junmai, junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo served chilled and available in small (180-ml) bottles.
Sake remains the national beverage of Japan, with about 1,300 producers scattered around the country. While it is frequently referred to as rice wine, that term is a misnomer. Sake is made from a process that resembles beer brewing, although there are differences. The two most important ingredients are rice and water, so sake breweries are typically located near pure sources, such as mountain springs.
The rice used for sake is larger than edible rice, with a bigger core of starch at the center. During brewing, the starch is converted into sugars, which in turn are transformed into alcohol. Generally, the amount of outer bran removed during the milling process determines the grade. Junmai, junmai ginjo, and junmai daiginjo, respectively, have 30, 40, and 50 percent of the outer kernel polished off prior to production. Junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo may have distilled alcohol added during the brewing process as well.
While it’s possible to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on sake in the nation’s leading sushi bars, consumers can easily find an exceptional bottle of premium sake for less than $100. Vine Connections imports dozens of labels from Japan, including Takasogo’s Divine Droplets ($65) and Rihaku’s Dreamy Clouds ($30), a nigori, or unfiltered, sake. The junmai ginjo from Hakkaisan, one of the most popular premium brands in Japan, is widely available in the States for $40.
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American sake is coming of age. It has a marketing advantage over the Japanese version in that most people can pronounce the names of the brands. It also costs less, so consumers can painlessly try a wider range of products, although purists might contend that the quality of rice and water is inferior. The leader in the domestic category is Oregon’s Sake One, which produces Momokawa and Moonstone (both around $15). The Momokawa sakes are jumnai ginjo, while the Moonstone varieties are flavored—think of it as the sake equivalent of White Zinfandel. Roughly speaking, the difference between Momokawa and Japanese sake is similar to the distinction between California and French wine, with the American version displaying more forward and uncomplicated flavors.
Founded in 1992, Sake One is the only sake-brewing facility in Oregon. The coastal mountain region yields water perfect for making sake, including the popular Momokawa.
Sake has become a popular ingredient for the new generation of American mixologists. Although the trend is cooling now, sake cocktails are still ubiquitous in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, as well as South Florida. Given the low alcohol content of sake (usually 18 to 20 percent, slightly higher than most wines but considerably lower than spirits), it provides a welcome alternative for many consumers, especially during the hot months. Filtered sake blends well with fruit juices, particularly citrus, while nigori unfiltered sake is a good match for tropical mixers, such as cream of coconut, and can make a delightful tiki cocktail.
There are numerous online sources for ordering fine Japanese sake. To learn more, one of the best websites is Sake World by John Gauntner. An American who has lived in Japan since 1998, Gauntner explains the intricacies of sake in clear and understandable language.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.