Sake Ain't Easy

Remember TRON?

TRON took the complex, dry world of computer processes and made it theatrical and exciting. That's how I want to talk to you about Sake. In a way no one ever has before. I've started that in series of posts I call, "The Secrets of Sake".

Before I jump into what Sake is, this post will be to share what I see as unhelpful. The national alcohol of Japan, Sake, appears in the occasional newspaper article. These authors recommend this or that, but their selection process is arbitrary at best and explanations still feel snobbish, shrouded in outdated Oriental Mysticism. Here are the pitfalls I recommend avoiding on your Sake adventure:

- Wine Scores: Often referred to as "Rice Wine", Sake is sometimes scored at wine competitions. The intention to measure Sake as a premium beverage with complexity, depth, and value on par with fine wine is well-meaning and deserved. Unfortunately, the scores come from wine experts with barely any more experience with Sake than you. The scores mean less than Yelp reviews of Pho restaurants, mostly written by people who might not even like an authentic tasting bowl if they found one. A prime difference between Sake and wine is the presence of bouquet. Traditional Sake has a muted or subtle fragrance. Modern Sake can smell just as bold and complex as wine, but not all Sake need to. Without an accurate understanding of Japanese expectations of Sake, these scores are skewed by a lack of perspective, so go ahead and ignore them!
Here is an excellent, affordable
Kimoto Daiginjo by Kikumasamune

- Sake Classes: Classes of Sake start from the inexpensive "futsushu" (which can also be labeled "seishu", meaning it is Sake made in Japan) and increase incrementally to the most expensive "Daiginjo". The terms and classes are based on polish-ratio of the rice and ingredients used. Without explaining that further, here is my primary concern: not all Daiginjo (pronounced "Die, Green Joe!", minus the "r") are better than the so-called "lower" classes. Hiro makes a Daiginjo that I find poorly balanced and not worth the premium cost. I would much sooner recommend Shiragiku Brewery's "Ohkagura", a Futsushu that I find superior in many ways and costs WAY less.
(Uh-oh! Did Greg just put Hiro on blast? Yup. I do not set out to, but I will name names if I think there is a Sake you should not try. Avoid Hiro.)
The important takeaway: not all Ginjo and Daiginjo are better than less-polished Sake. Pairing with food is another matter to consider that I will discuss in a future post.

- Avoiding "Dry and Sweet": Most Sake beginners start off enjoying sweeter sake, especially cloudy "Nigori" (pronounced "Knee Gorey"), while beginners who like spirits might prefer dry "Karakuchi" Sake. Unlike wine, Sake has a range including neutral - neither sweet nor dry - Sake that can be more universally appreciated. Also, Sake does not contain tannins, like wine, so depending on your pallet, a neutral or semi-dry Sake might even taste sweet to you. For these reasons, some distributors and restaurants try to avoid describing Sake in terms of sweet or dry, preferring descriptors like "fruity, minerally, earthy" -- even "funky". These are definitely more specific and helpful, but for casual drinkers of Sake in Japan, "sweet or dry", is a common question, even when speaking to those who work in Sake breweries. For that reason, I disagree with avoiding the more basic descriptors completely, just remember the "in-between" is a perfectly acceptable answer!

That's enough ranting out of me, for now. I continue this conversation in a series I'm calling "Sake TOP 5". You can check out that first post here.

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