Monday, January 17, 2011

“Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Japan Anymore: A Sake Saturday”

By Rebecca Kritzer

I recently fell in love with sake in this far-away place called Tokyo. So when I discovered that my not-so far away wine shop was having a free tasting class, the newfound rice-win-o-phyl in me lit up. Like a moth to a flame, I arrived at Brooklyn Wine Exchange with bells on my shoes and Japan in my heart. So did the rest of Brooklyn Heights. Turns out people aren’t as offended by sake as I had imagined. The backroom of the wine shop, where their classes take place, was nearly at capacity this Saturday afternoon. Nothing like a mid-day rice wine buzz for your dinner aperitif. A sake happy hour; I don’t hate it.

The tasting, entitled “Sake: Hot or Cold?”, was set with four sakes, differentiated by brand/maker, as well as grade. All were tasted at room temperature (what the class leader/sake aficionado, Midori Nakazawa of Joto Sake Imports, called chilled), with two also served warm to allow for comparison, rounding out the experience with six distinct flavors to tease my palate.

The grade, which refers to the rice grain size, I learned, is determined by the percentage of rice to remain in the wine concoction after it has fermented. The higher the percentage, the lower the grade: an inverse relationship, if you will. Each grade also has an optimal serving temperature (with which you can certainly disagree, as I found I did). From lowest to highest, the qualities go a little something like this:
  • Junmai (70%) – chilled, room temperature, warm
  • Ginjo (60%) – chilled
  • Daiginjo (50%) – chilled

The first sake to lick my lips was Seikyo “Takehara” Junmai ($26), and soon enough, the first to forget. It was heavy alcohol on the nose, and pretty unremarkable on the tongue: soft, subtle and smooth. Good for a sake first-timer I would suppose, but nothing to write home about. In sushi-speak, it was the California roll of the tasting.

Moving (eagerly) right along, I next tried the Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo ($19) chilled. This one was more complex than the first, with a floral nose, and a spicy bite, which became more pronounced when I sipped it warm. Now we were getting somewhere! Some like it hot, and this girl definitely does. This is one of the instances where I freely disagree with the suggestion that this type of sake is best served cold. While it was lighter on the palate chilled, it didn’t do anything for me until we cranked up the heat.

[At this point I helped myself to a second (or was it third?) tasting of the same that was just sitting, untouched, across from me at one of the few empty seats. Well, I couldn’t just let it go to waste when it was just staring at me, could I? It was begging to be off-ed, I’m convinced.]

The best was yet to come in the form of “Happy Rice.” No, really – the sake was called Yuho Junmai (a brand under female ownership, rare in the sake producing industry), which literally translates to happy rice. And happy I was. This was the winner and I’ll tell you why. Tasted cold and hot, it was phenomenally and quintessentially sake-esque in both forms. Crisp yet smooth when cold, mellow and viscous when warmed. This was the sake of the Japan that I knew and remembered. My inner Asian (which I didn’t even know I had) brightly awakened, I was transported back to Tokyo all over again. [Cut to me at class end darting into the store to nab this baby off the shelf. Yep, I sauntered out of there with the most expensive ($33) bottle of sake we tasted. Yet it was categorically the lowest grade – go figure.]

The last sake to taste, Hou Hou Shu ($16), was forgettable, saved by the mere fact that it was notably different in appearance and texture as a sparkling sake. Didn’t know they made those, did ya? It was effervescent, cloudy and all together way too sweet for any sensible sake. (Though admittedly, bubbles don’t usually aim for sensible.) Moscato lovers (if anyone) would pick this poison, but the lingering syrupy aftertaste was enough for me to reach for the plate of water crackers at the center of the table.

Besides, I had my sites set on some “happy” rice wine to keep me company at home. Cold or hot, it truthfully doesn’t matter. When it comes to sipping sake, let your mood dictate, and Japan won’t seem so far away.