Make Mine Sake
Thursday, February 11, 1999
Used to be, it was a drink that couldn''t get no respect. At least here in this country, back when Japanese restaurants were considered a novelty, and where the sake that was served was always warm and generally speaking, pretty rough stuff.
That being then, and this being now, the time has come to say hello to sake like you never knew it. One out of every five glasses of wine in the world is actually filled with sake, coinciding with a number of trendy, upscale Big City restaurants attributing an astonishing chunk of their beverage sales to this rice wine that is brewed like beer. With 40,000 sake labels to choose from that may identify some of 400 flavor components (compared to about 100, when you''re rating cognac), there is more than one sake for all seasons.
Versatility is one of sake''s strong points. Ranging from dry to sweet, light to full flavored, and with a repertoire of aromas-- nutty, yeasty, floral, fruity--recent advances in brewing technologies have produced delicate sakes that are best enjoyed chilled. Admitting that I''d lived so long without shaking hands with a sake martini, Chris Delaney of Hula''s in New Monterey stirred up a perfect specimen, and served it garnished with a sliver of fresh ginger. Ahhhh...refreshing, bracing, and living up to its reputation as the ''lubricant in human communication that helps to create a pleasant environment''--as it is described in sake literature. Hula''s has several sake cocktails deserving of the compliment.
As Delaney explained it, with an alcohol content that is similar to wine (at about 15 percent), sake makes a lighter cocktail, one that''s do-able with a beer and wine license, and when you want to ask directions to places like "Hanawamachi, Fukushima Prefecture." And he also recommended Philip Wong, owner of Wasabi Bistro and Sake Bar as a noted authority on the subject.
Wong keeps up to 65 sakes in stock behind the bar at his Carmel Crossroads location, including eight of the top-10 premium sakes in the world. If it''s sake you''re interested in, he''s your guy to ask.
"There are four things that affect the quality and character of sake," Wong attests. "There is the type of rice, the water, the style that it is made in that will determine the alcohol content, and the container it''s served in." Out of more than 100,000 types of rice in the world, only 45 types are used to make sake, and just like it takes good grapes to make fine wines, the same is true for the type of rice. Improvements with filtration processes have helped to make water less of a variable in the finished product.
To exhibit sake styles, Wong poured three small cups that ranged from neutral to slightly dry and slightly sweet. A few sips revealed individual nuances that shared a clean, clear finish. A fourth pour, the cloudy, unfiltered Nigori, was fruity and sweet, not unlike a light bodied smoothie. Wong then warmed the neutral, medium-bodied Gekkeikan and poured some into a wineglass and into a masu, the cedar box it''s traditionally served in. Swirling and inhaling each container was almost as good as sipping the heady, warm-all-the-way-down-to-your-stomach brew.
Accompanied by a plate of fresh, icy cold sashimi and a hit of wasabi, a coup was staged on my palate that said ''move over Chardonnay.'' Icy cold as a cocktail, or warm and steamy out of a box, picking a favorite could take some time. cw