hello sake
chris. | 9 March 2011 | 7:55 am | drink, favorite things | 3 Comments
This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series drinking sake w/ Wrdnrd

My introduction to sake followed a typical white USian narrative: i went with a friend to a relatively nondescript storefront Japanese restaurant in a (West Coast) college town.  I discovered miso, teriyaki, tempura, sushi, and sake all in one night.  The sake, of course, was served hot.

My introduction to sake served cold came at a sushi restaurant in Victoria, B.C., Canada.  It was about 5 years later, and by that time i think i’d become aware that sake could be served either hot or cold, but i’d never actually had cold sake.  The server brought us cups of chilled sake with a tiny stick of cucumber added.  Intriguing!  He said that’s how sake was traditionally served where he came from in Japan.

Still, i didn’t really start getting to know sake more intimately until the summer of 2008.  A very nice sushi restaurant opened in our neighborhood.  Their sake menu was both tantalizing and baffling.  I decided to play it both adventuresome and safe — i ordered something called “bubbling sake.”  I figured it would be a little like champagne, and i like champagne….

Oh my goodness. I don’t know precisely what i was expecting (bubbly?), but i don’t think i was expecting something so deliciously sweet and fun.  That is when i fell completely in love with sake.  Anything that could go from hot to cold to bubbly and still be interesting was a drink i wanted to get to know better.

At the time there was still a wonderful little sake lounge on The Ave, so i started slowly working my way thru’ their (less expensive than the very nice sushi restaurant’s) sake list.  I started to get a rough idea of what ginjo and junmai and nigori all meant.

A rough idea, mind, because, honestly?  I’m no sake expert.  I just really enjoy drinking it and will try most anything.  I never got the hang of beer or wine or cocktails, so it’s kind of a relief to find that i enjoy some kind of alcohol.  Now Andy can enjoy his gin and tonic while i sip some sake.

Over the past year or so a couple of friends have asked me for a primer on sake, but i’ve always felt too shy about it.  Because i’m still not an expert.  I’ll still drink most any sake you put in front of me.  But then someone asked for some information about sake to use in some fiction, and as i found myself typing more and more paragraphs i figured i might as well just post it all here for everyone who’s been asking.

And i realized i do have several posts i could write already.  I have 2 sake books i’ve been meaning to add to my reading list anyway.  I can write about the 3 meals with sake pairings that i’ve been to in the past year.  I can write up some of the more interesting sakes from my sake list.  I can finally kick out of the drafts folder that post i started a year ago about my favorite pink bottles.

I think i’ll start with a quick overview and then move onto the pink bottles and then maybe review 1 of the sake books.  Maybe.  We’ll see.

Let’s go drinking together!

sake terms: What to call it
chris. | 20 June 2011 | 8:52 pm | drink, words | 1 Comment
This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series drinking sake w/ Wrdnrd

I thought it would be prudent to start with some pointers on how to refer to sake.

In English: The word is “sake”.  The 1st vowel is pronounced long — “ahhhh”, like “father”.  The 2nd vowel sounds like how you say the name of the letter “a” — it should sound like the end of “okay”.  You could also say that “sake” uses the same vowels as “latté”.  You do not pronounce “sake” to rhyme with “hockey”.

What about the accent over the “e”?: It’s optional.  The only reason to use it is when you want to emphasize how to pronounce the final vowel.  Andy (the Wrdnrd household’s resident student of Japanese language) doesn’t like an accent over the “e”, but i occasionally use it when i want to make sure people won’t mis-read it as the English word “sake“.

In Japanese: In Japanese, “sake” refers to all alcoholic beverages.  (Saying “sake” in Japan won’t necessarily get you sake; saying “coke” in the U.S. South won’t necessarily get you a Coke.)  If you want to make sure you’re getting “brewed rice alcohol” in Japan, the word you want is “nihonshu” — literally, “Japanese sake/alcohol”.

kanji for 'sake'

kanji for 'sake'

For extra language fun — writing “sake” in Japanese: The (kanji) character for writing “sake” in Japanese is pictured at right.  You’ll see this on sake bottles, tho’ may be written in calligraphy and can be hard to recognize if you haven’t studied writing Japanese (and especially if you haven’t studied how to write Japanese in calligraphy — i sometimes have trouble recognizing characters that i know very well).  In Japan, you may see the kanji for “sake” on a lantern or sign outside of a restaurant that serves alcohol — tho’, again, remember that it will mean they serve alcohol of some type and not necessarily that it’s an establishment that specializes in sake.  Andy does note that this is a very traditional practice, so you should not expect that all restaurants that serve alcohol will always have this.

Extra super language fun — a note about Chinese: I can write an entirely separate post talking about the relationship between Chinese written language (hanzi) and the Japanese written language (kanji) that was developed from hanzi — if you’re interested.  But for now, because i find this fascinating, i just wanted to mention that the character i’ve pictured here is both the Japanese kanji for “alcohol” and the Chinese hanzi character for “alcohol”.  In Japanese this character is pronounced (when it appears alone) “saké”, as i’ve outlined it above.  In Mandarin Chinese, it’s pronounced “jiu” — sounding something like “Jew”, but with a tone (because Mandarin is a tonal language) that 1st dips down a little before rising again.  Again, the hanzi character is how you write the word for “alcohol” and does not refer at all to sake as i am writing about it and as you’ve had it with your sushi in the West.

What next? I’m not sure which set of terms to tackle next.  Possibly a quick primer on what some of the various sake classifications — such as “junmai”, “ginjo”, et cetera — mean.  But that’s where i’ve been getting my head all tangled up for the past 3 months, so we’ll see.  I do have a bunch of other sake-related posts about restaurants i’ve been to, books i’ve read, specific sakes i’ve tried, and blahblahblah, so those will post every now and then as this series progresses.

You are all invited to ask questions, too!  That might even help straighten out the tangle i get in whenever i try to write a post about the sake classifications.

delicious pink bottles: Ozeki Hana Awaka & Hakutsuru Sayuri
chris. | 24 June 2011 | 10:30 pm | drink, favorite things | Comments closed
This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series drinking sake w/ Wrdnrd

Let us talk about 2 of my favorite sakes.

Ozeki's sparkling sake

Ozeki's 'Hana Awaka' sparkling sake

brewery: Ozeki
sake: Hana Awaka
type: sparkling
price: <$10 for a 250ml bottle (@ Uwajimaya)
serve: chilled

I was happy drinking hot sake whenever we’d go out for sushi, but i never ventured beyond that until Village Sushi opened in the U-District in 2008. I was ready to just order a hot house sake, per usual, when i noticed something intriguing on the menu: sparkling sake. I really couldn’t resist. I love bubbly champagne, after all.

Now? I love sparkling sake so much more than champagne. Ozeki’s Hana Awaka is pretty sweet, but it has a slight tart undertone to it. When i read another sparkling sake referred to as “yogurty” that really made a lot of sense — the underlying tartness to Hana Awaka is enjoyable in the same way that i really enjoy yogurt.

I especially like to get this when i have something to celebrate. For the bubbles.

There are other sparkling sakes that i also like, but i Hana Awaka will always remain my favorite, in part because it’s slightly sweeter than others i’ve tried (i’ll do a comparison post later on), but most especially because of the bubbles.

This is a good sake to use to persuade people to give sake a try because it’s completely unexpected compared to the experience of hot house sake at the sushi restaurant.

Hakutsuru's 'Sayuri' nigori

Hakutsuru's 'Sayuri' nigori

brewery: Hakutsuru
sake: Sayuri
type: nigori (unfiltered/cloudy)
price: <$10 for a 300ml bottle (@ Uwajimaya, QFC)
serve: chilled

I’m pretty sure Andy’s friend Mat introduced us to nigori sake, which is cloudy because some of the rice sediment has not been fully filtered out. It is, basically, like drinking alcoholic rice milk. And, like rice milk, you’ll need to shake it before pouring to distribute the rice sediment because it settles.

Sayuri, like many nigori sakes i’ve tried, has a rich, creamy feel in the mouth — to be expected from the rice particles. The reason i especially enjoy this nigori over other sakes, of course, is because of its sweetness. Again, this, like Hana Awaka, is a really interesting sake to use to tempt friends to branch out in their sake habits because the taste and feel are so much different than a hot house sake.

Sayuri, like Hana Awaka, remains one of my favorites.

how i approach sake
chris. | 13 December 2011 | 4:22 pm | drink, rules | Comments closed
This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series drinking sake w/ Wrdnrd

The other day i read a blog post1 about sake by a writer whose approach to sake is so decidedly different from mine that i thought it might be worth taking a minute to write a little bit about how i do approach things.  The heart of the difference between W. Blake Gray and myself is that he’s comfortable declaring a sake to be “bad”.

Me?  Well, i’ve had sake that has gone bad.  And i’ve had sake that i simply didn’t enjoy or prefer in some way.  Other than that, my one sake rule is this:  Drink what you like.  You like nigori (apparently the “white zinfandel” of sake)?  Enjoy2!  You like a warm cup of $10-per-1.5-liter Sho Chiku Bai on a dreary winter evening?  Have at it.  You enjoy Momokawa Silver?  I will happily buy you a bottle.

If you’ve spent any time reading other posts on my blog, you’re probably not at all surprised to discover my approach is fairly egalitarian — or pedestrian, depending on your perspective.  The fact that i enjoy any kind of alcohol at all is still amazing to me3 and i would like to sample every last bit of it.

I also want to introduce my friends to as much of the sake world as i’m able so they can pick and choose what they like from the enormous variety available.  So if you’ve been following this4 series hoping to get tips on how to find and enjoy the fanciest of sakes, you’ll probably want to find another sake blog.  If, on the other hand, you’re amused by watching me caroming my way across all of sake-dom, then welcome!  Glad to have you along for the ride.

Next post will start introducing the necessary sake terms, i swear.

  1. Post is originally from 2011/2/22. []
  2. And i do like both nigori sake and white zinfandel, which probably makes me super déclassé — surprising no one. []
  3. Still don’t enjoy either wine or beer very much, and i’ve given up trying. []
  4. Terribly sporadic.  I’m so sorry. :( []
Akishika ‘Bambi cup’ sake
chris. | 22 January 2012 | 6:11 pm | drink | Comments closed
This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series drinking sake w/ Wrdnrd

Buy it for the adorable cup, then pull the tab and drink it like a badass.

Akishika 'Bambi cup' sake

Akishika 'Bambi cup' sake

brewery: Akishika
sake: Bambi cup
type: junmai
price: $8 for a 180ml bottle (@ Woori)
serve: chilled

This is a nice, basic easy-drinking sake — like a more refined version of the Gekkeikan, &c., that you’ll find in the “sake section” of U.S. grocery stores.  Not a lot of exciting flavors (to my palate), but i enjoyed drinking i and i wouldn’t mind drinking it again.

Gotta be honest, tho’, i mostly got it for the ZOMG, it’s a pull-tab sake that comes in its own adorable little cup with a plastic lid on it!!! factor.  I suspect that’s why most people get it.  ;)

question: Everyday drinking sake
chris. | 2 December 2012 | 7:00 pm | drink | 2 Comments
This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series drinking sake w/ Wrdnrd

A friend emailed to ask for a recommendation for “an everyday drinking sake, of the sort we might find in the UK — which, obviously, is a geographical uncertainty for you, but! Is there a type or sort of sake that she might be able to find?”  The geographical aspect definitely makes it tricky for me (being in the U.S. and all), so i’ll approach this a couple of ways.

general thoughts on everyday drinking sake

I have not yet been to Japan (a trip is in the works, but i’m not sure when it will actually come together), but here are some comments from my readings.

In Japan everyday table sake is generally called futsu or regyura (y’know, “regular”).  Breweries make both the lower-grade regular sake and the higher-grade Special Designation Sake (so-called “premium” sake), and sales of regular sake in Japan far outnumber sales of the premium-grade stuff.  On the other hand, i’m not sure how much of the regular/futsu sake is exported — i can’t find numbers right now, but i think much of the sake imported from Japan tends to be the higher-grade premium sake.

Regular/futsu sake is made with table rice (according to Vine Connections), whereas premium-grade sake is made with specialty sake rices.

One thing to be aware of when buying any sake from Japan anywhere outside of Japan is that the price is usually going to at least double (possibly triple) in price because of the importing process.  For that reason, you may want to look for sake made in your country, if possible.

what you might find in the U.S.

U.S.-made sake is entirely findable1, tho’ many sake conoisseurs turn their noses up at it for various reasons.

For U.S.-made sake, you’ll most easily find bottles from these large breweries: Ozeki, Takara, Yaegaki2, Gekkeikan, SakeOne/Momokawa.  These are all on the West Coast and have connections to established breweries in Japan.

Andy and i started with sake from SakeOne/Momokawa.  It’s easily available in Washington State because SakeOne’s brewery is just south of Portland, Oregon.  We also started our sake exploration with SakeOne’s products because there was a sake lounge just 1 block away from us that largely served Momokawa sake.  Prices for SakeOne/Momokawa sake are generally in the upper-teens for a 720ml bottle.

For cheap drinking at home, we then worked our way downward to either Yaegaki (under $10 for a 1.8l bottle) or Takara’s Sho Chiku Bai (a little over $10 for a 1.8l bottle).

general sake terms you’ll find on the bottle

If you’re looking for a sort of everyday drinking sake such as one might drink as one’s everyday drinking sake in Japan, you’re probably looking for a cheap sake.  I love cheap sake!  I love to wrap my hands around a cup of warm, cheap sake on a rainy winter day and sip it slowly.  Warm cheap futsu/regular sake is probably what you’ve had at sushi restaurants.

A bottle of futsu/regular sake might not have anything on it to call it out as such.  It’s been a rare bottle of sake that i’ve seen that clearly calls out “futsu” on the label.

If “warm sushi bar sake” is not exactly the flavor you’re going for, here are some tips on understanding the terms used on sake labels.  I’ll again emphasize that these are terms for premium sake, so we are talking about a jump in price (especially outside Japan).  For any sake with any of these terms, i’d expect to be paying at least $25 (U.S. dollars) for a 720ml bottle, unless it’s made by one of the large U.S. breweries referenced above.

Here are some terms to avoid until you’ve become more familiar with sake:

  • aged: Unlike other fine boozes, sake is not usually aged. Sometimes it is!  And it gets really interesting and fascinating! (I tasted one once that was quite port-like. MMMMMMM.)  But probably not what you’re going for in an everyday sake.
  • nigori: “Nigori” means “coarsely filtered” and it will look like rice milk.  Because, besically, it’s alcoholic rice milk — whereas normally all the rice particles are entirely filtered out, in “nigori” sake some are left behind.  I love this type! But, again, not an everyday sake for most people.
  • sparkling: This is a pretty modern type of sake. I like it a lot3! But not really an everyday sake.

Here are some (premium) sake grading terms you will likely encounter on (translated) labels:

  • junmai:  This means “pure rice” and means the sake is made only with rice, water, and yeast (koji).  No additions are made — not brewer’s alcohol nor flavors of any sort.
  • honjozo:  This type of sake has a small amount of brewer’s alcohol added at the end of the sake-making process.  This is unlike futsu/regular sake, which has a fair amount of brewer’s alcohol added.  Honjozo sake is still considered a premium grade.
  • ginjo:  This is one of the terms that refers to how much the rice has been polished.  All sake rice is polished to smooth away the outer shell of the rice kernels, but higher-grade sake is subjected to more and more polishing.  Ginjo sake must be milled so that only 60% of the rice kernel remains.
  • daiginjo:  Daiginjo sake rice has been polished even more than ginjo rice.  Only 50% (sometimes less!) of the rice kernal remains.  Daiginjo sake is really amazing, and also equivalently expensive.

I also find this chart from Vine Connections to be useful and succinct.

In addition to terms about a sake’s grade, there are some terms about style — how it was made — that are useful:

  • genshu:  Genshu translates as “cask strength” and means the sake has not been diluted at the end of the process.  This means the alcohol of a genshu sake is typically anywhere from 18% to 20%.  I love the stuff (the depth and flavor can be amazing), but it can feel like a punch in the mouth.
  • nama:  Most sake is pasteurized twice before the consumer buys it.  Nama sake is unpasteurized.  The flavors cover a fascinating range, and the sake tends to have an effervescent zing.  I love how lively and fresh this sake is.  Nama sake (typically spelled as one word — namazake) is seasonal and is usually the 1st sake available once the brewery starts releasing its sake.  I usually start seeing it in Seattle in late summer.
  • yamahai/kimoto:  All sake is made from rice, water, and yeast (koji).  Most modern sake uses prepared yeast.  But some breweries still use the old style where the rice is allowed to sit out collecting yeast from the air, like a sourdough bread starter.  These styles are time-intensive, but tend to produce really fascinating flavors.  Yamahai and kimoto sake tend to be my favorites (and often heat up really beautifully).

The grading and style terms can concatenate and stack on top of each other as well.  One of my favorite sakes is Narutotai’s Ginjo Nama Genshu — all of which is translated thusly:

  • Narutotai:  The brand name.
  • Ginjo:  Means it’s been polished by at least 40% (leaving 60% of the rice kernel remaining).
  • Nama:  It’s unpasteurized.
  • Genshu:  It’s cask strength.

Potent stuff!  It’s sold in a can that is often affectionately referred to as “the oil can”.  I have a post about it that i’ll queue to go live in a day or 2 so i can link to it.

conclusions:  To bring it back to everyday sake.

Point #1:  “Everyday drinking sake” in Japan is futsu/regular sake and usually refers to the cheap stuff with lots of brewer’s alcohol added4.

Point #2:  Outside of Japan, the Japan-made sake you’re going to find is more likely to be premium-grade sake.  This means a price jump because of import fees.  The price jump may take it out of your wallet’s “everyday drinking sake” range.

Point #3:  Futsu/regular sake, while it may be “everyday drinking sake” in Japan, might not be the flavor you’re going for (especially if you already know that you don’t care for the “hot house sake” you’ve had in sushi restaurants).  You may prefer the flavors and varieties available in premium-grade sake, but the price may be prohibitive.  Unlike wine, it’s hard to find a table sake at a truly good price if you’re shopping outside of Japan.

What would Wrdnrd look for?  I would sample junmai or honjozo sakes in my price range to get a sense of what i like.  To find these terms, look either at the shelf label or the back label of the sake bottle (the front label is often still entirely in Japanese).

Many importers do a good job of providing a flavor profile on the back label, tho’ whether you agree with the profile can be hit or miss (sometimes they are spot on with what i’m tasting, other times the proposed flavors seem chosen by whim).  If you’re fortunate to have a store with staff trained in sake, seek out a clerk to talk about what you like and don’t like.

Don’t be afraid to aim toward the bottom end of the price spectrum.  In the U.S., for a Japan-made sake, that’s probably going to be mid-$20s.  I’ve had some really enjoyable sake at that price.  Conversely, i’ve been underwhelmed by daiginjo that cost $140 for a 720ml bottle (which i did not buy at that price, but had at a tasting).

It all comes down to what you personally prefer.  Experiment as much as you’re able!  Keep notes!

A caveat about age:  Sake is meant to be drunk within a year or so of being bottled5 — you do not cellar sake to let it age further, as one might do with certain fine wines.  There are a lot of considerations in whether a bottle of sake is “bad” — whether it was properly stored during shipment, at the distributor, by the seller — but here are some quick tell-tale signs to watch out for:

  • Does it look brownish/grey and have sediment floating in it?  I’d put it back on the shelf and move on.  I once accidentally bought a bottle that looked this bad and took it back.  Fortunately, the grocery store manager recognized that sake is not supposed to look that way, audibly gasped, and handed me a new bottle with no further questions asked.  Feel free to hold it up to the light!  With the exception of nigori sake, all sake should look clear.  Nigori sake should look milky white (the rice particles do usually fall to the bottom).
  • Is it more than a year old?  This can be confusing, i’ll be honest, because some sake labels use the year of the emperor and some use Western years.  So it might say 2012, 2011, &c. and include the month.  Or it might say “24” (it should still include the month).  The current emperor’s reign began in 1989, so that’s year 1.  That makes 2012 = 24, 2011=23, and so forth.  If the sake you’re looking at is more than a year old, i’d consider looking for a fresher bottle.  It may be perfectly okay, but there’s also more opportunity for it to have gone a bit off.  Some sake doesn’t have a (translated) year/month on it at all — which does not necessarily mean it’s inferior at all, but does make it a bit tricker to know when it was made.

What does sake taste like when it’s gone off?  I find it tastes kind of cardboard-y.

That’s (more than) enough for now.  As always, do feel free to ask any questions in the comments section!

Next post (not so big as this one) will probably be “what do i do with this bottle of sake??” — how to store it, how long it keeps, et cetera.

  1. If i could find bottles of Gekkeikan in liquor stores when i was living in small-town Central Pennsylvania a decade ago, then it really is findable most anywhere in the U.S. []
  2. Currently the toji — a.k.a, brewmaster — for Yaegaki is one of the few women toji in the world. []
  3. Okay, what sake don’t i like? []
  4. With some exceptions.  One of our favorite sakes is a futsu, but the rice has been polished to ginjo level. []
  5. Another exception is nama sake, which should probably be drunk a little more quickly since it’s unpasteurized. []