When will L.A. have its sake moment? Craft beer and cocktail mixology have hit the mainstream without question, so on International Sake Day (Nihonshu no Hi), consider L.A.'s sake drinking culture. In Japan, Oct. 1 marks the start of the sake-brewing season. In North America, it's a day to investigate the nuances of a beverage that ranges from unrefined and mass-produced (typically what's used for hot sake) to the high end artisan-made premium sakes such as the junmai and daiginjos seen on restaurant sake lists.
“Whenever you ask people about sake, the feedback is positive,” says Karise Murayama, who organizes L.A.'s Sake Meet Up Group and hits most major sake tastings — fine ways for anyone to learn about sake and develop personal preferences. Slowly, non-Japanese restaurants are featuring sake on drinks menus and not just as a low-alcohol cocktail blend.
“Sake is a really complex thing,” says The Colonial Wine Bar's David Haskell. “It will take a bunch of us [restaurateurs] to showcase it, to show how it works with our food,” believes Haskell before it is widely poured. Turn the page for a sake primer and where to find it in L.A.
“Sake is still one of those things thought of as esoteric at a French, Italian or American-style restaurant,” says Haskell, who offers three sakes currently at The Colonial Wine Bar and plans on serving more. Among restaurant newcomers, Bashi, recently opened at the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, has 17 sakes on its list. But knowledge is key and restaurants (even Japanese restaurants where sake is sometimes described as clean and light or dry — not much help) can do much to educate customers.
The path to appreciating sake's flavor profile is to know its four ingredients. Rice (sake is brewed from specialty sake rice), which in general determines flavor; water, which determines the texture of product; yeast, which dictates sake's aromatic characteristics; and koji, the fine spore mold that jump-starts fermentation. Sake is also brewed in California, Vancouver, Texas and Minnesota — although North American-made sake is typically not made with sake rice.
Murayama doesn't have a favorite sake brand, but she tends to like drier sakes and fresh nama or draft sakes that are available seasonally. One brand she recommends checking out is Dassai, as their premium sakes are “easy to drink and tend to appeal to an American palette,” she finds. Haskell recommends Cap n' Cork as good retail source for sake (both domestic and Japanese); Mitsuwa markets, Eagle Rock's Colorado Wine Company and The Wine House in West Los Angeles also have varied selections.
Join the Los Angeles Sake Meet Up group here for information on future events. Look for them at Toranoko tonight when all sake bottles are half-price. Learn more and meet other sake enthusiasts at The Wine House in West L.A.'s Fall sake tasting October 14; expect five Japanese breweries to present their latest releases.
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