The next time you take a sip of sake, here's a fact to consider: There are about 100 varieties of rice used in sake-making, and 87 of them are officially registered with the Japanese government. Sake is a very serious endeavor in Japan.
At Katana Restaurant on the Sunset Strip, sake is front and center on the drinks menu: There are 10 sakes by the glass and 45 solely by the bottle, including a super-premium style for $2,600. Supervising the program is certified sake sommelier Eiji Mori, ever-present with recommendations and happy to share his knowledge of the fermented beverage.
If you think Katana, which specializes in robatayaki and sushi, takes its sake seriously, you can imagine how Japan as a whole reveres the stuff. Wet rice cultivation and the subsequent fermentation of that rice can be traced back to about 300 B.C. in Japan. (Sake itself can be tracked back to China circa 4000 B.C.) Historical records chronicle how early sake was made: Villagers would chew rice grains and nuts, then spit into a communal tub, where their saliva would help naturally ferment the rice. Several centuries later, koji mold thankfully replaced saliva for fermentation, and eventually yeast was discovered, making the entire process more efficient – and a bit more appetizing for the rest of us.
At a recent visit to Katana, Mori took us through a quick tutorial about sake's intricacies. Different rices, he explained, are used to make different sakes. To make the final product, the rice is first polished. The more you polish the rice, the better the grade of rice and the more elegantly flavored the product.
The highest level is Daiginjo sake, which uses rice that has been polished to 50 percent or less of its original size, resulting in a grain whose top layers have been removed to expose the starchy core of the rice. Because starch converts to sugar and sugar to alcohol, the starch is key to any fermentation process. The more finely milled the rice, the more sophisticated and complex the product, because the grains have been stripped of outer hull impurities such as fats and proteins, which affect the flavor profile.
The other two basic sake group are Junmai Gingo, which is polished to at least 60 percent its original size, and Junmai, which is polished to at least 70 percent its original size. Despite these classifications, sake flavor is a very personal thing. Just because one is more delicate doesn't mean it's better. Like wine, sake is meant to be drunk in different situations – sipped on its own or served with food.
It's not surprising that at Katana, according to Mori, “Junmai and Junmai Gingo are the most popular style because they pair extremely well with with food, and they are a reasonable price. The Nigori style [cloudy-looking with a creamy, almost banana-like flavor] of sake, also known as unfiltered sake, is popular as well.” One of the brands to which Mori is partial is Tentka Kuni Junmai, a thick, earthy style, which needs food – Wagyu beef, foie gras (if you don't live in California), tempura – to counter its heaviness. On its own, the sake is certainly well-made, but when tasted with the fattiness of meats or fried foods, the flavors dance in the mouth.
In contrast Dassai 23, a Daiginjo style, is fruity and clean with a dry finish, ideal for sipping on its own better to experience its floral, fruity, slightly spicy layers.
For those who are still wary of sake, Katana offers several sake flights, including a typical lineup of various grades and a non-traditional selection of yuzu-infused, blueberry sparkling (called, of all things, Banzai Bunny) and Nigori styles. These provide an ideal introduction for the sake novice.
As sake knowledge grows, the beverage's popularity is growing as well. Back in 1960, there were only 400 sake breweries left in Japan. According to Mori, as of 2012, there were 1,200. Still, sake lags far behind wine in terms of output: In California alone, there are about 3,500 wineries by comparison. And sake is still trying to shake off its negative image as a warm rice drink served in little ceramic carafes. At Katana and most other sake-centric spots, the sake is slightly chilled and, when Mori pours it, often in a wine glass, so you can swirl and breathe the heady aromas.
While sake – which actually has more in common with beer because of its fermentation and rice mash – is unlikely to surpass wine in popularity, it's slowly started to establish itself as a class of beverage all its own.
“Now, guests are drinking premium cold sake,” Mori says,” and becoming knowledgeable in regard to the sake they choose.”
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book “Gin: A Global History.” Her book “12 Bottle Bar,” co-written with David Solmonson, is due out at the end of summer 2014. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.