Another celebratory day for an alcoholic drink: October 1 is traditionally known as National Sake Day in Japan and marks the official start of the sake brewing season. For us in the U.S., with only a handful of domestic sake makers, it is becoming an opportunity to expand knowledge of the rice-made brew and perhaps an excuse to imbibe a cup or two.
And what should the average Kaito (Japan's equivalent of Joe) know about sake?
5. The basics. Brewed like beer, sake consists of two ingredients: rice and water. Price and flavor relates to the polishing ratio of the rice: the higher the polishing ratio (50% to 60% of the rice kernel polished away) the higher the price and more refined the flavor. In Japan, sake is made from premium sake rice not table rice. In the U.S., sake comes from table rice, one of the reasons it's cheaper. But that's only the basics.
“Once you dig under the surface because of variety of styles, prefectures where it originates, characteristics of rice and water, style of production, the kind of koji (mold) used in production, sake becomes as complex as the wines of Burgundy,” contends K&L Wine Merchants' import director Keith Mabry.
4. Where to buy it. In Los Angeles, the best selection of premium Japanese sake and California-made sake is at Mitsuwa Market (Torrance outlet first, then West Los Angeles) or in Little Tokyo at Woori Market. Navigating the shelves without some basic knowledge of labels and kinds of sake is a bit difficult but when all else fails, stick with sake in a blue bottle. Whole Foods markets have a reliably good selection–look for the SMV-sake meter value on the label that advises a sake's relative dryness. K&L Wine Merchants in Hollywood also has a resident sake expert in Keith Mabry and a well-edited selection.
3. Where to drink it. Among the many restaurants that have more than a dozen choices are: Robata Jinya where pub-style food and a Tokyo-connection offer a casual place to drink sake. Presentation here is top notch and traditional. Choose your own o-chokko or small cup to drink up. Toranoko in Little Tokyo has an impressive and wide-ranging list and an amiable sake cheerleader in Kurtis Wells, who is behind the bar and willing to patiently explain that list. Gonpachi in Beverly Hills has hot and cold sake during happy hour. Katana, the various Sushi Rokus, Zengo in Santa Monica and Sugar Fish can be counted on for wide-ranging selections as well.
2. Sake goes with non-Japanese cuisine. Sake brewer (toji) Philip Harper is the first non-Japanese toji in Japan at the Kinoshita Brewery. He contends that, “there is no kind of food you can't drink sake with.” He believes because of sake's low acidity, unlike wine, it's easier to pair with food. And of course, sake matches naturally with shellfish and seafood. At Joseph Mahon's and David Haskell's Magnum pop-up at Royal T earlier this year, Haskell paired a Kikusui Funaguchi Junmai Ginjo sake with grass feed beef sliders. Look for more restaurants to add sake into the mix.
1. The Internet will provide. Sake expert and connoisseur John Gaunter created an iPhone app that's a handy sake dictionary and his website reliably offers detailed information on sake types and the current situation in Japan. In San Francisco, True Sake is one of four sake-only stores in the U.S. Owner Beau Timken provides a wealth of knowledge via his monthly newsletters. LA sake enthusiasts can join a meet-up group for occasional tastings.
For more deliciousness, follow Kathy A. McDonald on twitter: @writerkathymcd.