A long grain of rice is about a third of an inch long. To make what is arguably the finest grade of premium sake, daiginjo, you must polish away half of that grain, removing the protein and fats from its outer layer until its starchy core is left. That’s one-sixth of an inch of material left to work with per grain. Needless to say, you need a lot of rice. According to some estimates, it takes about 3.5 pounds to make one liter of sake. This varies wildly, as there are different types of rice and different styles of sake, but at the heart of this Japanese beverage is rice and the act of polishing it. It’s a beverage focused on process.
I think there’s enough of a parallel here to say that it seems like a zen process: to take one grain of rice, something so important in Japanese society that it was once a form of currency, and to work it until only the finest part is left; then to gently guide it through a series of steps until it is transformed—it seems, well, meditative. It takes patience, and, according to the excellent documentary Birth of Sake, the sake makers spend about 6 months living at the brewery each year, shaping their lives as they transmogrify these grains of rice into something sublime—something that has been around for maybe 2500 years and that has been imbued with ideas of spirituality for nearly as long. According to a wonderful essay by World Sake Imports: “The release from everyday reality that alcohol grants must have been enthusiastically endorsed by the village healers, bestowing on sake an aura of sanctity from very ancient times. Seasonal rites to propitiate the gods, as described in the Kojiki and Manyoshu, contain references to sake, which is seen as cleansing, pure, and a catalyst to communication between human beings and the Shinto gods. But admiration for sake's salutary effects was hardly limited to the shamans. While an ordinary man may not be able to abandon his body, he does need to abandon his cares for awhile and obtain, if only in his own mind for a few hours, release from the constraints of family, society, and his own limitations. And sake would do it. Just a few sips and the tribulations of daily life were forgotten as the euphoria of sake enjoyment set in.”
Sake is fermented rice, but it is not wine. It is brewed like beer but it is not beer. It is its own category. Sake rice undergoes a transformation from starch to sugar (with the help of a mold called koji), but then ferments all in the same vessel, called dual simultaneous fermentation, unlike any other beverage in the whole world. Those are the four ingredients in a junmai sake: rice, water, yeast, and koji. A brewer may also add distilled alcohol, but can’t call it junmai sake. Apparently it’s quite complicated.
Thankfully, we have Kerry Tamura. He’s our K&L sake guru and is the source of a wealth of information and enthusiasm for our staff. The best part about Kerry is that he makes sake fun. He enjoys it so much that you can’t help but enjoy it, too (I mean, it’s delicious, so it’s not a tough sell). He was in house last week to pour a few for us, so I pulled him aside to find out more about this delicate, complex, not-so-well-understood beverage.
KS: How have you seen the role of sake evolve in the U.S.?
KT: In 2009, when I started the sake lounge in Chicago (Murasaki), I knew how special sake was, but I hadn’t seen the concept for a sake-centric bar anywhere in my travels. My passion for sake grew out of necessity. We had a family-owned bar, and we needed to change our concept in order for it to succeed. Luckily, Chicagoans took to sake. It’s a drinking town. It was a wonderful experience.
I’ve been in LA now for seven years. The first few years in LA were the honeymoon phase, then it was hard for a few years, now I am loving it like crazy. Los Angeles has best Asian food outside of Asia in the whole U.S. Every Asian country is strongly represented in LA. But, when I came here, the bar for sake was very low, restaurants had mediocre lists. In the last five years, it has really evolved. LA people are so quick to pick up new things. Sake has been embraced in the unique way that Southern California embraces new food. People take aspects from all these cultures and bring them into their concept and tweak it until it is Californian. Animal, for example, is such a Southern Californian representation of American cuisine. They, for me, represent cosmopolitan Southern California in that they can gracefully blend Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern foods and cultures—if anyone wants to understand Southern Californian cuisine, it’s there. The Loco Moco is so damn good. They have 7 or 8 sake there. The fact that restaurants that are not Japanese are carrying sake is very encouraging, because it pairs so well with food.
KS: What would you pair sake with, besides Japanese food?
KT: Pair it with anything spiced: Thai, Szechuan, Oaxacan, Indian, Korean. Because there is lactic acid, it goes well with cheese, and that is an often overlooked pairing. Try cheese with junmai ginjo and daiginjo.
KS: What about how its role has evolved in Japan?
KT: It is so entrenched in Japanese culture. With economic recessions and a world war, sake has seen extremely hot and extremely cold periods over the years. Sake is very traditionally brewed, but there are a few embracing the nouveau, such as sparkling, flavor-infused, different yeasts. In Japan they are open to these experimentations.
KS: So is that the future of sake?
KT: No, the future will be all about the traditional style because the world still needs to understand what traditional sake is. And it’s so damn good.
KS: Is sake popular in other markets outside of the U.S. and Japan?
KT: It’s blowing up all over. People love microbrews. There’s been an uptick in the U.K, Portugal, Mexico, France, Canada, China…
KS: Should we age our sake?
KT: Master brewers make sake every year and it must be fresh. Wine has tannins that preserve it, and sake does not. With sake it’s ready to drink when it’s made. Sometimes master brewers will age the bottle for a few months. The decision is based on the style they are trying to achieve. If it’s a junmai, and they want to be bold, then they release it young. Sake mellows with aging, but it depends on temperature. The colder the storage, the slower aging. When it is super cold (15-20 degrees), sake becomes reserved. At wine cellar temperature, it’ll take on bolder flavors. It’s almost always aged in glass. I’ve tasted it aged in cedar, aged in french oak, but it is too woody.
KS: Can you recommend a few sakes to start with?
Masumi/Miyasaka Yawaraka “Sake Matinée” Junmai ($22.99)
This is from a 356 year old brewery that is very well regarded. The 24th-generation heir to the throne has been very innovative, collaborating with DJs, for instance, and rebranding a few of their sakes. It’s completely 2.0 for the sake business. The Miyasaki family has been making Masumi traditional sake, and he wanted to do something avant garde, so he introduced the Sake Matinée, made in a session style (as in a session-style beer) with lower alcohol. It has a smooth, mild character and delicate flavors of citrus, wild plums, and vanilla.
Tedorigawa Iki Na Onna “Lady Luck” Daiginjo Sake ($42.99).
This is the brewery that Birth of Sake is about. Named after a 1000 year old river. It is sweet and creamy on the palate, with vanilla, salinity, and white blossom. They are near the Sea of Japan, and the coastal influence makes the sake pair well with seafood. It’s a 100+-year old family brewery.
Kokuryu “Crystal Dragon” Tokusen Junmai Sake ($39.99)
This was the Emperor’s sake brand. It’s rare, even in Japan. Very floral and pretty on the palate.
Tamagawa “Red Label” Heirloom Yamahai Genshu Sake ($34.99)
Very expressive, earthy, notes of mushroom. It’s full bodied and gamey. Would be excellent with cheese. Made by Philip Harper, the first non-Japanese brewmaster in Japan.
KS: What’s your desert island sake?
KT: The 5-year-aged Dewazakura Yukimanman.
KS: Parting words?
KT: Sake is not a fad. It’s another vocabulary to the alcohol language.
- Kate Soto