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Saké - The Other White Wine

By Kathy Corey
Saké, served chilled like wine, is quickly becoming the perfect accompaniment for contemporary cuisine. This new trend has only taken 6800 years to arrive in the United States and with our emphasis on healthy living it appears to be an excellent match.

One out of every five glasses of wine consumed in the world is saké. Since we seem behind the rest of the world in our consumption and knowledge, we need to explore what we have been missing.

Sake, the drink of the Gods in Japan has long been linked to the ancient Shinto religion. Matsuosama, the main saké-brewing deity has shrines dedicated to him inside Japanese breweries. A Shinto ritual called O-miki is performed by a priest who sips saké from a white porcelain cup at the altar. It is believed that he is taking a bit of the god-force into himself and becoming at one with the gods.

Sake is an all-natural beverage made from rice, water, koji (an enzyme) and yeast. Even though it is fermented from a grain, which would make it more similar to beer, it is not carbonated and has the complexities of wine as well as a closer alcohol content (15%). The best sakés are served cool or chilled in a wine glass. Only poor quality sakés are served hot. Unlike wine, it contains no sulfites or preservatives and its supporters boast that it is virtually hangover free. In the same way that there are many varieties of grapes for wine, there are about 65 types of designated sake rice strains. The most prized rice is Yamada Nashiki, the "king" of saké rice.

There are four basic classifications of saké each of which requires its own brewing technique and a fifth type that incorporates all four of the methods.

The first class, junmai-shu can be translated as pure rice saké. Nothing is used in its production except rice, water and koji, the mold that converts the starch of the rice into sugars. The rice has been polished to remove 30% of the outer portion of each grain to eliminate fats and proteins that impede fermentation. The taste of junmai-shu is generally heavier and fuller than the other types and it is a bit more acidity.

Honjozo-shu, the second category, adds a very small amount of distilled ethyl alcohol at the final stages of production to smooth and lighten the flavor and make it more fragrant. It is also milled by 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain. This kind is a good candidate to be served warm.

The third type is ginjo-shu and is made with rice ground by 40% of its outer shell to remove more impurities.

Ginjo-shu is fermented at colder temperatures for a longer period of time to produce a more complex and delicate taste with fruity flavor and fragrance.

Daiginjo-shu, the next class, polishes the rice by at least 50% before brewing. This labor-intensive process produces a light, delicate, top of the line product that is coveted as the world's finest variety. It is exceptionally fruity and aromatic.

Namazake is saké that has not been pasteurized. All four of the above types can be namazake or can be pasteurized. Namazake adds a fresh lively touch to the flavor. It must be stored cold or the flavor and clarity could suffer.

Any saké that does not meet the criteria of the above four classifications is called futsuu-shu meaning "normal sake". Saké can also be filtered or unfiltered. When it is unfiltered it is labeled Nigori-zake. There are many small "microbreweries" that produce jizake which means saké that is not mass-produced.

Sake Bottle

Seishu is the legal name for saké to differentiate it from other alcoholic beverages. While it is illegal to brew sake at home in Japan, there are Japanese "moonshiners" producing their own prized versions of jizake.

In general, saké is aged for about six months and is meant to be consumed soon after purchase. It will keep for six months to one year but your best buys will be refrigerated with a bottling date on the label.

Saké bar etiquette recommends that you begin by ordering a beer to freshen your palate as you peruse the sake menu. You know you have "arrived" in a traditional saké bar when you are asked to sit farthest from the door toward the back of the room where the high status guests are seated.

Saké is poured from a serving flask called a tokkuri into small cups called ochoko. The proper pouring etiquette in formal situations is to hold the tokkuri with both hands while filling the ochoko for others. The guest receiving the sake should lift their glass off the table holding it in one hand and supporting it with the other. Even in informal situations pouring for one's table companions is the common practice. Your companions will then fill your cup for you. Pouring one's own saké is known as tejaku and is only acceptable in informal situations.

There are 1800 breweries (kuras) in Japan producing as many as 10,000 different kinds of saké.

The United States has seven breweries.

SakéOne, the first American owned sake brewery,imports a complete line from Japan and brews its own American sakés. Founded in 1992 as a joint venture between Momokawa Saké of Japan and Grif Frost, their big advancement came in 1997 when they started producing Momokawa brands in their state-of-the-art kura in Oregon. By the year 2000, the Momokawa and Moonstone brands had garnered 90% of the US market for premium sakes. They are available in specialty markets and gourmet stores and cost around $10.00.

SakéOne's YDaiginjo Saké Collection includes four very appealing products that pair well with Asian, Fusion, and contemporary cuisine. Wind is very dry and full-bodied with a fresh, pure flavor. Serve with smoked meats, grilled fish and raw foods from tartare to sashimi. Sky is semi-dry and medium bodied. Food pairings for Sky are meat or vegetable dishes with mildly hot spices or Asian sauces. Rain is ginger infused, semi-dry and is exotically scented. It goes well with mixed salads, spring rolls and dim sum. Snow is roughly filtered and softly sweet. It is rich and creamy with tropical fruit flavors. Snow matches well with sweet and tangy marinades, curries, chicken and fondue. For an unusual surprise try it with chocolate. The collection is currently being served internationally at Roy's Restaurants and will be available to select retailers across the country. They sell for $30.00 to $60.00 per bottle.

Celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi, the owner of Roy's Restaurants, is known as the father of Hawaiian regional cuisine, a fusion of European and Asian cooking styles that uses fresh island produce fish and meats. He creatively blends the techniques he learned during his youth in Japan and Hawaii with his formal training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Asian ingredients infuse French sauces in a delicate balance of east meets west.

His first restaurant opened in Hawaii in 1988 and he has recently opened his 21st in La Jolla, California. Other locations include Japan, Guam, Florida and New York.

Yamaguchi explains that he selected SakéOne after reviewing hundreds of sakes. His affinity for saké stems from the parallels it shares with food and cooking. Tradition, purity, balance and innovation are hallmarks of both arts.

Saké is not just for sushi anymore.

Saké Cocktail Recipes

Saké Cosmopolitan
Light and refreshing, this is a unique twist on an old favorite.
2/3 parts Cranberry Juice
1/3 part Sky Saké
A splash of Cointreau

Saké Pina Colada
The fruity flavors of the Snow Saké enhance this tropical delight.
1 ounce Snow Saké
1 ounce Coco Lopez
1 ounce Pineapple Juice
Place all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth. Serve chilled.

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