Plenty of us are well-versed in the world of wine or clued in to craft cocktails, but when it comes to sake, well, we shrug, order the house offering, and often find ourselves unimpressed.
“A lot of the sake you find at a sushi bar is actually just table sake, so that’s what our perception of sake is,” says Darrell Baum, who, along with partner Osamu “Sam” Sagara, owns Wabi Sabi Japan Living in Palm Springs, which sells home goods imported from Japan, as well as a range of sakes. Both are certified sake advisors. “Can you imagine not allowing yourself to know any other wine but table wine? It’s the same thing.”
While the sake universe can seem daunting, with just a little knowledge in your pocket you’ll be able to order like a pro … or at least understand what exactly it is you’re getting. Here, a primer to help you in time for your next sushi outing.
Stop calling it rice wine. Wine, by definition, is fermented fruit juice (usually grape), and it’s those fermented sugars that create the alcohol. With sake, it’s rice starch that’s converted into sugar; this gets fermented into alcohol using yeast — a process many compare to brewing beer. One big difference between suds and sake, however, is the alcohol content. While a typical beer is less than 5 percent, sake is 15 percent or more … making it boozier than most wines, too.
Learn what polishing means. If you’re going to remember just one term, make it this one. In sake making, polishing is the act of milling down rice grains to remove the husk and outer layer. “It gets smoother and more refined as it’s milled down,” explains Baum. “It’s that beautiful starch, that center that you want to get to. That’s part of what gives sake the beautiful, aromatic notes.”
Then brush up on the rice polishing ratio.
That’s the percentage of the rice that’s left after the outer portion has been removed. So, if 40 percent has been polished away, the sake’s rice polishing ratio is 60 percent.
“More polished is better,” says Engin Onural, a sake sommelier and sushi chef who owns The Venue in Palm Desert and Sandfish in Palm Springs. “When there’s more polish, the taste gets better, the aroma gets better, and it becomes more expensive.”
Indeed, the more the rice is polished, the more time, labor, and actual rice is required to make the same amount of sake, which, in turn, gets reflected in the price.
“It tends to go well with most every type of food. And when you look at the acids in sake — succinic and lactic acids — those pair best with cheese or fish.”
Darrell Baum,Wabi Sabi Japan Living in Palm Springs
Chef and sake sommelier Engin Onural, right, offers a wide range at Sandfish in Palm Springs.
Take advantage of the little guy. Full-size sake bottles are typically 710 ml (slightly smaller than wine), but many producers offer a low-commitment 300 ml size. Onural suggests ordering a variety to figure out what you like. “That’s basically not even two glasses of wine worth, so you can come to the restaurant and play around.”
Know your Junmais. A good tactic for newbies is to consider sakes in the Junmai family. They’re made with just rice, water, yeast, and koji (a type of mold), with no added distilled alcohol. (While some high-quality sakes add a bit of alcohol, cheap sakes are notorious for adding large quantities to increase yield and shelf life.)
lf you look for one of these three main Junmai categories on a menu or bottle, you can feel pretty confident you’re going to get something that’s decent at worst and amazing at best:
Junmai: Though there’s no longer a polishing ratio requirement to be considered Junmai, most sakes in this category are around 70 percent. Junmais are typically more full-bodied than the others, less expensive, and a good entry point for neophytes. “It’s still a giant leap from your table sake,” Baum insists. “You’ll get aromatic notes that you won’t in a table sake.” Adds Onural: “It’s more dry, more earthy. If you’re going to order a Junmai, I might give you cooked items, spicy items, or saucy items.”
Junmai Ginjo: To achieve this classification, the rice must be polished down to 60 percent or less, making the sake lighter and more refined. “Most of what we sell is Junmai Ginjo, because it’s well-balanced and still not that expensive,” Onural says. “It’s going to be a little earthy, but it’s going to be a little floral still. If you’re ordering sashimi, I’d pair it with this.”
Junmai Daiginjo: The polish-ing ratio for these sakes is 50 percent or lower. They can get pricey and are considered the aromatic A-listers of the sake world. “There’s a noticeable step up in the beauty and complexity of the sake when you go to a Junmai Daiginjo,” Baum says.
If you’re still confused, simply ask for something chilled, light, and aromatic. “That’s what we as Americans tend to like,” Baum notes.
Then try something different. The cloudy, unfiltered sakes known as Nigori are often sweeter thanks to those rice particulates. But don’t write them off. Onural suggests sipping one without food or with dessert. At Wabi Sabi, Baum and Osaga sell a low-alcohol Nigori called Kurosawa that they refer to as “the rosé of sakes.” “The citrus, the lightness of it. It’s very much a poolside drink and great as a mixer, too,” says Baum, who combines it with grenadine, OJ, vodka, and ice for a cocktail he calls the Palm Springs Sake Sunrise.
Darrell Baum is a partner in Wabi Sabi Japan Living in Palm Springs, which hosts weekly sake and cheese pairings.
Skip the heat. Hot sake has a long history in Japan, but the product you get when you order it in the U.S. is usually low-grade. “Hot sake is the cheapest alcohol you can have. That’s why people get headaches the next day,” Onural explains. And while you could ask for a high-quality sake to be heated, it would probably be a waste. “If you heat up a sake that’s meant to be chilled, there’d be no point,” says Baum. “Would you eat hot melon?”
Pair it with other fare. It’s time to give sake a shot outside of the sushi bar. “It tends to go well with most every type of food. And when you look at the acids in sake — succinic and lactic acids — those pair best with cheese or fish,” says Baum.
Onural agrees. “Especially with the Junmai family. It’s like magic. Let’s say there’s Junmai you might not like, but you have a piece of cheese and you take the same sip. All of a sudden, it’s day and night. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is ridiculously awesome.’ And I absolutely love sake with pizza.”
It might take a little while for your favorite pizzeria to catch up … but in the meantime, you can always BYO.