Why (and how) you ought to start drinking sake
November 25th, 2013
07:30 PM ET
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Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.

There’s something odd going on with Japan when it comes to wine. A couple of weeks ago a company there launched a wine for cats, and last week I received news that there’s now going to be a Hello Kitty Champagne.

And, you know, it’s not that I’m anti–Hello Kitty or anything - my daughter, when she was seven, had a big fondness for putting Hello Kitty stickers all over everything, including my wine fridge. But look, she was seven. That’s a great age to be into Hello Kitty stuff. It’s just not a great age to be drinking Champagne.

So, my feeling is, if you want to support the Japanese beverage industry (or if you just want something excellent to accompany your sushi), drink sake.

Sake is wonderful, but still only marginally understood in the US. Essentially, it’s an alcoholic rice beverage, neither beer nor wine, typically about 15 to 17 percent alcohol.

There’s a world of sake terms out there one could learn, but four crucial ones - because you’ll see them on sake labels - are junmai (no added alcohol), honjozo (a little added alcohol, making the sake a little lighter-bodied and more fragrant), ginjo (highly milled rice, resulting in more complex sake), daiginjo (even more highly milled rice, ditto).

Much in the way you wouldn’t try to describe what beer tastes like by saying, “Well, it’s kind of like wine, but more bitter, and fizzy, and not as fruity, and...” it’s hard to describe sake in the context of other beverages. Primarily, it tastes like sake. But it’s safe to say it also has a somewhat silky texture, often a floral aroma, orchard fruit notes that can recall apples or pears, and an underlying earthy-savory character.

A few top bottles to look for include Tozai Living Jewel Junmai ($18, on the lighter, creamier side, and great for the price), Rihaku Wandering Poet Junmai Ginjo ($35, a softer, more full-bodied style), Eikun Water Lords Junmai Ginjo ($36, from the area around Kyoto, with a satiny texture), Gassan Mountain Moon Junmai Ginjo ($36, definitely an earthy style), and Wakatake Onikoroshi Demon Slayer Junmai Daiginjo ($45, deeply flavorful, with a luscious texture; plus it’s fun to say things like, “Now serve me some Demon Slayer, my good man”).

The Momokawa Silver ($13, crisp and lightly melon-y) is also an interesting affordable option: Unlike the rest of these, which are Japanese, it’s made in Oregon.

And, a word to the wise, if you do splurge on a good sake, instead of zapping it in the microwave to heat it up, serve it chilled - a hour in the fridge is about right.

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How to drink sake
Wine for cats and other four-legged friends
Hello, tipsy! Sanrio licenses Hello Kitty beer

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Filed under: Content Partner • Food and Wine • Sake • Sip

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Philip Di Belardino

    Great article on Sake, Ray!

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family


    November 27, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
  2. Liz

    Everyone talks crap about heating up sake but...there are SOME brands that are made specifically or are rather inexpensive that only taste smooth when warm. The best sake's are of course served chilled. Read the label it'll tell you.

    November 26, 2013 at 2:55 am |
  3. Weeds

    Thanks for the Sake article. It is confusing how wine, made of just rice, can have a wide variances of taste. It goes to show how rice is not just rice.
    It is also excellent in marinades and cooking as is more delicate than grape wines.
    There are four basic types of sake, each with different nuances. Some styles, are best served cold (in a wooden box cup called a masu). Some taste better warm in a manner more traditional to the western world.

    Microwaving sake is a big BIG NO no because it can upset the wines flavor. To warm your bones with sake in this cold blast, heat it gently in almost boiling water that has been taken off the burner. It is best to serve warm sake in a narrow throat vessel (tokkuri) to keep the alcohol vapors from escaping the wine.

    A short sake primer: http://www.esake.com/Sake-Food/Etiquette/etiquette.html

    November 26, 2013 at 12:16 am |
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