Wednesday, February 24, 2010

a sake primer

(I have an interview at an Izakaya-- I am training)

Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from milled and processed rice that is then fermented with Koji-kin, a strange (gross?) mold. Sake is categorized mostly by how polished the rice is (because sake from more highly polished is more expensive to make, and because the flavors of the interior of the rice grain are considered more delicate and desirable) and if water or alcohol is added.

The patterning of these qualities are still non-intuitive to me. X is X if under y and if z is added. Xx is Xx is under y and z is added or---

But let's try to get some handle on it anyway. The easiest distinction is between Nigori and other sakes, because Nigori looks different. It's cloudy, 'unfiltered' (which means coarsely filtered) to allow rice solids to float around in it. I've always liked this kind of sake-- finding it smooth and sweet and easy. Sake often includes some more sour flavors that I do not love but might have to learn to appreciate.

The other obviously different sake is called Koshu, which is aged, tastes a little like sherry, and is an amber color.

Most sake is meant to be downed cold or at room temperature. Certain Junmai sakes can benefit from being warmed, but for other sakes heating destroys the flavor.

Note: Sake evolved, like so much of Japanese culture (pre-war), aesthetically. The flavors are intended to be gentle, subtle, and refined. I've yet to read any large treatise on the matter, but this seems to distinguish it from most Western fermented beverages. Red wine can be complex-- blackberries peanut butter and pickles!-- oh! the '04 Carignan-- but usually in big, obvious ways. The flavor profile is more akin to (fine) vodka than to any other beverage I can think of.

Oh! And what is Junmai and why can it be heated? Because Junmai is made with rice polished to only 70% (or less!) of its original size and (most importantly) without any additives (which are usually mellowing agents- neutral alcohol or water) and so contains more aggressive flavors that mellow as the temperature rises.

Hold on! Junmai acquires other terms if the rice is polished more. If it drops to 60%, it is called Junmai Ginjo, and if 50%, Junmai Daigino-- but no additives are allowed in the classification.

But a sake can be Ginjo or Daiginjo if it has additives and is made from rice polished to 60% or 50% respectively. Dai- means extra?

Things begin to come together.

On our Honeymoon, I went Sake shopping the day we left for Ireland. (and apparently have just become Germanic in my Capitalization) I went into the Berkeley Bowl and was trying to move my head around the selection when a quick moving little man introduced himself to me as America's premier Sake importer and gave me a heady introduction to the subject before exclaiming 'My God, what are these doing here! These must be drank immediately!' and began to pull the bottles off the shelves and cradle them awkwardly with his fingers, elbows, armpits, etc.

These, it turns out, were 'ghost sake', a kind brewed for a special festival, intended to be drank within a couple months of said festival, and named 'ghost' because the flavor is supposed to change radically from glass to glass. Each sip, even, should be different.

Yeah, so I bought one. You would have too.

Olga and I shared it on the transatlantic flight out of an eggcup I had placed as a joke in a strange eggcup sized pocket in the strap of my recently purchased backpack. We decided the flavor did change.

On to cocktails, quickly! Naturally bartenders and owners of sushi restaurants have decided it would be useful to use sake with other mixers, often hard liquor, for the age old reason of getting people drunker faster.

First- the old stand by, the Sake Bomb-- which is a 'shot' of sake in beer.

Sake can be used in place of almost any liquor-- add a funny reference to the name, and you have a sake cocktail. My current favorite: the Duncan MacCleod-- named for the Scottish Highlander/Immortal who wields a Japanese blade. Yes, it is basically Scotch and Sake.

I think that's enough. Olga and I went to Totoro Sushi in Santa Cruz last night as a date/celebration/offering, had some amazingly over-the-top rolls, and tried Uni (sea urchin) supposedly the rough pinnacle of the 'true' sushi experience for the first time.

Maybe they'll let me wear a kimono?


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