The Rise of Sake

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Most U.S. consumers only know futsu, the domestically produced table sake served warm to mask impurities. And that's too bad, because quality sake can be appreciated like a fine wine.

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Sake is often liked, but it is rarely loved. These days you can find a shelf-full of high-quality sakes in specialty stores -- check out Sakaya in New York City -- but it's rarely consumed outside of sushi bars, where a few run-of-the-mill mega brands, like Gekkeikan, dominate. For unclear reasons, people often drink it warm, as a shot (maybe it's those tiny serving cups), with a slightly tensed jaw.

"Ninety-five percent of people say they like sake, but 95 percent of that 95 percent, if you asked them what was their favorite sake, you'd get a blank stare," said Andrew Chrisomalis, chief operating officer of Ty Ku, a New York-based spirits company that has just released a line of premium sakes.

The problem is that most of the sake consumed in the United States is domestically produced table sake, or futsu, which is usually served warmed to mask impurities. That may offer another reason people tend to drink it as a shot: The typical sake just doesn't taste that good.

The problem is that most of the sake consumed in the U.S. is domestically produced table sake, or futsu, which is usually served warmed to mask impurities.

All of which is too bad, because quality sake can be appreciated, and consumed, like a fine white wine. It's about the same proof, with a rich mouthfeel, similar to that of a luscious chardonnay. It's a little muskier, with more earthy flavors and less bright citrus. Yet sake also has a lot less acid, so after a couple of glasses you won't get puckermouth the way you might with said chardonnay.

Sake is like wine in another way, too: Sake rice, like wine grapes, comes in a range of varietals, each of which imparts a different set of flavors and aromas. The most basic categorization of sake, though, is how thoroughly the rice is milled -- the more the better. Roughly speaking, the rice in junmai sake has had 30 percent of its outer layers removed, junmai ginjo 45 percent, and junmai daiginjo at least 60 percent. (More fully, the term junmai indicates the sake is pure, without any distilled alcohol added as filler, and milled by at least 30 percent; ginjo and daiginjo sakes can have distilled alcohol added, but can't then use the junmai prefix.)

The milled rice is steamed and mixed with yeast, water, and a batch of koji, or rice that has been cultivated with mold. The mixture ferments for several days, with new batches added regularly, then set aside for up to a month, after which it's pressed, filtered, and blended. Occasionally it's aged, but not for long -- like wine, again, it tends to skunk after a few years.

The result, if done right, is exquisite. I recently sat down with Chrisomalis, of Ty Ku, to try his company's three expressions, which are made in Japan through a joint venture with two small sake breweries. Ty Ku began in just 2009, with a liqueur based on soju, a distilled liquor similar to vodka and popular mostly in South Korea and Japan. But the company soon saw untapped potential in sake.

The key, Chrisomalis said, was to get Americans "away from the box-sake mentality," starting with the bottles. Ty Ku's is about as far from the typical sake-and-sushi packaging as you can get: Instead of squat numbers wrapped in twine, Ty Ku comes in tall, sleekly triangular bottles that look like a miniature tower sprouting in a Persian Gulf oil-state. They're almost too cool; the jaded drinker might group them alongside those cognac bottles shaped like assault rifles that are presumably favored by Eastern European gangsters.

That would be a mistake. All three expressions -- silver for junmai, black for junmai ginjo, and white for junmai daiginjo -- are delicate and full of flavor. The silver has pear notes and a slight citrus acidity on the tongue. The black is richer, with peach and vanilla in the nose and less citrus on the tongue.

The white, easily the best sake I've ever had (though, disclaimer: that's not saying much), was packed with flavors, including mushrooms, bubble gum, pepper, and licorice. Some say it, too, has some citrus, in the form of grapefruit and lemon, but I didn't detect it.

Chrisomalis is, of course, bullish on sake's future. In recent years, he said, "We've seen double-digit growth" in the premium sake sector, driven by the latest wave of Asian-fusion cuisine making inroads beyond its West Coast beachhead. "There's almost too much opportunity." Don't expect sake to replace California chard any time soon -- but don't expect it to stay bottled up behind the sushi bar, either.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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