Sake. Made in Japan, California, Oregon — and Toronto. I never thought much about sake until I had an opportunity to sample many at one time. My taste buds have not been the same — sake is alive with subtleties, layers and complexities.
Sake grades or qualities vary with the rice used. Futsu, cheap and cheerful table sake that makes up 80 per cent of Japan’s production, uses white table rice. Typically, it is served warm to smooth out any rough edges. All grades above this use rice that has been polished; the more polished the better as the shimpaku — the white starch heart — is the most prized part of the rice grain for sake production. So honjozo-grade rice is polished or milled to 70 per cent of its original size, and like futsu, has distilled alcohol added. Junmai-grade sakes are made without added alcohol, and the rice-milling rate is on the label, typically around 70 per cent. Ginjo (premium) is made from rice milled from 60 to 51 per cent of its original size and is fermented at colder temperatures. Expect it to be elegant and aromatic. Daiginjo (super-premium) uses rice milled to 50 per cent or less of its original size and is the ultimate in quality.
Like rice, water also factors into the quality of sake. Many Japanese producers guard (and brag about) the mountain springs that provide them with the soft water ideal for their product. Even Toronto’s sake brewery, Ontario Spring Water Sake Company, has its own coveted source for water — and it is not Lake Ontario.
Warm or cool? Sake temperature depends more on the season, the dish and the mood of the drinker than the sake. I suggest experimenting not only with Japanese food, but with seared rare beef, black cod, seafood and chicken dishes as well as cheese and salty snacks, as they all shine with sake. It is certainly worth putting heart and soul into.
Kikusui Sake Co. Fountain of Youth Junmai Ginjo, Niigata, Japan ($12.75/300 ml)
This sake with its perfumed, floral nose and clean softness on the palate is a perfect introduction to the elixir. If it lived up to its name, I’d drink it daily. Or hourly.
Momokawa Brewing Murai Family Tokubetsu Honjozo, Aomori, Japan ($14.95/300 ml)
The alcohol added to this sake gives it pizzazz and makes it more fruity, flavourful and edgy. This style is more mosh-pit than nosh-hip. Pair it with takeout Japanese or Asian.
Toshimori Shuzo Sakehitosuji Jungin Black Junmai Ginjo 2008, Okayama, Japan ($34/720 ml)
Lots of aromas of banana-nut loaf and flowers in this tasty, elegant sake. Very smooth and complex in the glass. Has lots of yum factor.
Yoshinogawa Daiginjo, Niigata, Japan ($100/720 ml)
Amazing! As soft and smooth as a newborn’s cheek. Smells enticingly of pineapple and delivers subtle tropics. Drink with a lover.
Toshimori Shuzo Sakehitosuji Junmai 2005, Okayama, Japan ($25/300 ml)
This smooth, aged Junmai has aromas of morels and earth. Match it to strong cheese and taste the magic.
Okunomatsu Junmai Daiginjo Sparkling, Fukushima, Japan ($16.95/290 ml)
And you thought sake had no fizz! This sparkler, made in the traditional French way in Japan, is slightly cloudy with a very pale fresh green colour. Smooth, with hints of ripe banana and a long finish. Pull the cork with appetizers and take bets that none of your guests can guess its origin.
Daimon Shuzo Tozai Voices in the Mist Ginjo Nigori, Osaka, Japan ($27.95/720 ml)
Nigori means unfiltered or lightly filtered, so nigori wines are cloudy or, like this one, a little misty. A blend of rices and yeasts produces melon, pineapple and mango notes and 14.9% alcohol.
Ontario Spring Water Sake Company Izumi Second Spring Junmai Nama Genshu, Toronto, Canada ($14.95/300 ml)
Nama (unpasteurized) sakes like this one are youthful, lively and perky. They should be stored and served cold. A fruity nose leads to delicious pear flavours. The water is from Huntsville. Very impressive.
Hakkaisan Sake Brewery Eight Peaks Junmai Ginjo, Niigata, Japan ($50/720 ml)
This soft sake is made with some of the best water in Japan and rice-milled to 50 per cent. Crisp, dry and soft, with lovely clear pear notes that linger. A sipper with supper.
Asamai Shuzo Amanoto Umashine Tokubetsu Junmai, Akita, Japan ($55/720 ml)
Umashine means “beautiful rice stalks,” which are locally grown and milled to 55 per cent. Light berry notes and an easy grace make it a pleasure to drink. This one is a ballerina in a tutu.
Gekkeikan Horin Junmai Daiginjo, California, US, and Kyoto, Japan ($17/300 ml)
This delicate sake has a slightly yeasty nose and pear-melon flavours. Some sweetness.
Miyasaka Brewing Co. Masumi Kaden Tezukuri Ginjo, Nagano, Japan ($27/720 ml)
I liked this one because of its minerality and aromas of anise. I imagine it with a fennel salad and smack my lips.
Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery Kagatobi Gokkan Junmai, Ishikawa, Japan ($17/300 ml)
This nutty, fruity sake is brewed in the coldest months of the year. The result is a more obvious acidity and balance. It calls for fatty foods like black cod or tempura. And moderation.
Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Sho-une Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo, Japan ($10/300 ml)
Tropical fruit salad and an underlying earthiness meet you as you take a whiff. The sake is soft and smooth with a rich round mouthfeel, a mild acidity and a lingering earthiness. Bring on mushroom and vidalia soup with truffle oil and we have a match made in heaven.
Gekkeikan Zipang Junmai Sparkling, California, US, and Kyoto, Japan ($8/250 ml)
This refreshing sparkler tastes like melons. Popcorn would be yummy with it, and 250 ml is purse-or-pocket-sized for moviegoers. I didn’t tell you.