Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Drink Sake Tonight FAQ

Drink Sake Tonight on Friday, March 25 is a casual benefit to help Japan, and the sake industry really needs help.

Here's a portion of an email that sake expert John Gauntner got from Nanbu Bijin brewer Kosuke Kuji:

"For the time being, no one in this area feels like drinking sake. To avoid secondary economic damage, we want to earnestly ask everyone around the country and in other countries to eat and drink products from the Tohoku* region. That is the most supportive thing you can do for us."
* Tohoku is the name for the large, 6-prefecture region hit by the earthquake and tsunami.

And you can take part! All you have to do is buy* a bottle of Japanese sake ... and drink it!

* I was told that more than one Asian restaurant in the Bay Area asked importers for sake donations to serve at benefit dinners for Japan this past week. That's missing the point: let's have Japanese companies donate to Americans to benefit Japan?

The Twitter hashtag is #drinksaketonight, so you can share/cajole your friends into joining, at least virtually.

The question I've been asked most frequently is, What will you be drinking?

I have already decided on my own sake for Friday evening: my go-to, Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo. I like it for its wine-like fruity, bright character, with strong apple notes and a mouthfeel that balances weight and refreshment. This sake is widely available in Bay Area sushi bars and is a comfort sake for me.

Here are some other FAQs and answers:

Is Japanese sake affected by radiation?
Not yet in any case. All sake in this country today was shipped before the earthquake and tsunami. I'll be keeping an eye on this story for the future.
Keep in mind that there is plenty of sake made in western Japan, far from the nuclear site. The sad thing is that the businesses that were most hard hit by Mother Nature are also the ones whose products people will most worry about -- if they can rebuild their businesses at all.

Should we stockpile sake in case supplies are cut off?
If it were wine, I would. But sake is a fresh product; most sakes are best within one year of the release date. There might be a world sake shortage in a year or two but hoarding now will just mean you will eventually drink less delicious sake.

How many sake breweries were hurt by the earthquake?
John Gaunter has some week-old figures from the Japan Sake Brewers Association. At least 119 sake breweries were damaged. I won't list them all, but here are four popular brands in the US that were hit particularly hard.  
Suisen was destroyed by the tsunami; people in Japan with electricity saw this happen on TV. Most of the employees are still missing. Urakasumi was flooded above the first floor and part of the building collapsed. Ichinokura apparently lost its entire inventory. Okunomatsu had a lot of damage to the brewery, the equipment and the inventory, but they're just happy to have had no injuries. There are 115 more reports like this; John Gaunter's website is the best place for details.

How will my drinking sake help?
A brewery like Okunomatsu will probably need bank financing to rebuild. A large purchase from the American importer is the best collateral possible. Because so many breweries -- even far from the epicenter -- suffered damages, there's a good chance that your sake dollar will be desperately needed.
Also, keep in mind that the Japanese domestic sake market is going to be bad for a while; Japanese buyers aren't in the mood for celebrating with fine dinners and artisanal sakes. We can pick up the slack and try to preserve this traditional business.

Where can I buy good sake?
Online, the best place I know is True Sake, America's first sake-only store. K&L Wine Merchant has a  good selection (just search for "sake") with excellent descriptions, and I love their customer service. Wally's in Los Angeles also has a fine selection, but has no descriptions online.
Offline, I like buying sake at Asian grocery stores, which usually have very good prices but generally know nothing about what they carry. So there is some chance-taking involved. But come on, you buy wines you've never heard of, right?

What can I expect sake to taste like?
Broadly speaking, sake is classified by the amount the rice is polished to remove impurities.  
Daiginjo sakes are the most polished and the most expensive. If you're having a one-night splurge, why not start here? They tend to be elegant and pretty; many have creamy flavors with floral notes.
My favorite category overall is probably Junmai Ginjo. Some of these are the most wine-like; you can expect fruity and creamy flavors.
Junmai* sakes tend to be powerful and earthy, not fruit-driven. I know sake aficionados who say this is the most sake-like sake, if you will, because they're not like anything else. Also, unlike other premium sakes which should be served cold, these sakes are often good at room temperature or warm.  
Nigori are cloudy sweet sakes that taste like a popular Japanese children's drink; they are the White Zinfandel of sake. This includes the sense that they are a gateway to sake for people just starting to dip their palates. If this is you, drink up!
I'm not a fan of Taru sake, which is aged in cedar to taste like it.

* How are Junmai and Junmai Ginjo different? The words measure different things. Junmai means "pure rice;" it indicates that no brewers' alcohol (or anything else) was added. Ginjo is a measure of how much rice was polished away (Daiginjo is 'big Ginjo'). So a sake could be yes or no in either category, and non-Ginjo Junmais are common. However, Ginjos that are non-Junmai are very rare in the US for tax reasons.

Is there any way to tell anything about the flavor from the bottle?
There's a number, the nihonshudo or SMV in English, that gives a measure of dryness. Neutral is about +3; higher numbers are drier, and lower numbers are sweeter. I'm open-minded on dryness in sake; sake handles a little sweetness better than most wines. But I tend to like sakes close to the neutral point.

How much should I spend for a good bottle of sake?
Most of the good stuff costs more than $30 for a 720 ml bottle. There are bargains below that -- Kurosawa is one that I often steer people toward. But we're doing this for a good cause, and you're reading this FAQ, so live a little.

How should I serve sake?
I have some beautiful Eisch hand-blown sake glasses in my closet, but I usually drink sake out of a white-wine glass. I like it colder than Chardonnay, maybe 57 degrees. There's nothing wrong with hot sake, but usually only the cheap stuff is heated. Don't sweat the glassware. I hate those thimble-sized gift-set cups, both because they give you no aroma and because I want to drink more sake than that.

What foods does sake go with?
Substitute "wine" in that question and you'll see my difficulty in answering it. Ginjos and Daiginjos, being lighter and more elegant, are the sakes that do best in sushi bars, and they're what I have with fish. Junmais tend to be better with meat dishes. I think sake is better with white meats than red meats; it's quite good with roast pork, and you know how every kind of wine goes with chicken? Same for sake. Try Nigori instead of dessert wine.

What are some brands you recommend?
From True Sake's selection, they have my Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo. I often recommend Shirataki Jozen Jukusei Junmai Ginjo, and people love it. I like the Yuki no Bosha Junmai Ginjo.
From K&L, I like the Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo, the Nanbu Bijin Junmai Daiginjo (see quote above), and when I can afford it, the Ginga Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo.
Wally's has many of those brands, and I also like the Yuho Junmai (made by one of the few female brewers in Japan) and the Ken Daiginjo.

I want to splurge. What should I buy?
Buy the Born Junmai Daiginjo from True Sake ($99). And invite me.
Seriously, there was an article recently about Las Vegas restaurants sourcing $500 bottles of sake so their Asian high rollers have another way to spend their winnings. I'm happy for the sake producers, but those sakes were made specifically for Vegas. Roughly $125 is the top end for sakes made for the general market. When you compare that to wine, it's really not that expensive, especially because sake is far more labor-intensive.

How long will sake stay good after it's open?
A little longer than wine; several days before it loses its peak, and maybe 10 days before I start cooking with it. Drink up!

I'll be eating in a restaurant on Friday. How should I order sake?
I have a separate post on that topic; How to Order Sake in a Restaurant.

After I order/buy/drink sake, how do I let other people know?
Tweet with the hashtag #drinksaketonight. It's a long hashtag so you'll have to use shorter tasting notes. Like Yuho Junmai, woman brewer, elegant sake, yum.

Is this really the best thing I can do to help Japan?
Do you own a large boat full of MREs and drinking water? If not, it may be.
I was suggesting last week that people donate to the Japanese Red Cross, but they are telling people to donate to the American Red Cross. That's a fine thing and I encourage you to do so; we have.
Buying sake will have a different impact. The Red Cross will hopefully help feed the thousands of people who have lost everything and are living in crowded, underequipped shelters.
Buying sake might buoy their spirits, but no, it won't get them a blanket tonight. What it might do is this: when brewery employees try to return to their jobs, it might help keep a job there for them.

Japan has already had a triple whammy: The 4th-strongest recorded earthquake ever; perhaps the worst tsunami in modern history; and a nuclear crisis that will hopefully be contained while it is only the 2nd worst ever.

Buying sake might keep it at a triple whammy, rather than adding the loss or severe diminution of Japan's most traditional beverage.

#drinksaketonight with me on Friday, March 25. If you have any additional questions about sake, please leave them below and I will answer as best I can.


Todd - VT Wine Media said...

WBG, thanks for posting this FAQ, I will point folks at it.
Incidentally, I tasted the Yuho at a trade tasting here in VT last spring, and your psudo tweet example is right on the money.

I've only got a couple of products in-hand right now, not from the affected area, but I'm hoping that a distributor contact gets back to me soon.

Brenda said...

pretty neat FAQ's on Sake. stuff i didn't know. i really enjoy a nice shot of sake from time to time so this was very nice

Arthur said...

This is a serious question I've always struggled with:

Many Sake writers talk about acidity.
But the Sakes i have tried do not have the kind of acidity one might find wines (red or white).

Can you please speak about the types of acids found in sake and what their levels may be like, relative to wine or even beer?

W. Blake Gray said...

Arthur: Sake does not have the high acidity of some wine (keep in mind that high acidity in wine is only popular in the US these days among a vocal minority). As a brewed product sake is much more comparable to beer, and the acidity levels are comparable also.

I'm not sure who started calling sake "rice wine" instead of "rice brew," but I think the analogy works because of premium sake's elegance.

W. Blake Gray said...

By the way, may I suggest you buy some sakes and decide for yourself?

Arthur said...

I was going to see what my local Bristol Farms has. Too bad I'm a slow adapter and don't own a smart phone.

I've had a range of sakes from stores and at restaurants. Some went with the food better than others. Some were a bit too much for my preference.

All along, I was puzzled by the talk of "acidity". It's not like rice has the tartrate, malate and citrate of wine grapes.

Your answer confirms my thinking and perhaps explains why I prefer an IPA over other brews: the hops offset the (at times) cloying maltiness of the beer.

W. Blake Gray said...

Arthur: Put the word "wines" instead of "sakes" in your second paragraph and tell me it's not still exactly accurate.

Sake has acidity. It doesn't have as much acidity as Mosel Riesling, but neither does Scotch, and many people including myself also enjoy drinking that.

This isn't about wine-vs-sake. It's about enjoying sake for its own sake, and about helping Japan.

Arthur said...

All your points were well taken, Blake.

Ultimately, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to gain more understanding of a topic which was not fully clear to me.

tom barras said...

The 100 point scale is indeed a good learning tool for many people, especially if they relate it to one critic's palate. It tends to get murky when the same wine is rated differently by others.

Also, the last 5 points or so relate, at least to RMP, to a wine's age-ability factor. The longer it will last, the better (presumably) is the wine.

But what of a "perfect" Beaujolais . . . that will never be rated 100, or any other wine that won't be truly drinkable for the next 15 or so years.

Why is not "the perfect 100" one that is the ideal wine for a particular food, rather than in most cases, one that overwhelms food in its youth?