Sake and the City: Richard Dare Writes from New York

Pouring 96 varieties of Sake
I must confess, your faithful correspondent was at first blush less than certain that sake -- in spite of being colloquially referred to as "rice wine" in the west -- would really fit within the taste profile loved by American oenophiles.  Yet I decided to be Zen about the situation and attend an invitation only event featuring Timothy Sullivan founder of Urban Sake ( who explained and then paired sake with mouth-watering wagyu beef prepared by executive chef Hiroki Abe of EN Japanese Brasserie (
Sake, as you may already know, is a beverage fermented from rice, a grain that to my way of thinking categorizes it rather closer to the beer family than to wine.  On the other hand, sake is not carbonated and tastes far more like wine than beer, and not even remotely like gin, vodka or other spirits.  So “when in Tokyo” do as the locals do, I always say.

Another award-winner

Beautiful Sake bottles on display
The primary distinctions between types of sake are based not so much on the varieties of rice used but rather on how severely each individual grain of rice has been milled or polished.  This is the case because the core of a rice grain has a greater concentration of starches than its exterior husk.  So more thorough polishing produces a drink with more intense and complex flavors.  Serious sake begins when at least 30% of the rice grain has been removed and 40-50% removal is not uncommon.
Unlike western wines, most sake is meant to be consumed young and fresh, so don't bother to open the bottle to allow it to breathe or the flavor will grow too soft.  And finally, expensive good sake is usually served chilled.  Cheaper sake, however, traditionally arrives hot, possiblya tradition from times past meant to mask the quality of the product being served.

At the table in New York City in late October was a dazzlingly diverse array of some 94 different types of sake including the very elegant Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo ($60 per 24 oz. bottle, a variable 15-16% alcohol) with its pronounced floral bouquet and Gold Medal prize from the 2008 International Sake Challenge; as well as the velvety smooth and semi-fruity Fukuju Junmai Ginjo ($34 per 24 oz. bottle, 15.5% alcohol) famously served at the 2012 Nobel Prize awards dinner in Stockholm and increasingly in demand worldwide.  Paired with fine Japanese wagyu beef they both presented perfectly, the Chokaisan feeling more appropriate as a dinner drink and the Fukuju as an apĂ©ritif. 

The unique fruitiness, fragrances of flowers, hints of mushrooms, earth tones and the like -- in short, the sorts of things one might look for in wines from Europe or America -- are present in sake as well.  In sake’s case, however, the nuances result largely from the specific yeast used (specified by number on most bottles for serious connoisseurs), the flavor of the local water, and so on.  Thus, many of the joys of sake stem from an understanding of the drink’s terroir just as they do with western wines.


Richard Dare is an author, cultural commentator and executive who enjoys fine wines and good food.


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