To make up for running out of one of the sakes in the three-sake flight I ordered recently at Sabuku, a newish sushi spot in Normal Heights, the server brought me a generous pour of Yoshinagawas Winter Warrior.
Now, thats good, my husband said, putting the glass at an equal distance between us.
Winter Warrior was initially intended for limited release, but its popularity at Sabuku (3027 Adams Ave.) is at least partly responsible for Yoshinagawas decision to make it available year-round.
Its Sabuku owner Bob Paselas favorite, too.
Im beyond blown away by that sake, he says. Its the most drinkable sake Ive ever tried at any price
. Its full-bodied, but without the acidity that other sakes have.
Perhaps its the name, but Winter Warrior, for me, evoked snow and pine trees and winterberries. Though, if it were called, say, Spring Lilac, the flavors might have conjured something different. Bottom line: Its damn-good drinking.
I think it should be served poolside, Pasela says. Its cool; its crisp.
Most folks of drinking age can name at least a few wine varietals; many can talk semi-intelligently about beer. But sake? Ask someone what kind they prefer and youll probably get hot or cold.
Sakes can be as complex as wine, Pasela says. Theres a lot to sakes; a lot of the flavors are much more subtle and much more difficult to detect. But, its there.
And pinning down those flavors can be as interesting—fun, even—as tasting wine or beer. Even the folks whom diners look to for recommendations consider themselves students of the beverage.
Shihomi Borillo, co-owner and manager of Azuki in Bankers Hill (2321 Fifth Ave.), was born in Tokyo, but says that when she opened the restaurant five years ago, she knew nothing about sake; wine was her beverage of choice. But shes been won over.
Every time I talk to sake makers, they have so much passion, even the sake vendors, she says.
Borillo walked me through some basics: Most bottles display the sake meter value, or SMV, which measures sweetness or dryness on a scale of -10 (sweetest) to +10 (driest). Unfiltered sakes, or nigori, would be in the -10 range.
Sake, made from fermented rice, also falls into three general categories: junmai, ginjo and daiginjo, which refer to how much the rice grains are polished prior to fermentation. Theres also honjyozo—thats junmai sake to which a small amount of distilled alcohols been added. Junmai and honjyozo are the most versatile and also the heartiest. Daiginjo is the most refined. The general rule of thumb: Pair more refined sakes with lighter foods.
Borillo had me try Kikusuis Chrysanthemums Mist, a ginjo sake. She noted it was a favorite of chefs Matt Gordon from North Parks Urban Solace and Olivier Bioteau from University Heights Farm House Café.
Once a customer gets this, they always stick with this one, she says.
As for buying sake in a store, Yuka Nakai, whose family owns Sake House Yu Me Ya (located in Encinitas and Hillcrest, sakehouseyumeya.com), tells folks to look for sake brewed in Nigata Prefecture, located in northern Japan.
They have the best rice, best water, best everything, Nakai says. That prefecture is the perfect prefecture for sake.
Nakais favorite sake (Yu Me Yas menu includes up to 60) is Echigo Tsurukame, a jumai sake.
Echigo is the old name for the Nigata prefecture, she says. Its really nice; I love that sake. Its not too expensive but has very, very good flavors.
Good sakes should be drunk cold or at room temperature, which is why many restaurants will have only one option—usually Gekkeikan—available hot.
Generally, its going to change the flavor and take away from it rather than add to it, Pasela says.
For us just to throw some expensive bottles [on the menu] to do hot sake, it just doesnt make sense, Borillo says.
Though, Borillo adds, there are folks wholl ask for warm sake, knowing itll change the flavor.
Some people will ask for drier sake to be warmed up because it makes [it] milder, she says.
Ultimately, enjoying sake shouldnt be about following a set of rules; its just a matter of finding what you like.
Im more like a fun sake drinker, Nakai says. I educate the customer at the sake house a little bit, but not in detail professionally, because thats not what theyre looking for. So, I just pick the sake for them, and they love it.
And if they dont like it, I drink it usually, she laughs.