My epiphany with sake's versatility happened over, of all things, steak. It was about 10 years ago at the Japanese consul-general's home in Toronto. To cap off a fine sampling of sake, the Japanese rice beverage, the gracious diplomat treated several wine writers to a fancy dinner. Out came plates of glorious beef tenderloin paired not with sake but with his favourite red, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, a dusty old vintage. Beef and Bordeaux – pairings don't get more classic than that.
But I'd carried two glasses of sake with me from the tasting to the table and began playing mix and match with my food. To my surprise, I preferred a creamy, cloudy sake with the beef. The rich sauce on the meat seemed to obscure the frail old wine's subtle complexity, whereas the sake's oily texture matched the sauce with appropriate weight, like a sumo wrestler's chubby hug.
I held my tongue, figuring that trying to persuade a bunch of wine geeks to think outside the bento box would be like arguing in favour of a greenhouse-gas tax at a fundraiser for Tea Party Republicans. But the lesson stuck. Sake, despite its sushi-or-the-highway reputation for delicacy, is more flexible than most Western drinkers give it credit for. Delicate, yes, but hardly fragile.
Cold, premium sake, that is. The warm stuff generally enjoyed with sushi here is mostly mediocre, on a par with jug wine and often made with Uncle Ben's-style supermarket rice. It also often contains lots of distilled alcohol to stretch production volumes. Premium sake, on the other hand, is brewed from special rice milled down to a fraction of its original size, 70 per cent or less. More milling generally produces a cleaner, more complex beverage, best appreciated in a white-wine glass to funnel aromas. (Occasionally, fine sake will contain a smidgeon of distilled alcohol, though simply to enhance fragrance and lift flavours.)
Sake connoisseurs are enthusiastic about the drink's nuances, which can range from apple and fig to honey, cucumber and minerals. But it's the texture, owing to a typically rich, 14- to 20-per-cent alcohol, and grainy essence that I love most. I think of sake as whisky that drinks like wine. It can often elevate and enhance food, especially fish, rather than overpower it.
"It's amazing how different food can taste when you have it with sake – in a good way," says Andrea Vescovi, the wine director at Blue Water Café in Vancouver, which carries a rotating selection of 15 to 20 sakes.
Connoisseurs justifiably lament that it can be hard to find good sake on retail shelves in this country. But the LCBO in Ontario recently added several premium brands to its list, including Wandering Poet and Ice Dome. Some are available in several other provinces.
I sampled many sakes recently with a variety of non-Japanese foods and encountered as many hits as misses. Stronger, creamier sakes, I found, stand up well to meats, including veal shoulder that I had braised in white wine and herbs. Lighter sakes worked to cut the fat in soft to medium-firm cheeses, though sweet sake was particularly good here, echoing the affinity cheese has with such sweet wines as sauternes. Spicy chicken samosas harmonized nicely, too, the oily texture of the drink tempering the spice, though the strongest sake in my roster, at 20.2-per-cent alcohol, fanned the flames.
Among the patent failures: blue cheese with dry sake. The cheese, tangy enough on its own, turned positively sour. Sweet sake, on the other hand, tamed its tang nicely – again echoing the tried-and-true pairing with sweet wine. Ironically, I was no fan of sake with steamed green beans that I had dressed with olive oil and toasted pine nuts, a light side dish I thought would be well-tailored for sake's purported delicacy. The drink's subtle sweetness became amplified in the presence of the peppery oil. Suddenly I craved a crisp white wine. Good thing I had a sauvignon blanc in the fridge.
Rihaku Wandering Poet Junmai Ginjo
PRICE: $17.95/300 ml
Named after the eighth-century poet Li Po (who loved to drink copiously, especially before writing), this is clean and fragrant, hinting at herbs and fresh sea breeze, supported by a nutty tang vaguely reminiscent of dry sherry. The price is $16.08 in Manitoba.
Murai Family Daiginjo
PRICE: $24.95/300 ml
Notes of yeast and grain on the nose give way to herbs, spice and honeydew on the palate. The texture is moderately silky. It's complex and intriguing, if not exactly inexpensive.
Taisetsu Ice Dome Ginjo
PRICE: $12.95/300 ml
Baby brother to a cult brand called Divine Droplets, this sake spends some time in an igloo, which is built each winter outside the sake brewery. Bacteria have a harder time surviving in the igloo's constant sub-zero "room" temperature, supposedly resulting in purer flavour. The alcohol tastes pronounced, a little like whisky or vodka, but I like the creamy texture and pear-like essence.
Gekkeikan Horin Junmai Daiginjo
PRICE: $16.95/300 ml
The global brand Gekkeikan makes a lot of bulk-style sake served warm at run-of-the-mill sushi joints and even has a California outpost that uses grocery-store rice to supply the North American market. But it makes good stuff, too. I like this one, which comes in an attractive opaque-brown bottle. The aroma delivers a whiff of seashore, while the palate is vaguely sweet, with hints of fennel and melon. The price is $18.15 in Quebec.
Hakutsuru Superior Junmai Ginjo
PRICE: $8.45/300 ml
Attractively aromatic, suggesting licorice, this is fresh, clean, silky and bracing. Good value. The price is $9.95 in British Columbia and $8.40 in Quebec.
Hakkaisan Eight Peaks Tokubetsu Junmai
PRICE: $11.95/300 ml
Banana, gentle spice and licorice come together in agreeable harmony, but the overall flavour here starts to genuflect in the direction of warm sake.
A sake primer
Fresh and cold Sake is fermented from grain (namely rice) using special yeasts, so it's technically a beer rather than a wine. Like beer, it's generally unaged and should be consumed within several months, though there are exceptions. Serve fine sake chilled unless you positively crave it warm.
Remember ginjo It's easy to get lost in the elaborate classification scheme and dozens of styles. For a handy, if grossly oversimplified, rule of thumb, look for the quality designation "ginjo" either on its own or as a suffix with "daiginjo."
Dry, sweet and cloudy Though generally dry, some sakes are moderately sweet. The latter pair better with sweet and spicy foods. Some are unfiltered and designed to be shaken before pouring. These sakes tend to have a creamy texture that pair nicely with richer foods.