The Good Life: Rice Wine Is Mighty Fine

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There's no such thing as a bad sake.

So said the late Takao Nihei, the man who revived sake-brewing in the U.S. following WWII. And judging by their enthusiastic reactions, none of the attendees at last month's Joy of Sake extravaganza in New York City looked ready to argue with Nihei's declaration.

The fifth annual "Joy of Sake" event, held at SoHo's luxurious Puck Building, featured 210 sakes in the largest sake tasting held outside of Japan. It also featured a wide spectrum of sakes not currently available in the U.S. including namazake, or unpasteurized sake.

More than a dozen local restaurants also participated by offering appetizers like sushi and kobe beef to accompany the sakes on display. The list of high-profile restaurants included: Bao 111, Bond Street, Geisha, Hasaki, Kai, Ono, Riingo, Sakagura, Sumile, Sushi Samba and Tocqueville. Artisanal even provided samples of some of its world famous cheeses to accompany the host of sake. (Similar-themed events were held in San Francisco and Honolulu.)

The sakes presented for sampling displayed a wide variety of styles in the junmai, ginjo and daiginjo categories, and included gold and silver award winners from the 2005 U.S. National Sake Appraisal. Every year, a panel of American and Japanese wine and spirits professionals conducts the appraisal.

Three master sommeliers were among this year's sake appraisal judges: Roger Dagorn of Chanterelle in New York, Larry Stone of Rubicon in San Francisco and Hawaii's only master sommelier Chuck Furuya.

How to Make Saki

Sake consists of 80% pure water, mostly found in the sake-producing regions of Japan such as Fushimi, Nada, Hiroshima and Niigata. The water from which sake is brewed has a tremendous effect on its flavor. Mellow, rounded sakes tend to be made from soft water, while crisp, dry ones use hard water containing more minerals.

The other two ingredients are rice and koji. The rice used in producing sake is different from the regular rice consumed for food. It's a much larger grain requiring more water and greater protection from the elements.

Koji is a form of mold that breaks up the long chain of starch molecules in the rice, a reaction that ordinary yeast alone cannot achieve.

Most sake is aged for several months before bottling. But every spring the breweries also release an unpasteurized, undiluted sake fresh from the tank and bursting with rich, fruity taste.

How to Taste Saki

Attendees were provided with tasting cups to sample the 200-plus samples, which were lined on tables according to classification. Ginjo and daiginjo sakes have floral or fruity aromas, while the junmai sakes had a more rustic appeal.

The tasting technique for sake is essentially the same as you would a wine, swishing the sake around your mouth to make sure it reaches the taste buds on the underside of the tongue as well.

Sakes are judged in terms of aroma, taste, balance and overall impression. When rating the taste, judges focus on pairs of opposites such as rich vs. heavy and tight vs. loose. In the aroma category, such qualities as refinement, complexity, individuality and effusiveness are recognized.

When it comes to balance, the scoring choices are: perfect, good, acceptable, uneven and poor. And in the overall impression category, the options range from outstanding down to noticeably flawed.

Will Sake Catch On?

If sake is to catch on in America it will undoubtedly need to appeal to more than 900 aficionados in New York. The fact that sake has the highest alcohol percentage, around 18%, of any brewed alcoholic beverage is not enough for it to knock beer or wine off the average American's dining table. For every glass of sake, Americans drink 160 glasses of wine.

That said, sake popularity and consumption in the U.S. has doubled in the past 10 years, growing about 8% a year, according to USA Trade Online, a service of the Foreign Trade Division of the U.S. Census Bureau. And the Japanese representatives on hand to promote their sakes remained hopeful: Despite their unsteady English, they championed their beverages and forgave Americans for not quickly grasping sake's subtleties.

"This is a first step to deepen American's understanding of sake," said Masumo Nakano, president of Dewazakura Sake Brewery Co., through an interpreter. "But no matter if you are an expert or a beginner, sake is delicious."

The pioneer spirit of Takao Nihei lives on.

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