Make Way for Sake

Chicago welcomed several Japanese organizations which hosted a Sake tasting and pairing event.  Two consummate professionals spearheaded the lively seminar, John Gauntner, the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert also known as Sake Dendhoshi or “The Sake Evangelist” and Takashi Yagihashi, Owner/Chef of his recently awarded one star restaurant, Takashi Restaurant.

While Chef Takashi prepared a delicious Sashimi of Hamachi with Prosciutto & Buffalo Mozzarella,  a lively discussion ensued.

Sake, while incorporating some elements of beer as well as wine making, is, nevertheless, a unique beverage in a class all by itself.  There are few westerners who truly understand this refined drink, but the interest was clear from the well attended event by industry professionals.

Here are some of the basics you might be interested in knowing:

Sake has been around in some form for the last 2000 years with the premium “ginjo” style for only about 40.  It is brewed, not distilled or simply fermented, from only rice. Other elements included in the production process include water and koji (moldy rice).

Sake quality is divided into several categories known as grades, and the key to understanding this official pecking order is the milling or “polishing” of the rice itself.  In general, the more the rice has been polished, the cleaner, lighter and more fragrant the flavor.  Quality sakes will be milled anywhere from 30-50%.  Some of the “garagistes” producers will  polish away even more.

with John Gauntner

It is interesting to note that whereas wine producers will sometimes add pure alcohol to “beef” up their wines, but are hush-hush when it comes to informing the public, an entire class of premium sakes, Daiginjo-shu, Ginjo-shu and Honjozo-shu, are brewed with small amounts of distilled alcohol.  This is openly acknowledged and viewed by sake professionals as producing a lighter, more fragrant, and hence, high quality product.

Throughout the ages, endless stories and verses tout the amazing ability of wine to age and become an icon of aroma and taste.  Compare that to sake, which, with the exception of very few cases, is meant to be drunk young within a few years.  When drinking premium sake should be drunk slightly chilled though warm sakes becoming popular once again (usually with the more cheap and cheerful versions).

The good news is sake is one of those few items that are almost always priced fairly.  Paying a premium is worth it.  Traditionally, bottle size is 720 ml, slightly less that a bottle of wine.  But, if you are with your friends, the proper way to be social is to order that 1.8L bottle so there is some for everyone around the table (more than once).

I have been privileged to take John’s first level certification course, and for those who are interested, it is worth it.


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