Until my wife changed my mind on it years ago, I was one of those people who thought sake was just an amiable if insipid tagalong with sushi or izakaya. Silly me, of course an alcoholic beverage that has been made for centuries, if not millennia, would have its elite brands. Blame it on a lack of sophistication on my part. And there are some terrific sakes out there that can provide the same complex and rewarding drinking experiences that you’d expect from a nice scotch or tequila. But a word to the uninitiated: If your sake is served warm or hot, it’s probably to cover up the fact that it’s not great sake. Instead, try premium sake in a snifter, like you would other spirits you want to experience in a full manner. So you don’t miss out of great sakes like I did for years, check these out:
I’m purposely starting old-school. This is nigori sake, which is thicker than more familiar sakes and cloudy, and more like the sakes of previous generations. It’s traditionally served chilled, but never with ice, and it benefits from a good shake or two before decanting. Poured into a snifter, the nose starts with the familiar rice pudding scent common among sakes, but adds a touch more vanilla and, nicer still, coconut. In the glass it looks quite milky, and it’s thick but without the fatty feel of dairy. The taste is again set on a rice pudding foundation, but with excellent notes of honeydew, coconut and banana with a surge, but not a burn, of alcohol. The finish adds a little smoke, but not much, and more banana. While it’s fine as a sipper, I would not be at all reluctant to pair this sake with food like moules frites (mussels and French fries) or Yucatan chicken-lime soup.
Osake Junmai Nama
This is another nigori, so warn any neophytes you’re serving that this sake is going to be cloudy and creamy. It’s not quite as delicate as Hakutsuru, but this product of Canada’s west coast is bursting with flavor. It’s brewed with moromi, the fermented mix of cereals and beans that gives soy sauce its punch, and you can tell. The scent, to me, is primarily honeydew over rice, but pear soon makes an appearance. The flavor is similarly bold with melon over sweet lemon curd, but without any acid. The finish adds vanilla and a slightly floral bouquet. Right from the open, it’s bold. I would not hesitate to sever this with even very spicy food, because it would not be overwhelmed. Have it with conchanita pibil, and thank me later.
While nigori is traditional sake, daiginjo is considered by many to be the best. This is one of my favorites, and you have to be impressed by the work they put into it. The name translates to divine droplets, and it is brewed in a snow-and-ice dome that maintains a constant temperature of 28 degrees with 90 percent humidity, killing bacteria, before it is gently filtered without ever being pressed or forced in any way. The nose is intensely complex and lightly fruity with coconut and lemon peel the heavy hitters at the top of a rather long batting order. On the tongue, I get toasted rice, wood smoke, anise and several other new flavors. The alcohol is distinctly present, but never aggressive or harsh. This stuff is what you should serve to anyone who doesn’t believe sake can be on par with the other big sippers.
While its name translates to mean nothingness, the daiginjo is anything but. The fact that it has won eight gold medals in a row from Monde Selection indicates that it’s definitely a something. It’s very complex, and it reveals a character almost diametrically opposed to Ginga Shizuku’s, but just as rewarding. While its rival is sweet, it is dry. While Ginga Shizuku is low on acid, Yaegaki Mu uses it to its advantage. The nose reminds me of white wine, with several fruit notes, including pear and honeydew. On tasting, those tones continue with a little green apple, vanilla and a slight hint of lychee. And the finish is all warm alcohol. It makes a nice counterpoint to a strong meal, but can by overpowered by spice.
Dassai Junmai 50
Though clear, this daiginjo is thick and full-bodied like a chardonnay. And like good white wine, it has a complex character dominated by fruit and backed up by floral tones. I get grapefruit at the start of the nose, and it’s soon joined by peach, honeydew, all on top of toasted rice. The fruits continue on the tongue, with a bit of apple and banana as well, and a touch of vanilla. And it finished with a rice and floral combo. If I can find a fault with this stuff, it might just be too easy to drink. I could easily see myself going back to it repeatedly between bites of fried chicken and potato salad at a picnic.
When a sake’s name translates to a million celebrations, you get your expectations up (especially when it costs as much as this one). And this one delivers, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. While other great sakes boast about how much of their rice they polish off to get to the purer core (a practice called seimaibuai), this one shaves off 60 percent of the grains, which is probably why it’s so expensive. I get jasmine and coconut on the nose initially, followed by floral covering toasted rice. It’s lightly sweet, but certainly not cloying, and more silky than creamy. The flavor is complex with honeydew and vanilla on top of a hint of black pepper and other spice. And the finish is sweetly with a distinct alcohol zing. This is a sake that treads into territory one would normally reserve for a fine scotch, and is excellent for sipping after dinner.
This one of the few premium sakes that starts with red rice, resulting in a color some describe as coppery, amber of looking a bit like a blush zinfandel. If you eat red rice, which many consider something of a health food, you’ll recognize a distinct nuttiness in the flavor. But that’s not at all what I get from the nose. Instead, I get fruit — green apple, peach and just a hint of berry over wood. The nut flavor, particularly pistachio, shows up when drinking, along with green tea, long-lasting caramel sweetness and toasted rice. And it all finishes with a hit of alcohol, more nut and a little dose of baking spices. Because the flavors are so long-lasting, which is rare for any sake, I like this one as a contemplative sipper, definitely after dinner and with conversation.