The finest sakes (called hiyazake or reishu) are best slightly chilled. You would no more heat up a bottle of high-quality sake than you would a cult Chardonnay. Only poorly made, cheap sakes are served warm.
Like wine, sake derives its alcohol from the conversion of sugars by the action of yeast. But while wine is fermented from natural grape sugars, sake is fermented from steamed rice, finely polished to as much as 50% less than the original hull size. The starchy core is converted into sugar through a painstaking process called koji, performed largely by hand in special warm, steamy, wood-paneled rooms. Although the kura, where sakes are made, is usually translated as “brewery,” sake naturally finishes at around 14-17%—closer to the level of today’s table wines than to the typical beer.
The more salient taste point about sake is that it has a taste like wine. Fine sakes are closer to wine than beer in body, flavor, intensity, and complexity—there are complex, intoxicating aromas of fresh honeydew, pineapple, passion fruit, jasmine, sweetened cream, even vanilla bean.
Sakes taste best in stemmed wine glasses (9-12 ounces). If you want your guests to enjoy sakes at optimal quality, dispense with the touristy cups and boxes to bring out the finer qualities of sake.
Nuances of mineral and terroir are just as critical to appreciating the myriad sakes of Japan’s prefectures as they are for wines.
In Japan, drinking sake with sushi is considered the equivalent of drinking wine with grapes. The Japanese eat sushi as snack food, before or after main meals, and preferably with tea or beer. But they do enjoy sake with sashimi. Plan your sake meals around fuller-bodied foods such as pickled vegetables, pork, chicken, shellfish, and fish (grilled, steamed, or raw), or the heartier, more rustic dishes found in country-style Japanese restaurants.Highlights can include:
- A smoothly dry and light (14.5% alcohol) Momokawa Organic Ginjo, paired with fennel-marinated Scottish salmon, cucumber, ikura, microgreens, crème fraîche, and herb-mint oil. The oil and cream accent the sake’s silkiness, while the fennel and greens highlight the anise notes.
- An aggressive, densely textured Momokawa Organic Nigori, served with a sea-urchin flan topped with uni. This umami-rich, custardy dish has resounding notes of similarity in the creamy, full-bodied (16% alcohol) sake with tropical-fruit-on-stone flavors.
- The huge (18% alcohol), dry, fleshy, creamy-textured Momokawa G Joy Junmai Ginjo Genshu, served with coffee-marinated Japanese Wagu beef, mozzarella, parmigiano, caramelized onions, peppery cress, and creamy aioli.
For the same reasons, fine sakes are versatile enough to be taken out of Japanese or other Asian culinary contexts. Ingredients high in umami respond readily to the amino acids naturally found in these rice-derived beverages. Seafood and sea vegetables; fungi and aged cheeses; complex, slowly evolved stocks based on chicken, veal, and shellfish; the reductive aspects of braising, pot au feu, dashi, nages, and natural essences: any cooking process that elevates umami sensations can make food-and-sake pairing all the easier.