Sake: It’s Not Just For Sushi Anymore

Returning today as a guest contributor is JD Wilson, who follows up on his sushi primer with an equally mouthwatering introduction to sake.

sake bar, sushi ran, sausalito
My first experience with sake was at the tender age of 19, with a steaming shot of hot sake chasing my very first piece of sushi. I recall thinking it tasted like boiling gasoline strained through a filthy sock. Fortunately time, experience and ever-adventurous taste buds have expanded that initial impression. These days, sake is, without a doubt, one of my favorite libations. Even the hot stuff.

And I’m not alone. Japanese restaurants, and specifically sushi joints, have become so popular over the last 20 years that it was inevitable for sake’s appeal to grow in tandem. According to Yoshi Tome, owner of Sushi Ran in Sausalito, these days Japanese restaurants in the U.S. have a much broader selection of sake available than in Japan itself.

Despite sake’s growing popularity, there’s still confusion over its different styles, and oftentimes a misguided impression that one is not too different than the next. In reality, sake varies as much as fine wine; from clear to cloudy to crisp and light to creamy and full-bodied. With a little background, diners can choose a glass or bottle of sake to replace a glass of wine, beer, or cocktail.

Sake is broken into a number of categories, both qualitatively and stylistically. Each style and characteristic of a given sake attributed to:

  • the percent of polish (or milling) of the rice grain
  • the amount of filtration
  • the water (clarity, minerality, etc.)
  • yeast, and
  • length of fermentation

Those elements, delicately balanced according to traditional practices, result in a number of types that pair beautifully not just with sushi, but with essentially any cuisine you can throw out there.

During a recent meal at Sushi Ran with Yoshi, we tasted a number of varieties as a hands-on immersion to the wide world of sake. Here are a few of Yoshi’s favorites for you to seek out and taste for yourself.

sake selection
The Oka sake we began with carried a 50 percent polish and was highly filtered. This is a daiginjo sake, a style that typically has sharp, fragrant nose that’s reflected in the clean, pretty quality on the palate—perfumed and floral with hints of candied cherry. Think of daiginjo as a parallel to more crisp white wines, such as Sancerre, and pair accordingly. It’s great with a seaweed salad, sashimi, and I imagine steamed seafoods and ripe fruits.

Second, a ginjo sake sampled was titled Omachi, named for the type of rice used in production. With slightly more polish, this sake held a more earthen quality on the nose and palate, a heavier mouthfeel similar to hot caramel, and a long, complex finish of dessert spices and what I mistakenly described to Yoshi as “terroir.”

In sake culture there is no real translation to that common wine, tea or coffee term—only more general references to the earth-laden qualities that certain rice varieties deliver through levels of polish and fermentation. Yoshi loves this sake as an all-around, everyday, “hail mary” option for indecisive diners (and himself). The Omachi was quietly approachable, not too alcoholic, and a broadly adaptable pairing sake.

Another style well worth trying is nigori, an unfiltered, sweet, milky sake that holds a lot of the rice flavors often filtered out in other varities. In Japan it’s considered the Pabst Blue Ribbon of sake, but in the U.S., nigori has found a soft spot with diners. It’s a more approachable “starter” sake and does well alongside most dishes, with higher residual sugars and a coconut milk weight. Takara is a widely available brand.

We next went to a Shichida sake with a 75 percent polish. This is junmai sake, a higher quality, and notably more smooth on the palate, which you could easily guess by the deep, rich, but gentle nose. The mouthfeel is quite heavy with a forward smack of minerality and deep earth tones, with a stronger heat from the alcohol. Think of junmai as sort of the red wine of sake.

Paired with decadent Vietnamese shaking beef, the junmai held up just fine to the rich, dark flavors and gravies. More and more it was clear to me that with a little education on this drink, you can use it successfully to pair with any dish imaginable. What was even more fun to see was adding a taste of a California Bordeaux-style blend as a pairing. The junmai still held up better as a compliment to the beef dish. Who knew?

Another Shichida sake, a Yamahai karakuchi style that we tasted cold, was then heated at Yoshi’s suggestion and paired alongside a miso-glazed black cod. The difference that the change in temperature created was quite surprising. Served cold, this slightly more acidic sake complemented the sweet, creamy flavor of the marinated cod. Served hot, it tasted nearly candylike, pairing wonderfully with the caramelized, smoky broil atop the fish.

I highly recommend experimenting similarly with the array of sakes available at your favorite sushi haunt. All too often most of us experience hot sake for the first time as a somewhat singular tasting, steamy shot (and what I once felt was a caustic substance.) And it’s true that many places offer a lesser grade of sake as their “house” hot sake that for first-timers doesn’t always sit well. This can all too often scare folks away from the product. Fortunately that is no longer necessary with the growing options out there, though you might want to request a finer quality sake be heated tableside.

When sipping and experimenting (perhaps even making your own cod with the recipe below), try this tip from Yoshi: serve your sake at home or request it be poured at a restaurant in a wine glass, preferably a Bordeaux bowl for larger pours or heavier sake, a dessert wine glass for smaller pours or more crisp sake. The little shot-glass type glasses many establishments serve from simply don’t allow the sake to develop in the glass or release a nose.

If you’re in the Bay Area and want to grab some sake to bring home, Yoshi recommends True Sake in San Francisco.

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  1. says

    My first experience with sake occurred at EPCOT’s Japan pavilion at the tender age of 21. A friend bought it, hoping it was one of the versions served cold. She has an aversion to heated drinks of any kind. No such luck, she handed it to me. We were ready to continue our drinking ’round the ‘World, so I pretty much drank that sake like it was a shot. I will never make that mistake again.

    My appreciation for sake has grown since then, but not in proportion to anything fish related (blech). However, I love this article. Thanks for the thorough and interesting sake lowdown!

  2. Jane Boursaw says

    I probably could be way MORE of a wine lover if I wanted to. I tend to shy away from it, because I’d probably want it all the time, and that wouldn’t be good either. Have never tried Sake, though.

  3. Sheryl says

    I’ve only cooked with sake; never had it as a drink maybe it’s time to give it a try!

  4. says

    Though I adore fine wines, I’ve never been a fan of sake. I have a best friend who I dine with frequently and she loves sake. I really should spend more time sampling the different varieties.

  5. Merr says

    Must say, your description of your first time with sake sounded identical to mine! This was a very interesting post…I learned a lot…also bookmarked it for the recipe.