More Kampai, Less Hassle

A sake tipsheet for impressing your date at a sushi restaurant.

Sake is my Waterloo, the one thing that as a bartender I never could sell successfully. No matter how stellar my list was, people shied away from it. As long as sake confounds people, it'll never become the trend that glossy magazines keep predicting. Sake is brewed like beer, yet it possesses subtle aroma and flavor profiles similar to wine. Cheap sake is served warm for the same reason cheap beer is best served ice cold. Better-quality sake drinks chilly. But I'm no snob—I appreciate both. A cooling glass of top-quality sake can inspire as much poetic waxing as a pinot noir. But in winter, few drinks provide more instant gratification than hot sake shooters. I pay for good sake only in a place that sells a lot of it. As with wine, the taste of sake diminishes the longer the bottle has been open. But even my sake training leaves me out in the cold when confronted with a list of unfamiliar Japanese names. The following sakes, which are widely available in sushi bars and represent a variety of styles, remain my standbys. Forget the classifications of sake at first. They don't really help the occasional imbiber. (If you're curious, however, junmai indicates sake created from only rice, with no added distilled alcohol; in terms of quality, junmai-daiginjo is generally better than junmai-ginjo is better than plain junmai.) Sho Chiku Bai is a fantastic and versatile junmai sake—dry, light, and very complex for the price ($8 for 750 milliliters). The first sake I ever loved was Otokoyama ($18 for 720 milliliters). Delicate and pretty, with a light, nutty brown-rice quality, this junmai sake feels very rich in the mouth and plays well with sashimi and light fish dishes. Risking ire from traditionalists, I think Momokawa's Diamond junmai-ginjo sake ($10 for 750 milliliters), from Forest Grove, Ore., is the best affordable sake on the market. It's bright and fruity, slightly off-dry, and a great match to tempura and soy-heavy dishes. Nigori, or "pearl" sake, is a special class of unfiltered sake still riddled with a haze of rice. It is usually a little sweet and very fruity. Sayuri ($7 for 300 milliliters), a new bottling from the high-quality sushi-bar staple Hakatsuru, is sweet and fresh, and goes perfectly with simple flavors and grilled meats. Sake also has one thing over wine: Many bottles print a flavor profile chart on their labels. Find a winner and you can search for like-tasting bottles in the store. Or simply test my standbys, then tell your server with confidence, "I like the basic Sho Chiku Bai, dry and light. Do you have something else I can try?"

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