Editor's Note: Welcome to Sake School! Your professor will be Monica Samuels, who has trained with American Sommelier Association and the Sake Education Council. She was part of the first group to pass John Gauntner's SPC II Advanced Sake Specialist exam in 2008. She is also a Sake Educator for New York Vintners in Tribeca. Before her current role as Sake Ambassador for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York, Monica was the National Sake Sommelier for the SUSHISAMBA restaurant group. —The Mgmt.
Sake has been available in the U.S. for many decades; however, only in the past 20 years or so have we gained access to premium sake, which has opened the category up to a world of possibilities in food pairing and ways of consumption. Still, many myths about sake persist. Today, we'll debunk four very common ones.
Myth #1: Sake is a rice wine
Sake is alcohol made from a fermented grain. The evolution of starch to sugar to alcohol in sake is most similar to the process of making beer. Sake is made in sake breweries, and sake producers are referred to as brewers. Not only is it incorrect to label sake as rice wine, but it creates the impression that sake belongs in the ranks of cheap cooking wines like mirin and michiu.
Myth #2: Sake is only for sake bombs
If you've been to college-town sushi restaurants, you've probably seen kids getting wasted after one too many "sake bomb." They perch a sake glass on two chopsticks laid across a glass of beer. Everyone seated at the table pounds their fists on the table in unison and the glass falls into the beer. The whole drink is then consumed as quickly as possible.
It's also common to see sake served hotter than a cup of coffee, in a ceramic carafe with thimble-like vessels designed to knock the sake back in one gulp, boiling hot and devoid of all flavor. It's my firm belief that both these pastimes originated due to the lack of decent sake in the U.S.
We are now fortunate, though, to have access to hundreds of delicious premium sakes, and it would be a shame to serve them in a way that masked the flavor. It's a bit like choosing wine for sangria: when you make sangria, you mask most of the flavor of the wine with fruit and brandy. There's no reason to use a terribly fancy bottle. Similarly, if your sake is going to end up in the microwave or drowning in a pint of beer, you won't really taste it. But when you're lucky enough to be drinking the good stuff, take the opportunity to savor the flavors.
Myth #3: Sake causes disastrous hangovers
Excessive drinking of any type of alcohol will eventually cause a hangover. But there seems to be quite a bit of confusion regarding the alcohol level of sake. Sake yeast is only capable of fermenting a beverage until it reaches 20% alcohol, and the sake is usually diluted afterward to bring down the level of alcohol to 14 to 18% (closer to wine than to vodka, which is usually 35 to 70% alcohol.) This helps make sake food-friendly (and a beverage more suitable for sipping than slamming, which you should keep in mind if you want to avoid a hangover.) Premium sake also has no sulfites, additives or preservatives. Some people seem to be sensitive to sulfite presence in wine, but can avoid it by drinking sake instead.
Myth #4: Sake is cheap
Large format bottles of table sake are pretty inexpensive, but the same is not true for premium sakes, which are very expensive to produce.
Consumers who purchase sake in stores should expect to pay an average of $25/bottle (720ml) for a premium sake. It should be remembered that while a bottle of wine is considered by most to yield four glasses, a bottle of sake generally yields at least six. Also, while a bottle of wine should be consumed as quickly as possible and generally spoils within a few days, sake is more forgiving. If it is re-capped quickly after each opening and stored refrigerated, sake can be enjoyed for a couple of weeks after opening without too much change in flavor.
The best way to make yourself more comfortable around this exotic brew is to taste, taste, and taste some more. If you have sake questions, feel free to leave them in the comments. I'll have lots of answers for you in the coming weeks!