I REMEMBER THE night I became a sake guy.
It was a Friday. My wife and I were having friends over for dinner — scallops piccata with sauteed kale and pasta. On my way home from work, I stopped by my local bottle shop and was greeted by the dreaded question:
“What are you looking for?”
A confession: I’m just not that into wine. I’ve barraged my wine-inclined friends and family with questions about their preferences, had earnest conversations with sommeliers at lots of good restaurants, and visited vineyards in Tuscany. I’ve tried. The results: a palate incapable of detecting the difference between a Barolo or a Burgundy. I don’t even have a crystallized point of view on what I like or don’t like, besides the fact that white wine consumed in large quantities gives me heartburn and I’d rather drink out of a Spanish porrón for sport than for pleasure.
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Picking up on my mopey body language, the salesperson offered a reprieve: “Light, buttery fish like scallops pairs nicely with a sake.”
Sake, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, originated in Japan and dates back to 300 B.C. By the 1600s it was being manufactured, with rice beginning its transformation into sake when it is polished to remove the outer layer of the grain — the more of each grain that’s polished away, the more premium the product. The polished grains are then fermented, filtered, sterilized, stored, and bottled. The U.S. is the biggest export market for sake outside of Asia, yet the drink is still somewhat enigmatic to those stateside.
That Friday evening, I was guided toward a shelf that contained about a dozen different varieties, and it struck me: I couldn’t name or even recognize a single sake brand. I’d never even noticed it in a retail setting. As I later learned from Ben Bohen, owner of Waterfront Wines, I’m not alone: America is sorely undereducated when it comes to sake. In the U.S., the majority of sake is still consumed in restaurants, which is why the beverage, rapidly growing in popularity, was hit hard during the pandemic.
Think of the five recommendations below as a sake starter pack. They should comprise a well-rounded tour: different styles, different occasions, different tastes.
Before that fateful Friday, sake was a novelty beverage that I, too, drank steaming hot and quite begrudgingly at sushi joints and hibachi restaurants. Like many U.S. consumers, my taste in alcohol has become more refined. I buy only 100% agave tequila, have tried natural wine, and can name a few of the different kinds of hops in a good IPA. Yet I couldn’t cite a single small-talk-worthy fact about sake. I didn’t know what made some sakes taste so good, while others were hard to drink.
So what’s stopping Americans from enjoying sake at home? One hurdle for the average drinker, according to beverage consultant and sake-lover Matthew Rossiter, is a complex classification system that requires a bit of background knowledge to decode. Rossiter broke it down for me into three styles. The one most of us have encountered at our local sushi restaurant is Futsu-shu, a lower-quality table sake that one imbibes piping hot. The second is Honjozo, a premium sake that is fortified with small amounts of high-proof rice alcohol to enhance flavor. The third style, Junmai, is a premium brew of rice and water without the added rice alcohol.
After these general classifications, it starts to get more complicated, as each style has many subcategories within it, graded by how much of the rice bran is polished off before brewing. For example, Junmai Daiginjo is the most expensive type because it is the most polished: a minimum of 50% of each grain is removed before brewing.
Another challenge is that most sake labels are text heavy and written in Japanese. You don’t realize how often you go, “Oh, the one with the whale,” when trying to recall that amazing bottle of wine you drank. Sake producers are only just beginning to brand and package with the Western market in mind.
If my little corner of Brooklyn is any indication, sake is starting to break through. Bohen says that over the last 10 years, it's taken up more and more shelf space in his shop because more people are asking for it. He’s even started selling it in single-serve containers — RTD (ready to drink) in industry parlance — which means it is on its way to becoming more accessible, and soon, maybe even trendy.
After trying every sake on the shelf at Waterfront Wines, seeking out the craft sake brewed locally at Brooklyn Kura, and talking up anyone who knows a thing or two about the centuries-old fermented rice drink, I’ve finally reached small-talk status. As my cramped refrigerator will attest to, and my patient wife will confirm, I’m hooked.
Think of the four recommendations below as a sake starter pack. They should comprise a well-rounded tour of sake: different styles, different occasions, different tastes.
Yep, I totally fell for “the one with the fish.” One of the first bottles I ever bought outside a restaurant is still one of my favorites because it’s easy to remember, easy to drink, and easy on the wallet. I love beer, and the Tozai Living Jewel reminds me of a session IPA — the kind of crisp and clean palate that’s good for any occasion, pairing well with most anything you eat, and with enough of a peppery bite to crave more. SHOP NOW
Style: Junmai Daiginjo
Soto is produced in Japan and imported to the U.S., Canada, Caribbean, South America, and Europe. This brand was developed by a couple of Canadian marketers, one of which worked on premium brands like Grey Goose and D’Usse. Perhaps that’s why this is an excellent premium sake. It is ultraclean, vaguely floral, and has just enough texture to remind you that you’re drinking sake. I dipped into this one for a homemade saketini on New Year’s. SHOP NOW
Style: Junmai Ginjo
Producer: Brooklyn Kura
Made by one of few U.S.-based breweries, the Number Fourteen is a summer sake, in my humble opinion. It is sweet and balanced. Drink it cold while sitting outside scrolling through the NYT Cooking app until you find a fresh, seasonal dish to eat with your second glass. If you’re in the New York City area, have a glass at their brewery in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and then sample something delicious at one of the many great food stalls or restaurants at Industry City. SHOP NOW
Style: Junmai Nigori
Producer: Kurosawa Brewing Company
My wife and I have declared this a dessert sake. We aren’t sure whether you’re supposed to drink it after dinner, but it can easily suffice as a sweet post-meal treat. It is unfiltered, so shake it before you drink it and watch the clouds of sweet rice swirl through the bottle like an alcoholic snow globe. It reminded me of a creamy horchata, but with a whiff of lychee instead of the cinnamon. SHOP NOW
Corbin Brown Writer
Corbin Brown is the general manager of Departures. He has worked with technology, media, and commerce brands big and small as a strategy consultant. He spends his free time thinking about his next meal and pitching story ideas to patient Departures editors.
Ahonen & Lamberg Illustrator
Ahonen & Lamberg is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Paris. Founded in 2006 by Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg, the studio concentrates on art direction, creative consultancy, and graphic design.