Book Review: Getting to Know Saké

Brian Ashcroft (with tasting notes by Takashi Eguchi), The Japanese Saké Bible (Tuttle Publishing, 2020).

Saké has always been a mystery to me. I have only been served it a couple of times and never with much in the way of introduction. Lacking background and appreciation, I have generally defaulted to beer on occasions when Saké might have been the more interesting choice.

Getting to Know You

I never got over the first hurdle. The upscale supermarket down the street (the one that I wrote about in Wine Wars) displays Saké over in the corner next to the Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Vermouth. This is not necessarily a poor organization, since Sakés are generally fortified, but there is a certain ghetto effect, too.

I was surprised when I looked closely at the Saké wall and discovered more than two dozen choices, including two craft Saké selections by Momokawa in Oregon. Lots of choices –big bottles and very small ones at all sorts of price points. And while some of the terms on the bottles were familiar enough, the language barrier was impossible to ignore.

Clearly a resource like The Saké Bible  is needed to open the door to understanding and appreciation. The book, colorfully illustrated and written in a casual, engaging way, provides a good introduction for newbies like me without ignoring the interests of  more experienced Saké drinkers.

Getting to Know All About You

We begin at the beginning. What is Saké? It isn’t beer even though it is brewed and it isn’t rice wine as is sometimes said. Saké is Saké. It is made with five ingredients, according to Ashcroft, but in ten thousand ways. The ingredients are rice, water, koji, yeast, and soil (so terroir is part of the story for some Saké). Koji is a fungus that breaks down the rice’s starch into sugar during the brewing process.  Each ingredient has many variables and options, adding to the product’s complexity.

I found something interesting on every page of this book. Some of my favorite parts are the chapters that trace the evolution of the Saké industry from  temple to small breweries to producers with global reach. Craft Saké is a thing now, as you might guess, and so both tradition and innovation are flourishing in Japan and around the world (Saké is brewed in Brooklyn these days — of course!).

I was also fascinated by the chapter on tasting Saké and pairing it with food as well as the detailed tasting notes for 100 top drawer products. The tasting notes encouraged me to think in terms of wine, which I found comforting. But there were some complications because Saké can be enjoyed at many different temperatures — and getting the chill right can be important.

One of my favorite tasting notes explained that a particular Saké  displayed a brightness when chilled, but evolved with syrupy apricot sweetness at warm room temperature. Served piping hot it had a mellow silkiness like milk chocolate. But in between room temp and hot was a no fly zone — “rather unpleasant” according to the notes. Interesting.

Getting to Know What to Say

The Saké Bible tells you everything you need to know about Saké in theory, but where do you begin in practice? From a practical standpoint, which of the many Sakés on the shelf is best for a newbie consumer? The cheapest? The most expensive? The one with the prettiest bottle or label? (Some of them are very attractive).

I wrote to author Brian Ashcroft for advice and he told me to begin at the beginning, just as most of us did with wine when we were starting out.

The drink itself is incredibly approachable and unintimidating. To be honest, start there. Try sake. Drink it. Don’t get bogged down. Find what you like. If you enjoy a specific type or brand, make a note and remember it for next time. But as with wine, always be willing to try more. For any food or drink, your senses are your best guide, and the more experience you have with the drink, the more you’ll appreciate the various brands and styles. The good thing is that there is lots of breathing room in how you enjoy the drink because one of the best things about sake is just how flexible it is–you can drink brews at a variety of temperatures, in different style cups and glasses, and with a range of food. Experiment. Explore. Have fun.

Have fun! That sounds like good advice. So, armed with The Saké Bible, I returned to my upscale supermarket in search of a particular style of Saké called Ginjo. Ginjo is made with highly polished rice, giving it a more delicate and refined flavor. It is good both at room temperature and chilled. Expect fruity or floral flavors.

Getting to Like You

The clerk at my store told me they sold quite a lot of Saké. My choice was a 300 ml bottle of Shirayuki Junmai Ginjyo Saké made by Konishi Brewing Co. in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, which is a historic center of Saké production. Ginjyo is the style, Junmai means that it is made with rice only in the classic tradition.

Served chilled, the nose was full of melon aromas, with melon and cream on the palate. Creamy texture. I could sense the warmth of alcohol, but no harshness. Surprising and much different from my vague memories of previous Saké experiences.

I don’t know how far I’ll go in my exploration of Saké.  I feel like I have only scratched the surface of wine and that wine not Saké is likely to be my focus for years to come. But, for me, trying to get up to speed with Saké is important because I think it might help me understand something about the barriers that wine consumers face when they start out.

Things I’m Learning About You

Think back to your first experience with wine. Unless you had a patient guide you probably stumbled over hurdles of various sorts and sizes, including vast number of choices, wide range or price points, foreign terminology, government health warnings, and the occasional need for specialized equipment just to open the bottle.

Everyone is a newbie at some point and maybe the wine industry needs to give a bit more attention to lowering hurdles for the next consumer generation. Jamie Goode recently pointed out that, for most people, the first taste of wine wasn’t a thrilling experience. How can we give newbie consumers the confidence they need to take a second sip?

Two Buck Chuck worked a miracle drawing a generation of cautious consumers into wine. Now I wonder if they might go for hard seltzer instead, which is far from a gateway to wine.

Have fun! Are there other things we can learn from the success of Saké and its growing global following? Food (or maybe drink) for thought!

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Getting to know you? Here are the singing Lennon Sisters, just in case you didn’t catch all the musical references above. Enjoy!

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