You’d expect that a drink that looks like vodka, is made like beer and tastes like wine would have mass market appeal - but sadly, sake doesn’t get the love it deserves. Oh sure, it’s a staple of nights out at the sushi bar or hibachi grill, but how many people do you know who have a bottle of sake in their fridge?
Sake is a beverage of Japanese origin with a few simple ingredients – water, rice, yeast and a mold called koji. Sake resembles wine, but tends to be lighter in flavor, less acidic, higher in ABV and emblematic of umami – the fifth taste of “pleasant savoriness.” Labeling sake as “rice wine” would be a misnomer, however, since its production is more akin to brewing “rice beer.” Since rice does not contain sugar like wine grapes do, the rice cannot be fermented naturally by the yeast; it’s the koji that converts the starches to glucose, creating the sugar needed to produce alcohol.
It’s not easy to find sake in the East Bay, but I was able to sample some at Tong-D – a delicious Thai restaurant in Barrington. Though the sake menu was limited, it did have both hot and cold selections - in Japan sake can be served chilled, at room temperature or heated, depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the sake and the season. Heating sake will cause it to lose its flavor and aroma, thus typically only lower-quality sakes will be served warm.
My sake sampling day at Tong-D was a scorcher and I was seated in a spot that the air-conditioning seemed to bypass, so I ordered a chilled Gekkeikan to start. It arrived in a small carafe, accompanied by a cup smaller than a shot glass. I took a quick shot to quench my thirst, and then another to combat the heat and then another to... wait a minute, this was a tasting – I needed to slow down and show the sake brewers some respect. While the small serving cup is conducive to drinking quickly, shots do not allow you to appreciate the subtle flavors. Upon closer inspection, the sake was buttery smooth on the way down, with the finish of a light, crisp white wine.
After finishing my pad thai, I ordered the warm version of Gekkeikan – not really something I wanted to do given the heat, but duty called. The heated sake was equally as smooth, but noticeably less flavorful than its chilled predecessor. I haven’t drunk enough sake to know whether it was the brand, the act of heating or my general discomfort at the time that made that drink less pleasurable – but I suspect that I will stick to chilled sakes for future tastings for their more transparent flavors. It won’t be long until you’ll even find a bottle in my fridge.