Sushi has officially conquered America. What once seemed wildly exotic—it’s not even cooked?—is now sold at gas stations.
Yet there remains a page on most Japanese menus to leave us baffled: the sake list. Yes, when forced to choose between junmai and nama, the average America will say, “Beer!”
Luckily, John Gauntner is here to help. So as Japan’s centuries-old Seijin Shiki (Coming of Age Ceremony) approaches (it’s January 12, people!), let the author of Sake Confidential and the only non-Japanese Master of Sake Tasting expand your horizons. Booze-wise, anyway…
“No brewer ever made something and said, ‘This sake just sucks: Let’s heat it to hide the flaws.’ ”
1. Look for the word ginjo on the label. “If you do that, you’re drinking the top 10 percent of all sake,” notes Gauntner. While he’s quick to add that there’s value in non-ginjo, it’s an easy way to ensure a good bottle. “If you want to splurge, look for daiginjo, which is basically ‘ginjo to die for.’ ”
2. Get that ginjo slightly chilled. “There are exceptions, but most of the time slightly chilled is what you want for your premium sake.” Some premium sake should be “gently warmed.” More on temperature in just a…
3. Hot sake gets a bad rap. Many people believe sake is heated so the temperature hides its low quality. In fact, Japan produces some premium sake specifically meant to be served warm: “No brewer ever made something and said, ‘This just sucks: Let’s heat it to hide the flaws.’ ” That said, in America, if it’s hot, best not.
4. Cost and quality are directly related. “If one sake costs eight bucks and one costs 30, you can safely say the 30-dollar sake is better.” Gauntner estimates the pricing holds true 90 percent of the time in America, so to wow your date, open your wallet. Luckily…
5. There’s a price sweet spot. Gauntner is reluctant to offer specific dollar amounts for restaurants (“The markups are not consistent”), but when it comes to retail suggests you don’t go below $15 and notes that “between 25 to 40” is a fine range to maximize your money. “Once you get above $100, the law of diminishing returns kicks in with a vengeance.”
6. It’s fit for any feast. “Traditionally people in Japan people didn’t go out of their way to do well thought-out pairings the way they might in the wine world.” Why? They didn’t have to. “Sake is a very food friendly beverage. Rarely will you have a big clash with sake: you don’t have really high acidity or really high tannins that would cause clashes.”
7. Remember, sake is for sharing. “Sake has much less etiquette than in the wine world. About the only rule is that you don’t pour for yourself. Pour for those you’re drinking with and they pour for you. That’s why there’s such small glasses in sake, because people actively pour for each other.”
Now get out there and start pouring.
Thirsty for more knowledge? Check out Gauntner’s new book, Sake Confidential.