Sake to ya
The fine-grained details of Japanese rice wine
“This would be a lot of fun if we were already wasted,” my friend Travis says as Nicole sets the chopsticks over our beers.
Nicole Hewson, a bartender at Sushi Pier 2, explains to us the proper way to do sake bombs. Set two chopsticks parallel over your beer, leaving about half an inch between. Set the shot-glass sized cup of sake over the chopsticks. Yell, “Sake!” Next, slam the table while yelling, “Bomb!”
“That’s the tradition we got going here,” Hewson says.
The sake cups fall in our beer glasses, spilling beer all over Travis and I as we race to finish our drinks.
It’s Travis’s first time drinking sake. And while I have spent many an afternoon getting wasted on sake bombs over a sushi lunch, I never took the time to learn about the Japanese rice wine. It’s really a complex drink, even though it usually has only three ingredients: rice, water and koji mold, which converts the starch from the rice into fermentable sugars, creating the alcohol. Less traditional, or “Americanized” sakes sometimes have flavors added to them. Lower quality sakes sometimes have alcohol added to them, as well.
The first rule of choosing a high quality sake is knowing how “polished” the rice is. Hewson explains that sake brewers polish down the grains of rice, and the more polished they are, the better. This is because the starches that ferment into alcohol are concentrated at the center of the rice grain.
With Ultra Premium sake, or Junmai Daiginjo, rice grains are polished to half their original size, sometimes even down to one-fourth. Junmai Daiginjo sakes are usually the most expensive.
Premium, or Junmai Ginjo, sake rice grains are polished to 60 percent of their original size.
Pure Rice, or Junmai, sake rice grains are polished to 70 percent of their original size.
Sake at Sushi Pier 2 costs anywhere from $25 for a 300 ml. bottle of top-shelf sake to $3.25 for a small carafe —about four drinks worth— of the generic warm sake, which is what we used for sake bombs.
Also important when choosing a sake is deciding whether you want a filtered or “unfiltered,” Nigori, sake. Hewson explains that Nigori sakes are filtered, “just not to the extent that it’s clear.”
Whereas filtered sakes usually have a bitter, raw alcohol taste, Nigori sakes are sweet and have a cloudy, milky color and texture. Travis and I both came to the conclusion that Nigori sakes taste kind of like coconut milk, which we liked.
Contrary to popular belief, sake is not always served warm. In fact, out of 17 different types of sake at Sushi Pier 2, only one is served warm. Most sakes are served either chilled or at room temperature.
Traditionally, sake is drunk out of shot-glass sized cups—you can either sip or drink it like a shot—and poured from a carafe. In Japanese culture, Hewson says, it’s customary to pour the drink for the person next to you, but not your own.
The alcohol content of most sakes is 12 to 16 percent, with some as high as 18 percent. Flavored sakes are around 6 to 8 percent alcohol. One bar-goer described it as a sneak-up drink—it doesn’t really have too much of a kick to it, so you keep drinking it, and by the time you stand up, you’re drunk.
Also popular are sake cocktails—everything from dirty martinis to Bloody Marys, but with sake instead of the regular liquor.