In the not-so-distant past, sake in the U.S. was served piping hot at the local sushi bar and ranged in flavor from mildly pleasing to potentially flammable. That was industrial-quality brew, made on a mass scale. The good stuff, handmade in Japan in small batches for centuries, has been much harder to find here – until now. Over the past decade, the amount of sake imported from Japan has more than doubled. Today there are as many styles to choose from as there are Japanese sake breweries (about 1,300 at last count), boasting a range of flavors from the delicate and floral to the robust and earthy.
It's not easy to make rice, yeast, and water taste this good. The heavy lifting is done by the toji, or brewmaster, and his crew, who shape the flavor of the sake during its long and complex fermentation process. Their ethereal sakes, which in the old days would have been unknown outside their hometowns, are a revelation. "When you drink sake like this," says New York sake expert Linda Noel Kawabata, "rice is the last thing you think of."
Unfortunately, sake menus and labels, which can contain a dizzying amount of information, won't be very helpful as you start sampling. There is no fixed template for naming sakes; sometimes a brand is listed with a brewery or a region of origin, but not always. Then come the classifications, which designate how a sake was made – How much was the rice polished? Was alcohol added? Is it filtered? – but don't indicate much about its quality or how it will taste. (Junmai daiginjo sakes, for example, are the most delicate and therefore most expensive sakes, but they're not necessarily the best.) What this all boils down to: You can study the nomenclature (see "Know your terms," below), but the only way to know which sakes are good is to taste as many as possible. Launch Gallery >>
Photograph by Grant Cornett
Try old-fashioned sake.
Making kimoto-style sake is backbreaking work – huge vats of rice are stirred by hand – but the payoff is a bold, rustic drink with lots of body and funky flavor. This method was the norm before the 1900s, but is rarely used today. Brewing since the 17th century, Hinomaru makes a kimoto that tastes like a mouthful of mushrooms. Enjoy it at room temperature or warmed.
Credit: Photograph by Grant Cornett