It's prime time for revisiting thisRoy's way: Chef Roy Yamaguchi plans his own line of sake.
classic brew -- but don't ever
drink it hot again
Taking it home: Where to buy sake and what to choose.
By Betty Shimabukuro
IMAGINE yourself as a cartoon drawing. There's a cartoon lightbulb over your cartoon head and -- click! -- it just switched on.
This is you, after your first sip of a truly fine sake.
Aficionados of this classic Japanese brew say an initial experience with premium sake is like that -- an epiphany, a revelation ... enlightenment.
Ah, but there is a frown on your cartoon face. You do not believe. You are remembering an experience with a hot, harsh sake, which you drank only to be polite or because you didn't know any better.
The time has come to try again.
World-class sake is making its way into local restaurants, where it is being served with a higher degree of sophistication and knowledge.
And it's not just Japanese restaurants. Chef Roy Yamaguchi finds sake to be such a good match for his Hawaii Regional Cuisine that he is developing his own sake brew, to be sold in his international chain of restaurants and in retail stores by year's end (more on this later).
It's a trend spreading across the nation, but starting here. Many of the premium sakes showing up in Hawaii are unavailable on the mainland, and hard to find even in Japan.
"Over the last few months, Hawaii has become one of the best places in the world to explore fine sake," says Chris Pearce, author of "The Joy of Sake" and perhaps the foremost authority on the subject locally.
Pearce is a director of Kokusai Sake Kai, a club organized to increase awareness of sake. It's a small group with a closed membership, but Pearce says members have exposed hundreds of people to good sake, while drinking quite a bit themselves.
Another club goal, though, has been to make a better class of sake available in the islands.
So Pearce formed World Sake Imports, its mission to bring premium sakes to Hawaii.
With most commodities, this would simply mean locating the producers and coming up with the capital to buy their products. Not so with sake.
"The people who produce it are the kings and those who distribute it and consume it are the commoners," Pearce says.
He had to visit breweries in Japan, make the case that he knew his stuff and would handle their sakes properly. After a few months, premium bottles started arriving.
Cherry Co., a Japanese food wholesaler, deals in less exclusive types of sake, but vice president Tetsuo Inabe says he also has seen an interest in better sakes among restaurants and retail outlets such as Daiei and Marukai.
These higher grades, called ginjo and daiginjo, must be kept cool and are damaged by harsh lights, so they are harder to handle, Inabe says. But for the last three years, sales have been increasing, as customers become better educated. "They now understand the different quality."
Sake basicsStep 1 in the appreciation of sake: Drink it cold. The hot sake concept is based on the hope that heat will soften the rough edges of a low-quality brew.
"Hot sakes are sort of like jug wine," says Shep Gordon, who is working with Yamaguchi on his sake project. "It's a nice thing and there's nothing wrong with it ..." but it's not the good stuff.
Premium sakes have all the variation and sophistication of great wine. "There is a quality and finesse in these really good sakes that you'll find in really fine European wines," Pearce says.
They are soft, clean, balanced, sometimes floral or fruity, "and they fade away to the back of the mouth with no cloying aftertaste."
Cheap sakes can be had for a few dollars a bottle, but better sakes sell for at least $20 for 720 milliliters -- and prices can reach well over $100.
At that cost, you'll want to treat it kindly. This means refrigeration as soon as you get it home.
For those who insist on taking the chill off before drinking, Pearce repeats the Japanese wisdom: Warm it gently, to a temperature "like the inside of a widow's thigh."
The Hawaii connectionChief among reasons that Japanese brewers are willing to export to Hawaii is the legacy of Takao Nihei, brewmaster for the old Honolulu Sake Brewery and Ice Co. For 80 years beginning in 1908, the brewery produced a well-respected sake called Takara Masamune.
Pearce says it is largely because he had the blessing of Nihei's widow, Misayo, that he succeeded in Japan. "Mrs. Nihei said I was OK -- so they were positively disposed."
Alan Kido, Nihei's son-in-law, says Nihei went on to become a consultant in Napa Valley to Hakusan, a sake that still bears a strong resemblance to Nihei's clean, robust Takara blend.
The site of the old brewery in Pauoa has been taken over by housing and sake is no longer produced in Hawaii.
Kido, an attorney and member of Kokusai Sake Kai -- "I'm on the board because I'm the son-in-law and I like to drink sake"-- helps maintain the family heritage through an annual collaboration with Chef Russell Siu of 3660 on the Rise.
The two produce a sake dinner each July to mark the Japanese Star Festival, Tanabata -- the seventh day of the seventh month.
Over four years, the event has succeeded in changing many people's minds about sake, Kido says. "When we started out, people were curious. Everyone had a past experience with sake that was so-so ... they were saying, 'I don't really like it.' " No more.
Sake cuisineSake is meant to be enjoyed with food, and is a good match for just about anything Japanese -- and for many other cuisines. The only problem might be a dish with a very rich sauce.
Chef Shuji Abe of Furusato Japanese Restaurant experimented with sake-food pairings for the many years of his friendship with brewmaster Nihei.
Abe says sakes with fruity, rich aromas go well with salty, spicy foods; full-flavored, robust varieties go with tempura and other fried dishes.
For ideas, consider a few of the dishes Abe prepared for a recent sold-out sake seminar sponsored by the University of Hawaii's Outreach College:
Ika Shiokara, squid treated with salt and koji (the mold used in the making of sake), then flavored with sake and allowed to percolate for several days.
Kushiyage, a skewer of shrimp, quail egg and onion, coated in panko and fried.
Uzura Tsukunenabe, meatballs of ground quail (bones included) in a broth made with sake.
These are not dishes for the novice cook, but you could order them at a restaurant while getting to know sake.
The point is, try, Abe says. And always, to drive home the point, drink it cold.
"Customers try the cold sake ..." he pauses to search for a phrase in English. "Good sake, good fun -- yeah?"
By definition: Sake is a fermented drink made from rice, often called rice wine.
Alcohol content: Normally 15-16 percent, but may go as high as 20 percent, compared to 3-6 percent for beer and 9-12 percent for most wines.
The rice: There are about 20 types used for sake; all are larger than table rice, with a concentrated starchy core
Critical component: Koji, a special mold used to ferment sake.
Sake is graded by how much of the outer layers of the rice grain are milled away to remove impurities and reveal the starchy core:
GIMME A GINJO
Junmai: Considered "pure rice sake," this is the basic, inexpensive brew, with 30 percent of the rice grain removed.
Ginjo: "Premium"; 40 percent or more removed.
Daiginjo: "Super-premium"; at least 50 percent removed. The remaining core is the size of the head of a pin.
Yamaguchi to enterBy Betty Shimabukuro
ROY Yamaguchi loves sake, but doesn't serve it in his restaurants, because the image just isn't right.
A drink delivered to the table in a little glass just isn't appealing to a wine-drinking crowd, he says.
Solution: Come up with his own sake line and package the product in a way that compliments his international chain of restaurants (to total 22 by year's end).
"What we want to do is introduce good, premium sake with good food," Yamaguchi says.
The sake -- tentatively named Y, for Yamaguchi -- will be made by the Momokawa brewery in Oregon, and will be a daiginjo, or premium sake.
The line will launch by the end of the year with two varieties, one slightly more acidic to better handle the chef's more robust sauces. Yamaguchi also plans to market it in retail stores.
Y sake will carry the Yamaguchi touch. It will come in a 375-milliliter bottle, half the usual size, and will be corked (sake normally has a screwtop).
This way it can be presented at the table like wine. "I think this is important to the atmosphere," Yamaguchi says.
The smaller bottle might also encourage customers to try both types, he says.
Yamaguchi's partner in this project is Shep Gordon, who helped rock star Sammy Hagar formulate his Cabo Wabo tequila.
Gordon says he thought the time was right for an "image brand" sake, bearing the endorsement of a famous personality.
Yamaguchi's style of cuisine, plus his success as a restaurateur made him a good choice, Gordon says. Plus, "he has some blood in him from the place where sake started."
The chef does have a long history with this drink. "I was born and raised in Japan and one of the first beverages I ever drank -- illegally -- was sake."
In the 20 years since, he's tried many types of sakes in countless flavors, incidentally learning not to drink it hot -- "We used to almost boil the sake."
Although he designed it for restaurant presentation, Yamaguchi plans to retail his sake internationally. "Maybe I'll even bring it to Japan and see what they think about it."
The best sakes are not easily available in retail stores, but if going to a restaurant is too much trouble or expense, here are some suggestions:
Rainbow Country Liquors: At Eighth Avenue and Waialae in Kaimuki, carries the premium sakes of Chris Pearce's World Sake Imports. Check out the refrigerator case in the back of the store. Prices range from $20 to $72.
Alan Wong's Hawaii Regional Marketplace: Fourth floor, Liberty House, Ala Moana, also stocks premium sakes in a refrigerated case.
Look for sake that's refrigerated, or at least stored near the refrigerator cases, where it is cooler. Sake in boxes (protected from light) is also preferred.
Here are brand recommendations from Pearce and Tetsuo Inabe of the wholesaler Cherry Co. They can be found at stores such as Daiei:
Kikumasamune: A junmai sake, about $10 for 720 milliliters.
Kikusui: A higher grade ginjo sake, about $25 for 720 milliliters.
Masumi: A junmai sake, about $46 for 1.8 liters.
Hakusan: Junmai sake made in Napa Valley. Hawaii brewmaster Takao Nihei consulted in its design. About $7.50 for 720 milliliters.
In print: "The Insiders Guide to Sake," by Philip Harper, Kodansha International, 1998
Online: http://www.joyofsake.com or http://www.sakeusa.com
Chris Pearce recommends these restaurants for trying a variety of high-quality sakes with Japanese food:
Furusato Japanese Restaurant, Hyatt Regency Waikiki
Hakone, Waikiki Prince Hotel
Miyako Restaurant, New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel
Kacho, Waikiki Parc Hotel
Sushi Masa, Ward Centre
Imanas Tei, University Avenue
Tokkuritei, Sheridan Street
L'Uraku, Kapiolani Boulevard near Ala Moana
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