Friday, April 9, 2010

A World Beyond Saké Bombs… Finally!

“Kanpai,” we shout a little too loudly as we joyously clink our baby teacups together shooting the warm yet slightly bitter rice wine quickly to the backs of our throats and down to our waiting and eager bellies. Another,” Kanpai”, followed by the token glass clink, but this time, the mini teacups full of steaming hot wine are dropped into our ice cold, tall glasses of Japanese beer (we called it a Saké Bomb), which we guzzle as if we’d been wandering a dry, dusty desert for days, our mouths parched with thirst. Our livers swollen with alcohol, we always added a bit of rice, seaweed and fish to the mix, just to keep things from sounding liked a badly dubbed Kung-fu movie where nothing moves in synchrony, and ultimately, to keep things down. Yes, those were my early experiences of rice wine—gloriously long high school and college meals of cheap sushi, saké and beer that typically got a bit out of control and were never much about food or wine appreciation. Such is high school and college, I guess.

Flash forward nearly 20 years and I’ll be honest, I haven’t consumed much saké since those earlier and more reckless days. Recently however, my good friend and winemaker for Anne Amie Vineyards recommended I try saké and encouraged me to specifically visit Saké One in Hillsboro to taste both their wines and their imported specials. So as a part of my quest and journey, I set out for the education of a lifetime; Tony from Saké One gave me my first and very valuable lessons.

Lesson #1: Drink your saké room temperature to slightly chilled. The piping hot saké served in sushi restaurants is served that way to mask the flaws, making it more palatable.

I then learned Lesson #2: Current leading experts agree, using a wine glass instead of a thimble is the preferable way to imbibe. Men, you’ll be pleased to know you don’t need to feel like you’re at a child’s tea party with your dainty pinky finger hanging out in Nowhereland. Wrap all of your manly digits around a real glass and enjoy. Saké stemware is available for sale and if you’re hosting a sushi party, it can add that fun level of authenticity (kind of like chopsticks verses silverware, I suppose), but it’s not necessary and any old white wine glass will really do.

Tony went on to teach me how saké is made with only four ingredients: water, rice, yeast and Koji-kin (a mold which helps convert the rice into fermentable sugars). Saké One uses domestic U.S. rice with Japanese yeast, while more traditional Japanese sakés use different varieties of rice to produce different flavor profiles. The water is another key component, brewers look for both purity and mineral content to impact sake’s flavor.

Although called rice wine, it’s probably a closer relative to the beer family since it’s made from fermented grains instead of fruit. And like beer, saké is best when consumed fresh, while in its youth, as opposed to being aged.

Saké One offers a food pairing flight, which I highly recommend. Similar to wine (and beer), the saké tasting experience is enhanced by thoughtful and complemented food pairings. I personally tasted through their portfolio without the food, but I wonder if my experience might have been different if I had tasted the different sakés with their suggested combinations. Would I have come away a saké convert?

Sake One is the only American owned sakery in the world. Their wines are bottled in eco-friendly glass, with bamboo labels, making them an excellent example of the Oregon wine industry’s commitment to being a part of the environmental solution. In addition to their Ginjo Junmai (pure rice) sakes, they also make fun infused sakes of Asian pear, coconut lemongrass, raspberry and plum. They encourage fans to experiment with their elixirs, and invented a series of Sakétinis adding a whole new dimension to mixology.

If you’re ever anywhere in the vicinity of Hillsboro, Oregon, I emphatically encourage you to visit Saké One —even if you don’t like saké… and sadly and admittedly, I don’t even though I enjoyed every minute of my stay. So, after visiting and tasting the real goods, I can wholeheartedly say, sorry Thomas, I’ve still yet to acquire a taste for rice wine. I did equate it to what it would be like drinking a real, handcrafted ale for the first time though—discovering there was a world beyond MGD—and I will certainly try saké again. With sakery tours daily, Saké One is a must-visit… look forward to both an education and an experience you won’t soon forget. Until we sip again…


For more information about Saké and a great read (except for the wisecrack comment about wine being made by monkeys) check out Joe's SixPack.


Joshua S. Sweeney said...

Awesome primer on sake, Tamara. I'm just now getting into it myself, and I'm enthralled by it. After taking a chance and spending more than $15 on a bottle, I have to say that it's more than worth it.

Mary Cressler said...

I've done a Saké One sample pack (about 4 different Sakés) and served them, yes, chilled. I must say I liked them MUCH better than the Saké I drank in college (mostly pipping hot Saké primarily for Saké bombs), but like you, I'm still not convert. I'll try it whenever it's presented, and I can appreciate it... but it's no substitution for wine made from grapes (for me).

Vinoculture said...

Great post about an often misunderstood subject! I'm in the same boat as both you and Mary on this one - I just have not been converted.... But, that said, I tried a really interesting distilled Saké at House Spirits in PDX earlier this week (stocking up for our self-proclaimed "Summer of the Cocktail"). They have not released it yet - so we could only do a "media/trade tasting", but Whoa Nellie! THAT will convert me. It's called Shochu. The alcohol content is about 25%, it's mellow and complex, with just a hint of vinegar on the nose. Great stuff - I think they used a Saké One base. You should get in there and try it if you get half a chance - totally worth it!

todd merkel said...

great post T. I've been drinking SAke for years, since living in japan when I was in the marines.. and i've NEVER had it hot.. that's for amateurs.

SakeOne has some pretty darn good stuff too.

Amy's a fan of the unfiltered stuff.. I like to call it sperm sake.. because.. well, you know why.

Remind me to make you a sake martini this summer.. you'll love it!!!

Caitlin Ronning said...

I love love love Sake One! Such a great option for something different than wine tasting! Be sure to check out their summer music schedule!

Sip with Me! said...

Joshua, glad you stopped by - I guess I'm gonna have stick with it and keep trying them!

Mary, thanks for your comment, perhaps we should do a saké tasting with our group?

Todd, you continue to surprise me - I did suspect you lived in the Far East somewhere, I didn't peg you for a marine! Could hardly drink the Nigiri, cause I think it really was sperm wine and I can't wait to try your saketini this summer, bring it!!

Caitlin, you are so right! What a breath of fresh air in the valley of Pinot noir. Thanks for the tip on their summer music program and thanks for visiting my blog!! I hope you'll come back again soon!