Sake is the soccer of beveragesardently appreciated everywhere but America, yet always on the verge of making it stateside. Breakthrough seemed imminent back in the mid-’80s, as handcrafted sake made a comeback in Japan. Then the sake flood ebbed. Uwajimaya once more was the only place to buy premium imported sakes, while most Japanese restaurants continued offering generic industrial sake, the briny equivalent of Uncle Ben’s rice.
Now sake’s sun is rising again. Japanese restaurants seem declass頩f they don’t offer some premium imports. Larry’s Markets sell a few varieties. Breweries in California and Oregon offer a range of affordable styles, though their products tend to be heavy and one-dimensional (like California wine back when). And last month one fearless wine bar, Madison Park’s Impromptu Wine Bar, took a break from the grape to host what may have been this town’s first formal sake tasting.
The outcome was encouraging: Despite a $36 price (prompted by the cost of the sakes sipped), two sessions sold out. Attendees who’d only known sake as hot and generic sniffed out the nuances of five chilled sakes with such exotic names as Fukucho (“Moon on the Water,” about $35) and Rihaku Nigori (“Dreamy Clouds,” about $27), served (sparingly) in Western wineglasses rather than traditional ceramic cups or cedar boxes.
Good sake’s nuances are unendingly varied; hints of licorice, cardamom, citrus, pear, tea, and almond leapt up in that short series of sips. Like Zen and haiku, sake delivers in sudden “ah-has” an illusion of piercing clarity, high peaks, and cool, spruce-scented breezes.
Sake’s refinement spells relief from hangovers; though hardly tasteless like vodka, it lacks the congeners that often leave headaches and regret when the elation of whisky has passed. This goes a little way toward balancing its more insidious aspect: It’s strong as port or sherry and goes down much more easily. Leave it to the Japanese to maximize fuel efficiency in fermentation as in internal combustion; brewed to 20-percent alcohol (then commonly diluted to around 16 percent), sake is the strongest potion microbes and human art have contrived without distilling.
The secret is a double dose of microbiologya mold, koji-kin, turns rice starch into sugar, and yeast turns sugar to alcoholand a brewing process vastly more complex and delicate than wine- and beer-making. A deep and ancient tradition undergirds the craft and accents the drinking pleasure; Impromptu’s offerings included noble Sato-no-Homare (about $43), “Pride of the Village,” made from an ancient, genetically resurrected rice strain in an 850-year-old brewery at the foot of Mount Fuji.
How can such a noble sip fail to conquer? I said that 15 years ago, and even Impromptu isn’t ready to stock these pricey, perishable potions. Even so, I give sake better odds than soccer.