You can't even believe," the wine steward tells me as he pours amber liquid into my glass, "that this is made from rice! Swirl it like wine!" The drink is called Kakunko, and it has a pungent, pineapple-like smell, a rich funkiness in the mouth that reminds me of the dessert wine sauternes, and a not-quite-recognizable fruity taste.
Oh, and it's only $75 per glass at the new ultrahip downtown-Manhattan Japanese restaurant Megu, where all the women look like supermodels and all the men (except me) are too cool to notice.
Welcome to the world of rare, premium sake. This is not the hot plonk you gargled with your first unagi roll while you wondered if the raw fish would stay down. The fancifying of sake was inevitable, of course. The sake world is complex and fussy, like the world of wine and whisky and fancy beer, which made it a natural for the upswing in interest (and prices) I've seen in Japanese restaurants in the United States over the past few years. First came the notion of serving it cold, as most of the good stuff is served in Japan; then came the idea of a sake list, full of descriptions to match the evocative names (Drunken Whale, Carp of the Waterfall, Dance of the Tengu); then the sake bars; then, in one of my favorite little restaurants, came a chance to taste three sakes side by side for the price of one full glass.
Much about sake echoes the wine world: It is made by adding yeast to different varieties of the same basic ingredient (rice rather than grapes; see below). It varies from region to region. It is graded and labeled by category or quality (junmai-shu, ginjo-shu, daiginjo-shu, for example, where the Germans would use terms like Kabinett and Auslese and the Bordelaise would employ cru and grand cru). It varies from very dry to very sweet, and from industrial-grade to Petrus-rare. And it inspires the same sort of baffling descriptive language among the cognoscenti—at least the English-speaking cognoscenti—that wine does. (Here's how John Gauntner, the leading American sake expert, describes a top-notch daiginjo-grade brew: "Pears and pineapples in nose, good staying power, hits palate brightly, rougher texture to the underpinning"—sounds like an out-ofcontrol fruit truck.)
Yet wrestling sake into a wine framework doesn't really work, any more than it works to approach a Japanese vegetable like yama imo, the so-called mountain potato, as you would your basic spud. The Japanese like to serve yama imo as a white goo whose essential quality (Japanese food is always about expressing an essential quality) falls somewhere between phlegm and school paste, i.e., the novice should not supersize this dish.
Don't get me wrong. I love Japanese food, both the simple street foods I've sampled in little restaurants under the railway tracks in Tokyo and the hautepriced modern riffs like Megu's chawanmushi (egg custard) with melting foie gras and truffles. But as with the gooey mountain potato there are mysteries in premium sake, untranslatable strangeness.
You don't have to spend $75 a glass to begin to plumb them. "But if you're willing to drop a little coin," says Gauntner, the aforementioned sake expert, "you can quickly come to an assessment of how good sake can be."
A half dozen very good bottles of sake totaling, say, $150 will establish that just beyond the hot drink lies a cold brew that is carefully produced, nuanced, distinctive, charming, and made for the flavors and textures of Japanese food.
Still, sake sings in a strange key. It smells and tastes of familiar fruits— pear, green melon, pineapple, banana—but not in exactly the same way that rieslings, gewurztraminers and chenin blancs smell and taste of those same fruits. It can be round and soft, or dry and mildly acidic—but not in the same way that wine can be those things. And it generally has 2 to 3 percent more alcohol than wine. According to Gauntner, sake can also have a quality, umami, that is not even translatable into English. "Umami is a kind of richness; it's difficult to put your finger on. It's a deliciousness or a savoriness that makes you say, 'Hmmmm, I like that, I'll take more of that.'" I tried two top-drawer, Gauntner-endorsed sakes, one of which had, according to the expert, umami in spades, and the other of which did not. They were certainly different, but I'd need a lot more tries to pin the umami on this donkey. I'd rather just listen to my wife describe sake, which she has long loved and prefers to wine; she tasted a Wakatake daiginjo sake and said, "It reminds me of a stormy, rainy beach, cedar and salt air."
In the end, the most noticeable thing about sake, to my wine-addled palate, is what it's missing: the acidic zing of my favorite wines, the chiantis and rieslings, pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs. Instead, sake has a softness, a slight fruit-bowl unctuousness, that becomes its own reward when you've tasted enough of it. Hard to believe, as the steward at the hip restaurant said, that it comes from rice.