Tasting Notes: Premium Sake
The notes below are for five sakes of varying styles that I happen to like. Two of them you can ask for by their English names.
Dewazakura Dewasansan "Green Ridge" Junmai Ginjo Sake ($29): A delicious, balanced sake with a grassy, reedy smell, a slightly bitter bite and a very refreshing quality. A great starter sake.
Azuma Rikishi Junmai Ginjo Sake ($22): Lovely aroma with slight hints of soy and smoke; another delicious, light sake with balanced fruity flavors.
Onikoroshi "Demon Slayer" Wakatake Daiginjo Sake ($40): Top-grade sake from a popular brewer: a fine example of a rich yet not fruit-flaunting style. Fascinating aromas, milky and tart, with sweetish but not overpowering fruit flavors and a nice bitter balance. Of the rich sakes, one of my favorites.
Masuizumi Junmai Daiginjo Sake ($73): Now we're into fruit-bomb territory: bubblegummy aromas with whiffs of banana, and a sweet fruitiness in the mouth.
Hanahato Kijoshu Sake ($48): This is a long-aged dessert sake, amber in color, a sake version of a rich, oloroso-grade sherry, with oxidized smells and nutty flavors. If you like old sherries, this is an exotic drink worth a try.
THE SAKE PROCESS
To grossly simplify the procedure, sake is made by adding moldy steamed rice (called koji) and water to one of more than sixty varieties of milled sake rice, along with yeast. After brewing, sake is filtered and aged for six months before selling. It often comes in lovely boxes and often has beautiful labels almost as hard to parse as German wine labels (even with translation). It does not benefit from further aging. In fact, you should try and buy a sake bottled within the last year and drink it within two to three days after opening. It should be stored cool in the store and kept in the fridge after opening, then served cool but not ice cold. It's usually clear or pale yellow, though occasionally, with some long-aged sweet versions, it can be dark amber. Some sakes have a bit of added alcohol. Although there are six main classifications of premium sake—honjozo-shu and junmai-shu at the bottom, then ginjo-shu and junmai ginjo-shu in the middle, with daiginjo-shu and junmai daiginjo-shu at the super premium $70-a-bottle-and-up top— with any good sake it's probably more important for a beginner to decide between the lighter, drier style and the richer, sweeter, heavier style (think pinot grigio versus a full-throttle, oak-sweet California chardonnay). You'll only find out by trying.