Lesson 1: Grades

I have been studying sake for over ten years now. Damn, Im old. But my favorite part about my studies in sake is educating others and finding a sake that appeals to every palate. I am going to start writing basic lessons on sake here in this blog and then going out in the field and proving it, like homework but drunker. Starting in the winter, I will start hosting my own sake classes. So stay tuned!

In wine, the most important classifier is the grape. In sake, even though the type of rice will give some indication of how it will taste, the most important classifier is the amount the rice has been milled or polished down, the seimaibuai. If you should know one thing about sake, this is it. When you polish rice, you put it in a rolling drum and the friction of the rice on itself polishes the grains to a fraction of its original size. A piece of rice is mostly fatty protein with a kernel of starch. The more you polish it down or the closer you get to the starch, the more fragrant and complex the sake will become. This added effort of milling it down further adds to the cost of a bottle more than most features. The differences between the types are subtle just like wine but even though the higher milling rates are more labor intensive, expensive, and more complex in flavor, they are not necessarily superior. Preference is personal. One of my goals is to create a system to help people understand what a sake will taste like but the only way to know for sure is to taste it and see.

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Learning about grilled foods at Robataya with Aki and Grant

Robataya is such a special place, as is all the TIC Group establishments. I was so happy Grant became a fan as well, so when Aki came to town we couldn’t wait to introduce her. We were nervous about coming here on a weekend night with no reservations but it wasnt much trouble. They are old fashioned with no reservations and no pictures. If you’ve never been, you sit around a rounded bar with grill masters in the center slow-grilling over hot charcoal, reaching over the cornucopia of raw local organic and imported Japanese ingredients between you with a super long oar. This style of cooking is called robatayaki. It is wild! And so fresh and delicious. But how does robatayaki differ from other Japanese grilling techniques?

  • Robatayaki: like a large barbecue surrounded by diners, where a combination of morsels of seafood, vegetables, and meat on skewers are slow-grilled over hot charcoal.
  • Teppanyaki: a table built around a propane-heated flat surface grill and what we have all seen at Benihana.
  • Hibachi: a bowl of charcoal with a grate on top for heating, no cooking.
  • Yakiniku: cooked by the diners on a grill built into the table throughout the duration of the meal – aka Korean BBQ. the grill traditionally sits over flame of ogatan charcoals but often the more modern gas/electric option is used.
  • Shichirin: small light-weight charcoal grill, like a hibachi except this one is made for cooking not just warming. It can be used for up to 4 hours, with only a small amount of Binchōtan charcoal.
  • Binchōtan charcoal: the white charcoal made of ubame oak used in yakitori/kushiyaki grills and shichirin and is the traditional charcoal of Japan. The high quality of this coal can be attributed to steaming at high tempuratures while releasing no smoke or odor. It is also harder than black charcoal and rings with a metallic sound when struck.
  • Ogatan charcoal: Japanese charcoal briquettes made from sawdust used in yakiniku grills.

The food here is always fantastic and delicate. The first time I came and thoroughly enjoyed some kobe beef. I literally didnt want to swallow it so I just chewed it for as long as I could. This time, I didnt see kobe on the menu. Somehow the menu seemed a bit smaller which was strange since this was the first time I had been here on a weekend. We did get the duck which was incredible and I again savored every moment and didnt want to swallow it. The duck udon at their sister restaurant Hasaki has been a favorite of mine for many years. I hope to have both in one meal soon. They also didnt have an assortment of mushrooms which Im pretty sure I ordered the last time, so I just ordered my favorite mushroom, the eryngii mushroom, also known as king trumpet mushroom, French horn mushroom, king oyster mushroom, boletus of the steppes, or trumpet royale. We also had an array of delicious treats, none of which I have anything bad to say.

But what about the sake? So they have a very unique collection of sake. All but two are from the cold region and the others are described as smooth. So looking for one thats clean and smooth with a little sweetness and easy to drink was not an issue. The problem was finding the right one. I really wanted to taste them all. I chose the Kubota Senju Tokubetsu Honjozo sheerly because it was the sake I TRIED to order at Satsko when they mistakenly gave me and taught me to love taru sakes and Niigata has never steered me wrong. It was certainly smooth but not the cleanest sake I have ever had. For our second round I wanted something with a bit more flavor but still a smooth finish. Didnt even look at the menu, didnt even know if they had it. I ordered the Dewazakura Oka Junmai Gingo from Yamagata. It is a classic sake that is sold at most reputable Japanese restaurants. It has a very pleasant licorice flavor but still has a clean finish. It is a great second sake because the flavor is very different but it is still very drinkable.

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Satsko with Pauly and Brian

Wanting to test out my sommelier skills of choosing the right sake for everyone’s palate, I asked my friends what they usually like to drink. Brian said something smooth and sweet (a man after my own heart) but Pauly was more of a whiskey man. My mind went straight the classic Dewazakura Oka for its smoothness and not overpowering licorice flavor but they didn’t have it so I went with my sake of the summer Masumi Arabashiri. It has made my list because I’m loving the mixing of types in sale lately especially nama genshu, and this is a particularly special one both being an Arabashiri, which is the first press, and being from the Masumi brewery, a brewery I was raised on. I think it was a good choice because a Nama is especially sweet and a genshu usually packs a punch. I could’ve also gone with a Nama nigori which also has nice dichotomy or a junmai from a cold region which is usually rich and smooth. I was tempted to get the taru that turned me but I wanted to start with something easier. Unfortunately the kitchen closed and finishing a big bottle between the three of us without food in our bellies was plenty. Of course we got beers after but polishing another bottle would’ve been a bit challenging. The boys seemed to like the Masumi Arabashiri but I think I will have to retire this favorite with the turning of the season and find a new go-to for fall and for next summer.

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Learning to like taru sake at Satsko

Meet up with some of my oldest friends for some sake and girl talk. We made it time for happy hour so all the ladies got the happy hour special but I had to be a snob and get the Masumi Arabashiri. Luckily these ladies were in for the long haul.

So the ladies suggested a Nigori sake. Nigoris are very distinctive both in color and texture, but the flavor of the sake depends very little on this feature. They are not my favorite but people always ask me about them. I picked the Kamoizumi Nigori “Summer Snow” because not only is it a nigori, but it is also a gingo nama genshu nigori from Hiroshima which is a cold region. I dont think they couldve put more features in this sake unless they also made it a yamahai, but that would just be greedy. Very interesting. Now that Ive finished dorking out, let me explain. nigori is when the rice is filtered from the sake with a larger filter and there is sediment that causes the sake to be cloudy and chewy. Any sake that isnt somewhat clear is a nigori. A nama is unpasturized which makes it sweet and effervescent. A genshu is when it is not diluted and it is up to 20% alcohol, apposed to the usual 16%. Nama and genshu mix well together as do nama and nigori, but a nama genshu nigori is unique. The nama may not balance out the genshu’s kuchi atari and nigori’s weight, but the fact that its from a cold region should make it smooth and might create the perfect balance. And speaking of balance, a gingo being the middle polishing ratio should keep it all very balanced but still very special.

Now here is where the night took a turn. I ordered the Kubota Senjyu, a Tokubetsu honjozo from Niigata. I guess when I pointed to it on the menu she thought I meant the one right above it, a taru sake. The first time I tasted a taru sake, I was so disgusted I wouldnt finish it. I had tasted some tasty taru sakes in a tasting once but it was still just one vote for and one giant vote against that left a bad pipe tobacco-y taste in my mouth. With so many sakes to taste, I had to have discerning tastes. I might not have even drank it if I knew what it was, but Im so glad I did. It did have a unique flavor but it was not overpowering and it still had a smooth finish. It was a delicious unique sake that I might want to add to my repertoire. It was the Kikumasamune Taru.

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My first date at Morimoto

After watching the transit of Venus and before our reservation for dinner, we decided to pass the time at the sake bar at Morimoto. Morimoto has their own junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo sakes. We got a flight to taste them all. It was a classic flight displaying the differences between the 3 polishing ratios from the same brewery and I was happy to be able to display this for Matthew. The sakes were the same but they got more fragrant the more you went down the line. Unfortunately I didnt like this sake very much so no matter how much more you opened up the flavor it was still rich and had a strong kuchi atari. Morimoto is very knowledgeable about food and pairing and Im sure this sake was carefully crafted (although I dont know who or how this sake was made), but this sake was not for me. In my experience, people who like whiskey or the harder stuff usually like what I dont. So as a general rule, if this is you, you may wanted to negate everything I say.

During dinner we got a bottle of Ozeki Yamadanishiki, a Tokubetsu Junmai, that was not as elegant as the sake at Morimoto but it was easier to drink and I enjoyed it more. Maybe someday I will come around.

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Omakase at 15 East with Allen and Jeffrey

While waiting for our table, the sommelier could sense my sake snobbery from across the room. After tasting two nama sakes, he presented me with this lovely Denshin Haru Nama Junmai Ginjyo. Then he recognized me and my particular love of nama from past events and the professional course we took together. I was proud that a fellow classmate made it to this top notch restaurant. Of course Jeffrey and Allen, being regulars, already knew him and the sushi chef by name.

The omakase is so decadent and precious, where the chef gives you his favorite and freshest pieces in a well designed meal. But I still dont understand the difference between an omakase and a kaiseki. According to chowhound.com, its laughable I would even relate the two. An omakase is chefs choice based on whats fresh and his ability to read your reactions to what hes serving you, so its very important that you are seated at the sushi bar. He will keep serving you until you cry mercy but the prices vary every time based on market prices and how much you got. Kaiseki dining is super-traditional formal dining with a set course of menu items, served with a rigorous attention to detail while seated in a private traditional Japanese style zaseki room (kneeling on mats on a tatami floor). Kaiseki cooking, like omakase, also uses seasonal local ingredients but there is no interaction with the chef and no deviation from the menu. There are rules to a kaiseki meal, such as there will be at least one dish that is steamed, simmered, fried, grilled, and raw. Because of all the rules, kaiseki dining is difficult to find outside of Japan, but I will make it my mission to experience it. 15 East has kaiseki-like tasting menu that will most definitely try but I doubt it comes with all the fan-fare.

All the sakes and food were fantastic. I particularly liked the squid which is massaged for 45 minutes before its grilled and it has the same taste and mouth feel as brisket. Think about that. It was literally unbelievable. The one thing I will never forget is the sea urchin, although I have forgotten what about it this time that finally made me change my mind. Once every few years I promise to try sea urchin again with an open mind at only the best sushi restaurant hoping I will finally understand its appeal. Its almost a waste since I have never wavered until now. I dont know if it was put in a perfect balanced meal or I was just wasted by the time it came, but I really enjoyed it. I will have to go back sober and closely examine whats different this time.

Aside from the nama aperitif, the Denshin Haru Nama Junmai Ginjyo, I had the Kikuhime “Gold Sword” Junmai Special Release but I particularly enjoyed the Dewa No Yuki “Snow” Junmai Kimoto Special Release from Yamagata. My favorite Junmais are from the colder regions because they tend to be light, crisp, and clean, and less rich than the junmais.

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Taking a Language of Wine class at Astor Center with May Matta-Aliah

I have been tasting and studying sake for over ten years now and even though I know a hell of a lot about sake process and types, I am embarrassed for my flavor vocabulary. I am often tasting sake with people of the industry such as restauranteurs, sake distributors, brewers, and educators. They so eloquently describe what they are tasting and I so needed a crash coarse in it. This would also serve a dual purpose because one of my long time goals with sake is to understand what type of sake someone would like depending on what their favorite wine or drink is.

This class was a really good start but I want to keep going, learning and practicing. All of her information and tasting experience were very valuable and I highly recommend taking this class yourself, but my favorite part was the focus on the four components of wine and tasting to identifying those components in wine.

First was acidity which is a brightness and crispness bordering on tart but she also pointed out that it makes your mouth water. To help us identify the flavor we all tasted lemon juice. The wines that we tasted acidity in was a chablis. The chablis was on the tart side of acidic so I think if someone liked that then I would recommend a yamahi sake because that is a sake that the lactic acid forms naturally by old fashion methods and can often taste more acidic. But, we were also taught that generally acidic wines are higher in alcohol, so I would not rule a genshu out of this category since that is the undiluted sake and tastes stronger. The other side of acidic is crispness or cleanness which I suppose would be a wine that was acidic but not to this extreme, possibly a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. When talking about a sake that is smooth and clean, I would think of a junmai from a cold region like Niigata. Acidic wines are paired with tomato sauce, ceviche, and oysters.

The next component sweetness can be identified by the fruitiness. Sweetness uses a scale from dry to sweet with off dry in the middle, but when a wine is too sweet they will often balance the sweetness with acid, and vice versa. To help us identify this flavor we drank sugar water and I was reminded of science labs when I tasted this almost exclusively in the middle of my tongue, apposed to the tip of my tongue with the lemon juice. The Gewurztraminer was the sweetest and most delicious wine we had that day, but it was still only technically considered off dry. For a true sweet wine, I could go for a Moscato. If you will allow me, I might say that the off dry wine (which was still quite sweet) is like a nama sake which is unpasturized and sweet and if you will let me say that the sweet wine is like plum wine. Plum wine is a very sweet wine and not technically sake but is often grouped together and a very sweet wine is also a class of its own. If you wont let me count it then I would say that the sweet wine is a nama junmai daiginjo (which is both sweet from the nama and fragrant from the junmai daiginjo) while the off dry is a nama junmai or a nama genshu (which balance out the sweetness from the nama a bit more with richness). I was surprised to learn that sweet wines are often paired with sweet and spicy Asian foods such as gingery Chinese food or Indian curries.

I thought tannin was something you could only really experience with a wine but after comparing it to some tea, it became clearer that it wasnt just a drying texture but its also bitter. Bitterness can add great complexity but can be your enemy when its not in the right balance. Tannins also give wine their longevity which is a sign of quality. Because bitterness alone can be overwhelming, wines rich in tannins shine when paired with braised meats and meat sauces. The tannic wine we tried was Sangiovese whose tannins were enhanced by the dryness and high acidity, but a tannic wine with a more pleasing balance of components might be any of the three B’s: a barolo, barbaresco, or a bordeaux. The first sake Id liken this to is a nigori which is the cloudy type created by using a larger filter when sifting out the rice since it is also categorized by its mouth feel, although most nigoris are also sweet because that makes a nice pairing which I dont pair with tannins at all. But when you talk about the bitterness of the tannins then I might liken it to a taru which is aged in casks and has a tabaco-y flavor, altho the wine aged in oak casks might be a better comparison to taru sake. This was a hard one to compare to sake.

Lastly we explored the body of a wine by first drinking some skim then whole milk. I had always known that body was mouth-feel and richness but the one bullet point that caught my eye was “Heat (from alcohol)”, aka kuchi atari. Just like sweetness and acidity balance each other out, body is like something exploding in your mouth while tannin is like having all the moisture sucked out of it. Either imploding or exploding, both pair well with meats. For body we tasted a Syrah which is one of my go-to wines for its round black fruit flavor. Something I was surprised to learn is the alcohol content is directly related to body, but i guess this is why full body balances nicely with low acid and high sweetness. Body is the component that it hardest to explain for me and the fact that it is often paired with a low acid high sweet wine makes it confusing, but maybe the component would be clearer in another full bodied wine like a cabernet sauvignon or a malbec. Because of this, I would have to say that a wine with high body is a genshu which is the undiluted sake and when paired with low acid high sweet then it is a nama genshu which is one of my favorite pairs of undiluted (strong) and unpasturized (sweet), much more than a wine with high acidy. A genshu usually has high kuchi atari but so does a junmai which is the classic and most produced type of sake and sometimes when extra alcohol has been added to a ginjo or daiginjo.

Besides the components of wine, there are also certain features of wine that can alter the flavor of wine such as being fermented in oak casks or being aged.

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Hakkaisan tasting at Yoppari and Soba Totto with Tim Sullivan

Anyone in the sake world in New York knows urbansake’s Tim Sullivan. He is a kind and handsome man who’s sake adventure started out around the same time as mine, but I hope mine takes me half as far as his has taken him. His dedication is inspiring. When he first told me he was starting a sake blog at our first sake meetup in 2000, I wish I wasn’t intimidated to start mine too then and there. Today we are still sake partners in crime and he has given me advice and his blessing to start my own sake blog.

Our current sake adventures led us to two restaurants in two weeks that had promotions for Hakkaisan sake, Soba Totto and Yoppari.

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Drinking a bottle of the fancy Pegasus sake with Jesse Salazar

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Jesse, my long time sake and wine cohort, had saved a bottle of the very precious Hideyoshi Flying Pegasus to share with me. I am a very lucky girl! When you take this gem out of the multiple layers of impressive packaging, the bottle is quite possibly the most beautiful bottle of sake I have ever seen. Only 300 bottles are produced every year and a small percentage of those make it to New York from Akita. But how does it taste? It was very elegant and mellow for a koshu daiginjo. Koshu means its aged but not a taru which is aged in casks and has a more intense flavor. I would liken this bottle to a heritage bottle of wine that one would save in their cellar for years for its elegance and longevity but not the stinkiness that I associate with a very mature wine.

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Celebrating my first trip to Asia at The Peak in Hong Kong

Hong Kong was such a magnificent and impressive city. I grew up in New York City and in some ways envied the tourists who were awed by the landscape and the energy that I found second nature. Hong Kong was the first place I have gone where I felt that way. The buildings were so much taller and newer and the apartments smaller and so clean and most importantly delicious. It truly left a very lasting impression on me. How could I not have some sake when vacationing in Hong Kong? It was the closest Ive been to Japan, SO FAR.

I have yet to make it to Japan but it has always been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember and a goal in the next year. Sometime next year I hope to visit and possibly intern at a sake brewery in Japan, hopefully the spring so I can taste the first batch of namas. I can see it now, stirring the sake with a large wooden paddle, carefully gauging temperature, staying out late with the toji (brew master) with multiple bottles of sake and izakaya (Japanese tapas). It is a fantasy, I know, but maybe that is why I have put off this trip for so long. Fantasy no longer! I will make it to Japan for next spring!

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