Sake primer

I often think of sake as the forgotten wine.  We are often so preoccupied with fruit based wines that we ignore the shadow world of wines made by fermenting rice; and, of course, we stereotype all sake by the “jet fuel” tasting hot sake we order at sushi restaurants. Generally speaking, hot sake’s pecking order is akin to Budweiser and white zinfandel.

The next time you have sushi, challenge your palate and ask for the sake list. An entire world will be unveiled before your eyes, a world of ginjo, daiginjo, junmai and nigori.  Each of these types are fermented differently and offer their own characteristic aroma and taste.

Junmai is simply sake produced without any extra alcohol added to it; the majority of sakes made and sold in the US are junmai. Conversely honjozo sakes do have added alcohol. The quality of a sake is improved by a higher amount of polishing or milling of the rice grain. Daiginjo sakes are made from rice that has been milled to less than 50% of their original size and are thus considered ultrapremium.

Another pleasant treat is Nigori. Nigori is sake that has been filtered less stringently, leaving tiny rice particulates. The result is a cloudy sake that has sweet, tropical tones that goes well with spicy food.

At any rate, no matter your poison, the vessel of delivery is a pleasant part and parcel of enjoyment. A fine champagne deserves a fancy flute; but what of sake?  Enter the masu.

Harmony in simplicity. Fine Japanese ginjo and a humble masu

Masu were originally used in feudal Japan as a standard measurement for rice, and became a vessel for enjoying sake. Although now that there are many fine sake sets, masu remains the traditional vehicle. Masu are traditionally made of cedar, although you will find many attractive lacquered sets. The cedar has a purpose: the wood enhances and complements the flavour of the sake. With this in mind I probably will never buy a lacquered masu, but that’s just me.

Like anything in Japanese culture, there is procedure and purpose, often too subtle for us westerners to notice, yet quite noticeable to others. When served traditionally, the masu is placed on a saucer and filled to the point where it overflows onto the saucer. When I was first served in this manner I assumed that the host was just pour happy, however the overfilling is deliberate and mandatory as it conveys hospitality and generosity to the guest.
And if you have not realized it yet, it is much easier to drink out of the corner.
Now you don’t have to wait until your next sushi night to enjoy this. Everything you need is right here in Tampa, and at very reasonable prices. Total Wine on Dale Mabry has a small selection of sakes (small for those guys is still a big offering). Be aware that as you graduate from the boiled stuff to the finer distillates, the price really gets up there.  There are some good junmais made in Oregon and California, however being the obstinate purist, I always try to get sake made in Japan (just like I only buy port wine from Portugal). The Tozai  “Voices in the Mist” shown in the picture above is quite a deal in the mid $20s and the label tells you all you need to know: Ginjo and Nigori means it is a premium sake (maybe 60% polishing of kernels) that is unfiltered. It is made by a 6th generation brewmaster from Osaka, and with that pedigree you should drink it in nothing but a masu.
Visit your local Asian market and you may locate masu. I picked up a pair at Oceanic dowtown for $5 a piece. Now it may not be cedar, but hey if you ever turn into a sake snob, you should buy a jigsaw and go make your own.
And of course I can't resist a little pharmacology. The polishing of the rice husks for fine (ginjo and daiginjo) sakes means that fewer impurities are part of the fermentation. This results in less byproduct compounds that traditionally cause heavy hangovers (think tannins and sulfites in wine).
So the next time you have sushi, make it a point to  try the other side. And remember that when drinking sake you always pour for those drinking with you, and you never let their cup go empty.

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