Sake is a spirit that's deeply misunderstood outside of Japan. While the traditional rice wine is flowing into craft cocktail recipes more often these days, it's still a drink that may never really go mainstream—mostly because people think it's got no place outside of sushi joints, or they've never really been exposed to the good stuff.
Just ask Motoko Watanabe, sake sommelier and co-restaurateur behind Zenkichi, a modern Japanese brasserie in New York City and Berlin. Despite being born and raised in Tokyo, Motoko didn't start enjoying sake until living in the US in her 20s. While studying biology and working as a research lab assistant at NYU, she became fascinated with discovering all the different tastes and variations at a doorbell-only sake speakeasy in the East Village.
Before that, Motoko only drank sake at weddings and funerals in Japan. Her first experience was at four years old, when her uncle forced her to take a gulp during a toast.
"I hated it! But I guess I didn't have an opportunity to dislike sake, even in Japan," she laughs. "It was much later that I started learning that premium sake is only a small percentage of what's distributed—kind of like table wine, only much, much lower."
According to the sommelier, figuring out the nuances of sake is no more difficult than learning the difference between an IPA and a lager or a Shiraz and merlot. We sat down with her to chat about some of the misconceptions behind Japanese rice wine, and how amateurs can get it right.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Motoko. What do you think the masses get wrong about sake? Motoko Watanabe: So many people get their perception from drinking the bad sake at Japanese restaurants. It's like going to a restaurant and ordering wine, but they don't have any options; it just says "wine" on the menu. If you only have one kind of sake to choose from, you almost always know it's coming from a 19-litre box in the back that's probably used for cooking and costs a euro. To put that into perspective, the sake we serve at Zenkichi starts at 15 euros a litre. If that's all you've had, of course you're going to hate it.
Well, that and the hangovers. That's because that sake is full of additives, flavouring, and preservatives, so naturally that's why you're getting a hangover. With high-quality, natural sake you won't feel that bad the next morning.
Can sake also have flavor notes like wine? The descriptions of sake are the same as those for wine. You may describe some wine to have juicy tropical fruits or red currant or even mushroom qualities. Sake is made with rice, rice mold, and water. There are about a hundred different kinds of brewing rice and dozens of rice mold. Fragrance characteristics are largely affected by the type of rice mold and flavored often by the rice.
I once had sake that even had a cotton candy aroma, called Kaguyahime Junmai by Yamamoto-Honke brewery in Kyoto. We used to carry it at Zenkichi in New York.
However, brewers tend to aim for a general profile of sake, such as fruity and highly fragrant or subtle and earthy; they don't specifically shoot for a particular scent like apple or cotton candy. It's subjective to the taster's opinion, and not intentional on the brewers' end.
What should drinkers know when it comes to temperature? Each kind of sake has its own ideal temperature, but it can also go according to the brewer or personal taste. Warming sake takes out its faults. That's why lots of restaurants serve boiling-hot sake. But if you heat up good sake, it actually breaks its character, flavour, and aromas. Sake should always be warmed to between 40 or 50 degrees [Celsius, or 104 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit]. That's one way to tell the good from the bad.
How can you tell if sake should be warmed or chilled? If a brand of sake says nama, which means, "unpasteurized" [on the bottle], it is the brewer's intention for you to drink it cold. Usually junmai daiginjo and junmai ginjo that have high fragrances that are very floral or fruity are better off when served cooled. Some junmai and junmai ginjo with robust rice aromas can also really blossom when gently warmed.
Some people say that sake shouldn't be eaten with sushi, because it's basically eating rice with rice. What do you think? Strange—I've heard some say that about wine and sushi, but never sake and sushi. Sake naturally and definitely goes well with sushi. Assuming that you are having sushi in a simple, traditional way—no crazy fried cheese and chicken rolls with spicy mayo—then I would start with a junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo with subtle aromas and light flavour, as the chef might start with lighter-flavoured items like sea bream or fluke or squid, then progress into a bit more bold junmai or junmai ginjo to be paired with stronger-flavoured items such as tuna or silver fish.
Does sake go with anything outside of Japanese food? Sake is incredibly versatile, in my opinion. There are some French restaurants that serve it, for example. I also find sake to go incredibly well with all seafood, including oysters, as well as fermented products such as cheese. Many people love to pair sake with seafood; however, red meats … or caramelized foie gras can pair extremely well with certain aged sake as well.
Thank you for speaking with me.