Although the highest quality sakés are usually best enjoyed cold, heated saké, called kan, is still enjoyed by many. Saké is first poured into a ceramic flask called a tokkuri, which is placed into hot water. The Japanese have several terms for heated saké, depending on its temperature, which ranges from about 75 degrees Fahrenheit to a blistering 140 degrees (only suited for the harshest sakés). Hot saké is drunk from a small cup called a choko. Experts agree that dry sakés are best suited for heating.
Cold saké is served in clear glass or a traditional masu—a square cedar box, which is often lacquered. Masu are the original measuring cups for a portion of rice—180 ml. In Japan, saké bottles are usually either 720 ml (four masu servings) or 1.8 liter (10 masu servings). It’s the larger bottle that is most often poured from at a saké bar. In authentic saké bars and restaurants in Japan and the U.S., a glass of saké is placed in a masu or a saucer. The saké is poured into the glass and allowed to overflow, thus giving the customer a bit more than the measured serving.
Saké cocktails have become popular in recent years, with the sakatini heading the list in popularity. In his book, Timken lists recipes for over 20 saké cocktails. Snacks eaten while drinking saké are called sakana and the small, cozy saké pub is called an izakya.
When saké is encased in a wooden cask wrapped in a rush mat, it’s called komokaburi. These casks are ceremoniously opened with a huge mallet at special personal and business events for good luck. Such a ceremony is called a kagamibiraki.
When buying saké for drinking at home, the bottles should be stored in a cool, dark location. The fridge is best, especially if the saké was purchased at a store that kept the saké cold. Once opened, it should be drunk right away, but will keep for a few days if kept tightly closed and in the fridge. Saké doesn’t go bad as quickly as wine.
Saké bottles sold in the U.S. may be the traditional Japanese size of 720 ml, but are often also 300 ml (a single serving, usually sold in a restaurant). U.S. saké brewers often use the more common wine bottle size of 750 ml.
The labels on saké bottles are a wealth of information, although usually written in Japanese. Included on the labels are the alcohol by volume, the yeast type, the percentage of rice polishing, the amino acid level, the acidity, the bottling date and the saké meter value. The date may be based on the common calendar or the Japanese calendar (based on the Imperial reign). The saké meter value (nihonshu-do or SMV) measures the relative sweetness or dryness of the saké. The scale usually runs from about -3 to +10, but may be higher or lower. Negative numbers indicate sweetness; positive numbers dryness. The “neutral” point on the saké meter value scale is not zero, but +2 or +3, because sakés have become drier in recent years. Many factors affect the sensation of dryness or sweetness on the palate, such as the saké’s acidity, the type of brewing water used and the temperature of the saké. Saké experts such as Timken and Gaunter caution that the SMV should only be used as a rough guide.
The Future of Saké
Besides the fuddy-duddy image saké has for some young Japanese, there’s another drink that heavily competes with saké in Japan—shochu. This is an alcoholic drink distilled most often from sweet potatoes, rice or barley. It’s not as smooth and delicate as saké. Last year, sales of shochu outpaced saké in Japan for the first time ever. Timken said that many saké brewers have responded to the shochu attack by brewing sakés that are sweeter, fruitier, lower in alcohol and sparkling. He calls these “New World Sakés” and expects them to become successful in the U.S.
According to Pearce, there are at least 10,000 different sakés being produced today and close to 200 of them are currently available in New York and Los Angeles. The bulk of saké sold in the U.S.—80-85 percent—is domestically brewed. There are four saké breweries in California and one in Oregon. The biggest difference between Japanese and U.S.-brewed saké is that domestic brewers don’t use true saké rice. It’s not commercially grown in the U.S. and is prohibitively expensive to import.
Saké imports to the U.S. have doubled in the last ten years, Pearce said, with 2,993,240 liters imported last year. To put that in perspective, he added: “For every glass of saké consumed, Americans drink 160 glasses of wine.”
Timken, who owns True Saké, the first American retail store (in San Francisco) dedicated exclusively to saké, said that in the U.S., the unfiltered nigori style of saké is the style that appeals to many first-time saké drinkers. “It’s fluffy white and sweet,” he said, “a novelty that is a good starter for saké drinkers.” Nigori is 50 percent of Timken’s sales. He said customers then move to other sakés. “Whatever brings them to the saké table is okay with me.”