Sake: Not Just For Sushi Anymore

Everything you need to know about rice wine

All month long, we are paying homage to the mighty grape. Grab a glass and join us as we Wine Down.

Next time you sit down to a juicy burger or slice of your favorite pepperoni pizza, instead of cracking open a beer or pouring a glass of wine, here's another suggestion: Unscrew a bottle of sake. Yes, the Japanese alcohol commonly referred to as "rice wine" isn't just for sushi or late-night revelry (though we do support the occasional sake bomb).

It happens to be way more versatile than you might think, and there's never been a better time to get into this storied beverage. Though sake has "been around for literally thousands of years, it's just being discovered in a really cool way," says Nancy Cushman, co-owner of NYC's and Boston's O Ya restaurants, among others, and a certified sake sommelier.

"It actually is new to our palates. It's a completely different animal," sake expert John Gauntner adds. He should know. He's been living in Tokyo and writing about sake since 1988. In 2003, he established a training and certification program for sake professionals; Cushman was one of his early students.

With the number of participants growing each year, the program has been instrumental in popularizing sake outside of its homeland. And that means a growing list of places where sake is appearing on restaurant and bar menus, including Brooklyn's new Korean restaurant Insa, East Village Hawaiian spot Noreetuh and the Hudson Valley's Crimson Sparrow. The growing ardor around Japanese food in the U.S.—with ramen, izakaya and tempura restaurants still opening in droves—has only added to the momentum.

Imports double every seven years or so, says Chris Pearce, founder of The Joy of Sake, a festival that now takes place in Hawaii, New York and Tokyo. (Watch our video from the NYC event above.) U.S. sake production is also on the rise, with breweries popping up everywhere from Boston to Maine to California.

Finally, though they're not conventional in Japan, sake cocktails are all the rage in the U.S. At Karasu, Brooklyn's new Japanese-inspired speakeasy, head bartender and beverage director at Major Food Group Thomas Waugh developed a cocktail called Thrice Rice, which is a riff on horchata (see the recipe). Combining international influences, the drink perfectly represents sake's wide-ranging scope.

For the uninitiated, once you understand the basic process by which it's made, it's easy to wrap your head around sake and appreciate why it's so versatile, Waugh says.

Sake is made with just four ingredients: rice, koji-kin (a microbe that's spread on steamed rice to convert starch into sugar), yeast and water. The three main categories are based on the degree to which the rice kernel has been polished. In junmai sake, the rice has been polished so that 70 percent of the kernel remains. For ginjo, around 60 percent remains, and for daiginjo, only 50 percent is left. The more the kernel has been polished down, the more delicate, fruity and floral the sake should be. Generally speaking, the less polish, the nuttier and richer the sake tastes.

The term junmai also refers to sake that has not been fortified with extra alcohol. In contrast, honjozo sake is fortified with additional alcohol, a post-brewing process. Unfiltered sake, or nigori, is a nice entry into the alcohol, "because it is a little sweeter and a little easier to distinguish on the palate," Cushman says. Finally, koshu is aged sake. While it's not very common, more breweries are experimenting with aging.

However the grain is polished and no matter if the sake's been fortified, filtered or untouched, sake has a unique umami quality that sets it apart from wine. Cushman had an aha moment when she realized sake has a more savory flavor than grape wine. It's also more subtle. Unlike with fruit wine, "where you know there's another personality at the table," Cushman says, "sake becomes more of a supporting role." She likens sake pairings to beer pairings.

That subtlety, and the magic word umami, explains why it transcends so many flavor categories.

It's why a bottle of junmai goes really well with a cream-based pasta and a little bacon. "The acidity of the junmai balances the fat of the cream, and the richness of the rice in the sake functions as a shock absorber for the fat," Gauntner explains. And why a bottle of yamahai, a style that's typically a little funky and gamey, goes really well with grilled lamb.

It's also why Cushman and her team at Boston's O Ya were ecstatic at staff meal one day when they discovered how well a bottle of junmai paired with pepperoni pizza. When the brewer for that particular label later came into the restaurant, Cushman had someone bring in a pie so he could try the pairing himself. "His eyes lit up."