When we decided it was high time for us to learn more about sake, we weren't expecting to be schooled by a Midwesterner and a polished Frenchman.
Jacob Daugherty of Girard, Illinois, and Adrien Falcon, a native of Savoy, are the sommelier and wine director respectively of Brushstroke, David Bouley's sake-centric restaurant in NYC. They've got nearly 80 sakes on the menu and collectively know a hell of a lot about Japan's famous rice wine.
"People think of sake as this centuries-old drink, but sake in its current state is actually only about 30 years old," Daugherty says.
"The real trick with sake is that it's all about vocabulary. It's a little bit time consuming, but just knowing the meaning of a few basic words—like junmai, ginjo, daiginjo and honjozo—will really help you navigate a sake list and figure out what you like."
Let's start with the names of three main styles: Each refers to the degree to which the rice grains are polished before fermentation. (The milling removes unwanted fats and proteins, and a finer polish typically yields a more refined sake.)
Junmai sakes are polished by at least 30 percent, leaving 70 percent of the grain intact. Whereas junmai ginjo sakes are polished by at least 40 percent and junmai daiginjo sakes by at least 50 percent.
A few more you might stumble across: Honjozo sakes are finished with a small amount of distilled alcohol to boost aromas, while nigori sakes are unfiltered, creamy and cloudy (try the fresh, subtle Schichi Hon Yari Nigori Junmai Ginjo, $43). Another variety? Lightly funky, unpasteurized nama sakes.
As for sake breweries: Called kuras, most aim to achieve a consistent style from year to year, across each of their sake styles. Falcon and Daugherty look for labels like Isojiman, Tedorigawa and Daishichi (splurge on the Minowamon Junmai Daiginjo, $72). Another solid bet? Offerings from Dewazakura, the brewery behind the first commercially made junmai ginjo, called "Oka" ($40). If you can find it, pick up a bottle of their award-winning "Ichiro," nicknamed "Abbey Road," after one of the brewer's favorite albums.
Many sakes show best when they're chilled, Falcon says, and serving them in proper glassware helps. At Brushstroke, they're poured into pretty Riedel cognac stems that are just the right size, but at home, a simple, not-too-big Bordeaux wine glass should do. If you really like your sake hot, be sure to pick a style that can handle the heat, like a full-bodied kimoto such as the Hatsumago Junmai Shu Kimoto Sake ($27).
"Sake is much more nuanced than wine," Falcon says. "It can be saline or floral or fruity or earthy, but those qualities are all very subtle. It's really about balance and texture."