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Sake 101

Becky Luigart-Stayner
An introduction to this ancient libation

Sake is a fermented beverage made of rice, water, yeast, and koji, an enzyme. Although today it's most strongly associated with Japan, it originated almost 7,000 years ago in China's Yangtzee River Valley.

How to serve it
Contrary to popular opinion, sake should not always be served hot. "Good sake is always served chilled, mediocre sake served warm," Frost says. Why? High-quality ginjo and daiginjo sakes are actually damaged by heat. Prior to the '60s, when ginjo and daiginjo became commercially available, most sakes were heated for pasteurization. If you'd like to try hot sake, Frost recommends microwaving it. But, he adds, "Once you go chilled, you'll never go back."

In a cocktail
Substitute sake for vermouth and add it to vodka to make a saketini. Garnish with a cucumber slice or fresh ginger.

Food pairings
Sake melds well with any dish with which you'd serve a dry white wine.

Sake varieties

• Daiginjo: ultrapremium; made with highly polished rice

• Ginjo: premium; made with polished rice

• Nigori: milky and roughly filtered; retains small particles of rice

• Honjozo: blended with a small amount of distilled alcohol; imported from Japan

• Junmai: made with fermented rice only, no alcohol added; most sakes manufactured in the United States are junmai

Sake suggestions
Grif Frost, chair of the International Sake Institute and host of May's Sake Summit in New York City, recommends the following brands, all of which can be found stateside:

• Y: the first daiginjo sake made in the United States

• Momokawa: a ginjo sake; the name means "peach river"

• Moonstone: infused with flavors of fruit, like raspberry and Asian pear

Sake school
If you would like to learn more about sake, consider the International Sake Institute's Sakemaster Certification course. The10 lesson course which is taken via e-mail and is available tuition-free through December 2002. Check out the International Sake Institute's web site on the course.