Singulars gathered on January 14th at Ma’Kai in Santa Monica for a festive sake tasting party. It was a unique opportunity to learn about the surprising qualities and varieties of sake, to absorb rather surprising information about this revered Japanese wine — and to spend an evening of friendship, delicious food and laughter with other singulars.
Succulent morsels of seared albacore, dumplings, crispy rice cakes with tuna tartar and meltingly tender black cod accompanied each round of sake samplings. Pampered and indulged by the Ma’Kai staff, and with conversation flowing, everyone lingered around the bar afterwards to prolong the evening’s fun.
General Manager Mike Rosa’ was our guide on our sake tour. Two Japanese gentlemen, Mr. Matsumoro, the liaison for most of the fine sake companies in Japan, and Mr. Takai (in the white robe in the photos), sake maker for Dassai brand sake, were also on hand to pour and answer questions.
SingularCity: I was surprised to hear you mention that the best sakes are served cold, whereas most Americans see sake as mainly a warm beverage. Why is this?
Mike Rosa: Warm sake is generally sold in Japan only in the winter. It’s sold mainly as a way to get rid of cheap sake, because warming it kills all the aroma and flavor. It would be like serving a mulled wine — you use a cheaper wine for that purpose. Better qualities of sake are served cold.
SingularCity: What were the categories of sake we tasted and their characteristics?
MR: The first category we tried was a Nigori Ginjo. That is an unfiltered sake. When they make the sake out of the rice fermentation, it brews sitting in the actual rice. With the Nigori it’s like an unfiltered beer, very cloudy. The white, cloudy part is actually the rice that is left in the drink. When it is filtered it gets clear, like the first one we sampled as an aperitif — the sparkling Nigori.
Next we tried a filtered Ginjo. A Ginjo means it is milled down. They take the sake rice and put it into something similar to a rock tumbler. That breaks off the husk and all the protein surrounding the rice. The higher quality of the sake, the more it is broken down, the more of the outer husk is removed.
The Junmai Ginjo we sampled was broken down 50 percent and a Jumai Dai Ginjo, was broken down 77 percent. That is the highest known milling. A Dai Ginjo is generally 50 – 60 percent. In this particular one, they only use 23 percent of the rice. This grade is considered highest quality.
SingularCity: Was there a specific order and reasoning to the sampling?
MR: There was. We went in order of how hard it is to make. Unfiltered sake is usually quite inexpensive because it is easy to make. It is also good entry level for first time sake drinkers because it is a slightly sweet. It has tropical fruit flavors. It’s easier on the palate. So we start it there. As we went through the evening, the quality got better, the mouth feel, the taste — everything filled out. When we got to the Junmai Dai Ginjo — that is like a fine wine, with more complex aromas and the finish lingers.
SingularCity: Are those higher grade sakes brewed or stored for a longer period of time?
MR: Not really. Another misconception about sake is that it is a rice wine. It doesn’t have the same fermentation as wine. It is actually more akin to beer process and what we do with the barley in beer. They take the rice and a special kind of mold they call “koji” and put them together. That is how the fermentation is born, rather than the straight sugar from wine grapes.
SingularCity: What is the best way to match sakes with various types of foods?
MR: The best way is the same as you do with wines. You can go with sweet to sweet, acid to acid — or with the opposite. If you have sweet sake, then you might want sweet sticky rice or a piece of mango. If you have a little more acidity in the sake, a fish with a little bit of fat will help to cut the acid and also coat the tongue.