Archive for September 2010

What is this Cloudy Stuff?

September 27, 2010

Many people have inquired about the white, cloudy, usually opaque sake sometimes seen in shops and restaurants. Often readers liken it to a “icy pina colada.” What is it? How is it made, how does it differ from regular sake? How does it taste?

That is nigori-zake, which simply means “cloudy sake.” The “clouds” are nothing more than unfermented rice solids floating around inside.

Let’s backing up a step or two..when sake is made, the rice ferments in a large tank for a period of anywhere between 18 and 36 days. The bubbly, chunky, fermenting mash at that time is referred to as the “oromi.” After that period, it is still a white, cloudy, soup of rice solids that could not ferment; yeast and other components. The clear, amber sake is then separated from these solids in one of several ways, all of which call for passing the sake through a mesh of some sort.

Sometimes this mesh is inside a pressure-driven machine, sometimes it is but a canvas bag into which the moromi has been poured. There are various ways, some better than others. But regardless of which method is used, the moromi passes through a mesh, with the pale amber ambrosia passing through and the white solids, or lees, remaining behind.

So, in most sake then, we have an almost clear liquid as the result of the pressing of the lees away from the sake. In nigori-zake, however, not all of the lees are pressed away; some of the unfermented solids are left behind deliberately, giving a rich, creamy, fabulously interesting flavor. Note this “eaving of the lees” is done in varying degrees, depending on the whims and fancies of the brewer.

There are also a couple of moromi-zake on the market, in which the product looks like nigori-zake, but was never really pressed. In other words, it never passed through a mesh of any sort. These are rare, and only serve as curiosities, but what is interesting about them is that they cannot legally be sold as sake. How they are taxed and sold I am not sure, but I know one brewer that serves it only on the grounds of his brewery, somehow skirting the law in that way.

Next, there is the “till live and kicking” variety, in which the yeast is still very much active. Sake like this is not stable, and will change quickly, but it is indeed fun to try. Often, the bottles into which this has been put are equipped with special caps that allow the carbon dioxide to gently and slowly escape. This type of sake is often very tart and acidic, and while fun and lively, it may not appeal to those looking for a gourmet sipping experience. Shinkame from Saitama, a tiny brewery with unusual but wonderful sake all around, is the best example of this type of nigori-zake.

Have you tried nigori-zake? I’d love to hear what you think, and if you haven’t tried it yet – what are you waiting for?

I encourage you to give it a try if you can find it. To try this and more than 90 other varieties of Sake, To try this and more than 90 other varieties of Sake, join me at the Sake Professional Course that will be held in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at This annual event is great for sake and wine lovers alike, read the review of the Sake Professional Course from Wine Enthusiast Magazine to learn more.


Reader Question – Where Can I Find Good Sake…

September 20, 2010

One of the most common questions I get asked from my US readers is “Where can I find good sake near my home?” Almost as frequently I’m asked “Can I buy any good sake over the internet?”

Unfortunately, the answer to this questions isn’t all that easy and I can’t be a huge help here. But…let me explain why…

As far as helping readers find what sake is available near them, or where their favorite brand is, or where good sake in general can be found in a specific area, that information is changing constantly and certainly not located in one place. The closest thing to a US directory is the book, “Sake Pure and Simple,” which lists places that sell and serve sake all over the US. It certainly does not have the absolute latest information.

So, that leaves the Internet. Ah, yes, the Internet.

Since we know there is plenty of good sake out there, why can’t we just contact those who are selling it, wherever they may be, and have them ship it to us? In this day and age we would expect that we could just order it over the Internet and it would show up on our doorstep. In a perfect, free-commerce world, this would be true. But the U.S. has a few old laws on the books left over from the days when Prohibition ended that, it could be argued, no longer serve the public. In short, with the exception of some states, it is not legal to ship alcoholic beverages to consumers over state lines.

In short, there are three tiers to the industry. The top tier is that of the producer, like winery, brewery or distillery, or importer and/or out-of-state-shipper (OOS). The second tier is that of wholesaler or distributor (for all intents and purposes, the same thing). The third tier is the retailer. To keep unsavory elements from controlling the industry, no company is allowed to own an interest in more than one tier.

In order for sake to get into the hands of a consumer in the U.S., it must pass through all three tiers. In other words, a sake needs to go through an importer, wholesaler, and retail shop or restaurant before coming to you. Naturally, each tier takes its margin, adding to the final price along the way.

Finally, sake cannot be shipped from a retailer to a consumer in another state, with the exception of the states that allow it. This means that if a distributor in your state does not carry a certain sake, it is all but impossible for you to get it.

Sorry I don’t have better news for you, but the good news is that you can find a local retailer and work with them to help you get what you would like, and plenty of sake groups popping up all over the place, so you may just be able to find what you need after-all.

If you’ll be in Portland, Oregon in November, I’ll be hosting the Sake Professional Course. This  event will teach you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about sake and give you the chance to taste over 90 different types of sake. You can read more about the Sake Professional Course that was conducted earlier this year on “The Professional Foodie” or “Wine Enthusiast Magazine”.  For more information, click here, or email us at

Heating Sake – Tips and Tricks

September 13, 2010

There seems to be a theory that how you heat sake affects how it tastes. More precisely, putting sake in the microwave is frowned upon by many tipplers and connoisseurs. Sake warmed in hot water and sake warmed in a microwave taste completely different, or the theory goes.

Well, I took it upon myself to find out the truth. I am more of a traditionalist in most things, but this just didn’t make sense. Energy is energy, and it shouldn’t make a hoot of difference!

I began with one of my absolute favorites for warmed sake: Kamoizumi from Hiroshima. Rich, earthy and straw colored, I felt I could easily note any differences that arose.

Next, the vessels. Got to be Bizen. I selected two Bizen tokkuri and two Bizen chokko, almost identical. I warmed the tokkuri themselves in warm water beforehand, as they were quite cold off-the-shelf. I also allowed the sake to come up to room temperature before beginning to avoid the unpredictability of drastic temperature changes.

I then got a thermometer. Even slight differences in temperature affect flavor, so I wanted to control the process as much as I could. I used the O-kan meter, a thermometer specifically designed for tokkuri insertion – which I recommend for those with disposable time and income. It has these wings on the top that keep it from sinking all the way into a tokkuri. If you’re in Japan, you can find it at Seibu Loft for 1000 yen. A must-buy for sake otaku (geeks).

One tokkuri of sake was heated in a microwave oven, and checked every 20 seconds or so. The other was simultaneously heated in a pan of water over a gas flame. When the temperature of each reached 48°C, my arbitrarily chosen target for the exercise, I had my assistant fill the two chokko, not telling me which was which. And I sipped.

And sipped. And slurped, swished and thought. And sniffed. And what did I find?

There was, to my honest and great surprise, a difference.  The flame-heated sake was ever so slightly livelier. Almost imperceptible, it was, but there was indeed a difference. The microwaved sake was a bit quieter. It seemed to me that the flame-heated version brought out more of the original nature of the sake.

It wasn’t just me. In an equally blind test, my assistant came up with the exact same results. The flame-heated sake was a bit livelier.

However, we really had to search for that difference. We had to try as hard as we could to find it. Considering how much effort went into the flame heating and how little went in to the microwave version, I would go out on a limb and say it isn’t worth it. The purists might boil me (or microwave me) alive for saying so, but unless you are going to focus on nothing but the sake, the labor/performance curve is in favor of the microwave.

So, try it yourself and let me know what you discover with your taste-test, I’d love to have hear about your experiments.

More to Come

Coming up in a future post learn about why it is still hard to get great sake in America. For more information on great sake take a look at the Sake Notebook where you can discover 250 different sake to try – either heated or cooled – it’s up to you!  If you’d like to try more than 90 varieties of Sake and receive your Level 1 Sake Specialist Certification, join me at the Sake Professional Course  in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at

Sake: Some Like it Hot, Some Like it Cold

September 6, 2010

The question often arises: How do you know which sake to drink hot and which sake to drink cold? With most Asian restaurants serving sake piping hot out of sake-warming machines, and others insisting sake be drunk chilled, it may be confusing.

The quick answer is this: in general, good sake is served cold. Sake that is served warm is served that way for two reasons: one, that is the older, traditional way to serve sake and two, heating masks inferiority.

But wait! It is not all that simple! The above is just an executive summary. There is so much more that needs to be said. Most importantly, that there is plenty of good sake, premium sake even, that is quite good when gently warmed. Plenty indeed! It is too easy, in this era of chilled premium ginjo sake, to overlook how fine warm sake can be, especially in the winter.

Which brings us back to the first question: How do you know whether to warm a sake or to serve it chilled? Fortunately or unfortunately, it is purely an empirical exercise a matter of personal preference.

Many sakagura (sake breweries) will tell you that a particular sake of theirs is especially tasty when warmed. Some list that information right on the label. Also, tasting a wide variety of sake at a wide variety of temperatures will soon make it clear which flavor profiles appeal to you at warm temperatures and which do not.

First, a little history and background as to why the whole issue has come about. Long ago, almost all sake was served warm, or even hot. Sake back then was much rougher, and heating it smoothed out the rough edges, making it more palatable. Even sake that was considered decent back then would suffer little from being warmed.

Things that were done “ong ago” often become tradition. And so, serving sake warmed became tradition. Even today, in Japan as elsewhere, most sake is consumed warm or hot, especially in traditional little pubs and restaurants.

But there is more than just tradition to the why of it. Heating, as mentioned before, masks off-flavors and smells. The curiosity of drinking a hot alcoholic beverage replaces the Epicurean approach. It can be fun to slam down piping hot sake poured from tokkuri (flagons) into those cutesy little cups (o-choko). How the sake at hand tastes or smells becomes a secondary issue, and all too often counting how many you’ve had becomes tertiary at best. No doubt, this has its appeal.

More to come
In an upcoming post discover my results of heating sake with a flame and with the microwave  – some very interesting results, indeed! I’ll also share some of the new advancements in heating and cooling sake. For more information on sake, check out the Sake Notebook, a 14-page guide that includes a list of 250 recommendable sake, and provides enough education on all things sake to fuel your study, appreciation and enjoyment of sake for years to come.  To  more than 90 other varieties of Sake, join me at the Sake Professional Course in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at

Tell us what do you prefer – do you like it hot, cold or both?  You can share your comments below!