October 1 marks the start of sake brewing season in Japan and is designated International Sake Day by the people who designate these sorts of things.
Apparently, at tradition minded sake breweries like SakeOne in Oregon, this day is marked by a Shinto priest blessing the "kura" or storehouse. Unsurprisingly this ritual involves a great deal of spilled sake and rice.
It's probably fair to say that sake is a bit of a mystery for many Americans. There's a great deal of confusion about what sake actually is as well as how it's best served. Some of that confusion is probably because sake isn't quite beer nor is it quite wine. As with all brewing, there's a wide variety of techniques used to make a variety of sake products. But at the end of the day it boils down to allowing cooked rice to ferment long enough for yeast to perform the magical conversion of complex carbohydrates into alcohol. The resulting product is filtered to some extent and what you're left with sake.
The exact differences between each variety of sake, from the way the rice is prepared to how the fermented product is filtered and occasionally aged, will likely be the subject of a future post. For now let's just lay out the basics:
1. Cheap Sake Is Hot And There Is Nothing Wrong With That: Cheap sake, in a huge bottle, warmed by boiling in a pot of water, is a hallmark of many Japanese parties. It's the Coors Light of sake world. The warming makes it palatable and, given that taste isn't its strong point, downing it is acceptable. The snobs will whine and lament the state of society but when you show up at your family reunion, expect a tiny cup of boiling hot cheap sake waiting for you. If you're freezing your nose off waiting for the cherry trees to blossom, you're going to have a pre-heated bottle of hot sake in your picnic basket. It's highly likely that the bottle will be this one. If you're just looking to do some cooking with sake, this cheaper end of the spectrum is a better place to start.
2. "Better" Sake Is Cold: The fancier, and uniformly more expensive, sake are served cold. If you go out to a classy sushi joint and order sake bombers, expect the generic "better served hot" sake in your beer. If you actually order off their sake list, it's likely that those will arrived chilled. These sake are generally for sipping and should have a more palatable taste. Still, sake isn't wine so it tends to be a fairly subtle drinking experience. Hakutsuru is a good starting point for checking out the top shelf of sake drinking.
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3. If You're A Sake Virgin, Start With Nigori Sake: Many people aren't particularly fond of sake because they've only had hot sake or cheap sake in a sake bomber. At some point they become aware of the more expensive chilled sake, try it, and then leave vaguely disappointed. Thankfully there's a good transition sake out there. It's called nigori sake and it is delicious. Nigori is sake that isn't completely filtered after the rice has been fermented. This leaves tiny rice particles in the sake and imparts the finished beverage with a fruity and pleasant taste. The rice bits settle after bottling and it's usually necessary to give the bottle a good shake before serving. If you're looking for someplace to start, Sayuri Nigori is a good place to start.
Of course if all this talk has made you thirsty and drinking on a Monday is your thing, Ra is offering $1 sake in honor of International Sake Day.
Diderique Konig contributed to this post.