Sake to Me

Most of the people who showed up at a recent sake tasting hosted by the Japan America Society of Phoenix knew what many Americans apparently don't: Good sake should never be served hot."The only place in the world you'll get hot sake is here in the U.S.," American sake maker and author Grif Frost told the 40 or so people gathered at C-Fu Gourmet Restaurant.

Most of those who came to hear about "the drink of the gods" looked like regular business folk -- a clever cover for the fact that many of them spoke Japanese. The golden-haired knockout with the flawless skin sitting next to me -- who looked like something out of a Botticelli painting -- spoke fluent Japanese and had a degree in Japanese literature from Columbia University. Jerry Tye, a good Jewish boy who was raised in Japan, conducted an after-tasting sake raffle in both English and samurai-sounding Japanese. And I'd bet the governor's son and daughter-in-law, Michael and Tamara Hull, who lived in Japan for five years, knew all about sake, too.

Sake is a refined, brewed Japanese rice wine with a traceable 6,800-year-old pedigree. Apparently, Japan has dumped a lot of bad, out-of-date sake on the American public. Japan legally requires a "best enjoyed by" date on every bottle of sake made for its domestic consumption, but much to our detriment, this warning is not required by American law. If your ability to read Japanese kangi is on par with my Japanese-speaking ability, we're both out of luck in figuring out whether we're buying something past its prime and really vile.

Not meant to be aged, fresh sake is clear or very light yellow and virtually odorless; if properly refrigerated and stored in a dark place, it'll keep for up to 18 months. If the sake you're pouring is dark yellow or smells like vinegar, you're sucking up stale sake. And, notes Grif Frost, who co-wrote "Sake: Pure and Simple," "stale sake is miserable."

"There are some wonderful sakes that can be served warm, but good sake's served chilled, mediocre sake warm and bad sake should be boiled," Frost claims.

He says hot sake is a practice that dates back to World War II. Japanese restaurant owners have told Frost they think it started because GIs liked their coffee hot and wanted their sake hot, too. The Japanese thought Americans couldn't tell the difference between good sake and bad sake and would never pay the price for good sake.

"So they began producing really low-grade sake that tastes like jet fuel, turpentine and kerosene, which you have to boil to make palatable," Frost says.

Good sake, because of its purity and conspicuous lack of agony-producing sulfites, will never leave you writhing with a hangover, according to Frost. And the roly-poly sake meister, dressed for the tasting in black pin-striped bib overalls with "Sake Maker" embroidered on the back, should know. He drinks a 750-milliliter bottle of his own Momokawa Diamond sake every night.

Frost has taken a pretty twisted path to sake-making serenity. Born in Oregon, he went to France at age 15 as a Rotary exchange student, where he lived in a beer brewery. After obtaining a master's degree in international management from Thunderbird Graduate School for International Management in Phoenix, he went on a Japanese government scholarship to another graduate school "literally on the side of Mount Fuji." Settling in Japan, he started an English school for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds that grew to 3,500 students in four years. His attention was temporarily deflected from educating tiny tots when he got interested in Soloflex home exercise equipment, building a factory in a rural area of Japan that ultimately made millions. After fortuitously sitting next to the fifth-generation president of Momokawa sake brewery one day, Frost ended up becoming a sake importer and, since 1997, a sake maker at SakeOne kura (brewery) in Forest Grove, Oregon.

According to Frost, recent strides in technology have allowed sake makers, including his own kura, to make sakes so delicate they're actually damaged by heat -- not necessarily great news for Phoenicians doing midday shopping during the summer.

Oh, and another thing, hai dozo. Frost says not to be put off by the screw-off caps used on most imported sake bottles or by sake sold in a box, both of which are considered technologically advanced packaging (regular corks can discolor the rice wine, and exposure to air will hasten its deterioration). Unfortunately, they're associated in the American mind with cheap glug dear to only winos and the underage. Because of that, notes Frost, "we've come up with a bar closure for our bottles" (the bottles are cobalt blue and resemble wine bottles).

SakeOne is also introducing nontraditional infused sakes, which was Frost's idea -- a heretical concept in the ancient tradition of sake making. For now, these lightly flavored sakes, similar to flavored vodkas, include roasted hazelnut, Asian pear and blackberry.