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Like geisha, chopsticks, and civility, sake was once one of those shadowed areas of the Mysterious East where few Westerners had ventured much. Those who’d sampled it on trips to Japan often fancied themselves authorities. James Bond typified the officious type when he confirmed in You Only Live Twice that he enjoyed sake, “Especially when it’s served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, like this is.”
It’s worth noting this is the same movie where Bond got cosmetic surgery and supposedly passed himself off as a native Japanese. So 007 movies may not be the most reliable source.
Here’s the deal on that notorious warmed sake, by the way:
In the short run, at least, WW II didn’t work out all that well for Japan. Sake breweries, like a lot of the rest of the country, were bombed or burned or abandoned. When commercial production of sake cranked back up, whatever rice was available went mostly into people’s mouths, just as it had been for most of the war. Breweries had to make a little go a long way. They did that usually by extending sake with grain alcohol. It made for more sake—including virtually all that drunk by GIs during the Occupation—but it also made that sake taste like furniture polish. Warming sake was the best way to make it palatable.
In 1968, the year after that Bond movie came out, Japanese breweries began to once again produce sake that wasn’t adulterated. While we may like to think of premium sake as something from Japan’s ancient past, it’s only been in the past three decades or so that breweries have begun making the high-end masterpieces now widely available. In nearly all cases, modern sake is best appreciated moderately chilled.
It’s ironic that one of the primary reasons sake’s suddenly become so popular in the US is because so many people are eating sushi now. They tend to associate the two. Connoisseurs of sushi and sake, though, don’t usually combine them. Both are made of rice; it’s too much of the same thing. (Beer or tea’s the traditional drink for sushi.)
Sake definitely goes better with food than just sipping it unaccompanied. Instead of rice dishes, though, go with something salty and rich. Like grilled yakitori chicken. Slices of sausage. Or those wasabi-spiked dry peas available everywhere now. Even peanuts. (Actually, our two favorite sake nibbles are dried codfish sperm sacs, called mentaiko, or shiokara, squid lightly fermented in its own insides. But neither Schnucks nor Dierbergs will respond to our very sensible recommendation they add these to their shelves, so you’re probably out of luck.)
From what to drink sake? Sake varieties tend to have very little bouquet or none at all. So there’s no need for a fluted wine glass. You’ll notice at Japanese restaurants sake’s usually served in rather small cups. The reason’s more cultural than anything else. Sake is typically drunk with companions and it’s always been good form to pour for one another. The small cups make that pouring more frequent, which encourages interaction with friends. It’s true that different kinds of sake will be best appreciated by different thickness of cups (which deposit the liquid to different parts of the tongue). But if you’re exploring sake for the first time, use whatever glassware you have and spend your money on good sake instead.