The Sake Ninja Takes On American-Made Sake

October is the beginning of sake-brewing season in Japan. Here in the U.S. we celebrate in our own way with The Joy of Sake, an annual celebration of the Japanese rice brew in New York City. This year marks the 10th edition of the event (which goes down tonight at the Altman Building) and features some 300 different premium sakes. Among those, about a dozen were made right here on American soil. Chris Johnson, the self-proclaimed "Sake Ninja" and sake sommelier at Cherry, in New York, is one of the country's foremost experts on the beverage. He talks to us about the virtues of saké that's made in the good ol' U.S.of A.

You're a sake sommelier. And now the Court of Master Sommeliers exam for wine includes a sake portion. How much is sake like wine?

In its production, sake is probably more like beer. But it drinks more like a wine. It's driven by aromatics. When you drink a sake, you smell it, swirl it in the glass, let it spill over every part of your mouth and tongue like a wine. When people come to the restaurant and ask what sort of saké they should drink, I usually ask them what kind of wine they like. If they like Sauvignon Blanc, I offer them a crisp, clean, unpasteurized saké. A red wine drinker will like a more full-bodied saké that's rich on the palate.

When did Americans start making saké?

A couple Japanese companies came here maybe 30 years ago to make sake. It started out as pretty basic sake, what you would drink hot. Now, there are newer breweries making really good stuff. You have SakeOne in Oregon, which has been around since 1992 (you might recognize it from a guest appearance on IFC's Portlandia); Moto-i, a ramen house and sake brewery in Minneapolis that specializes in namazake or unpasteurized saké (so you can only get it there); and Texas Sake Company, in Austin, which is working with Texas-grown rice that Japanese settlers brought over years ago. And it's expanding. It's a fun beverage to make and people are excited about it.

Are these American sakés any good?

I've tried them all and they're all very good, at different levels. In the U.S.-made sake appraisal, we had Shochikubai Junmai Daiginjo by Takara Sake USA, in California, get a gold medal. (It's not for sale yet, but will likely be available soon.) It was made with rice grown in America, brewed here, so there's definitely some quality saké being made in the United States.

Is there a terroir to sake, the way there is for wine?

There is, but in saké it's more about the water. Breweries set up their facilities, like beer microbreweries and small distilleries have done for years, near good water sources. To a degree, rice will be distinct to the place it was grown. But more than that, a saké will be influenced by its water source. Certain waters will be harder or softer, have more or less mineral content, and that will affect the taste.

Are there vintages to sake, like in wine?

You now have really nice aged sakes. But in saké, the idea is to make it the same every year. Sake brewers don't have the luxury of saying, oh, this was a bad year for rice. If the rice is harder one year, the brewer has to adjust his production methods. When you make saké, you have to soak the rice. So, in a dry year, you soak it longer. In a wet year, you soak it for less time. Whenever we taste a saké from a brewer we know, it should be exactly the same as it was the year before.

Favorite sake of the moment?

I'm a Loire wine drinker, so I like rustic, funky wines. So, the sakes I like are made in the Kimoto and Yamahai styles. (These are robust, funky brews made with a specific type of yeast starter.) For instance, Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra Dry is a fantastic, very approachable, affordable sake that has amazing depth. I also love Hakkaisan Junmai Gingo for its cleanness. I love the Murai Family sakes; they're all fantastic. And Yoshima Ogawa, which has been brewing since 1548. For a less expensive saké or a beginner sake if you're just getting into it, there's Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo, by SakeOne in Oregon. It's perfectly balanced with nice notes of melon and an entry-level price.

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