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08.23.2006

The Joy of Sake Tasting: August 31, San Francisco

HomeImage.gifAh, Sake. The inspiration for hundreds of haiku through the ages. The drink of Shoguns. And, on the other hand, the source of innumerable college hangovers, and the raucous cries of "Ichi, Ni, San, Sake Bomb!!" My very first legal alcoholic drink was a sake bomb. Something I'll probably never live down.

Perhaps though I am starting to make up for it by enjoying fine sake for the past seven or eight years the proper way: lightly chilled and as far away from a pint of beer as possible.

Sake is way past "becoming" a hip new trend. It's a solid third alternative to wine and cocktails in fine dining establishments in every major urban area. This is thanks in part to the ever-growing popularity of sushi, as well, no doubt, the younger generation's search for alternatives to Budweiser and martinis. Which of course has given rise to the sake cocktail -- now THE hot drink at many a New York and San Francisco lounge.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that there is a very large public Sake tasting event in both San Francisco, Honolulu, and New York, nor that it seems to be incredibly popular. Last year's event was a bit of a zoo, and thankfully the organizers have moved it to a much larger venue, which hopefully will make it more enjoyable for everyone.

The Joy of Sake is put on by the International Sake Association, whose US headquarters is in Hawaii. It features the world's largest selection of sakes available for tasting in a single event outside of Japan. 250 or so, to be exact, paired with appetizers and finger food from several popular restaurants. In San Francisco, they include Betelnut, The Hog Island Oyster Company, Memphis Minnies, Ozumo, Roy's, Kiku of Tokyo, Sanraku, and several sushi restaurants such as Sushi Ran, Sakae, Hana, and Kirala.

Sake tasting is a lot harder than wine tasting, mostly because even more so than wine, sake is meant to be drunk with food. Additionally, the flavors and aromas of sake are much more subtle than wine's, and palate fatigue can overcome them much quicker than at a wine tasting.

But if you're up for the challenge, or if you simply are interested in learning more about sake (the best way to learn is to taste!) then I encourage you to attend.

The Joy of Sake Tasting
Thursday August 31, 2006 6:00PM - 8:30PM
Moscone West Convention Center
At Fourth and Howard Streets
San Francisco, CA 94103

Tickets are $70 per person and can be purchased in advance online or by calling (888) 359-9137.

Additional Dates: September 28th, New York City. More details available on the event web site.

Based on the popularity of last year's event, I would encourage anyone attending to get there early. The usual recommendations for public tastings apply: dark, loose fitting clothing; a full stomach; and spit, spit, spit.

Comments (6)

Jean-Louis wrote:
08.24.06 at 2:17 PM

This sake event is most worthwhile for the sake selection, the other reason is the participation of many fine Japanese restaurants or Japanese leaning restaurants, for sure. Aside from the noteworthy places you mention, even the Ritz Carlton in SF was represented last year...
Ah!I take exception to sake as the key ingredient of choice for cocktails. A few cocktails on the sweet side will be accomodating of sake's delicacy, but most others will not be so obliging. Sake just does not replace vodka, gin, tequilla or rhum, except at the expense of the cocktail's soul.

08.24.06 at 2:46 PM

Nice article, thanks, wish I could be there...
I really wish there was a guide, or a way, for those of us who love wine, to navigate through the different sake on a list..or better if the restaurant ( or supplier) would make that easier.

Alder wrote:
08.24.06 at 2:54 PM

Jean-Louis,

Thanks for the comments. I ALSO take exception to sake being the ingredient for cocktails. I've never met a sake cocktail that I actually wanted to finish.

Alder wrote:
08.24.06 at 3:14 PM

Alfonso,

There is a way, and it involves a little education and a gradual improvement in labeling. First, just like learning wine varietals, you need to know the differences between the different types of sakes (Ginjo, Daiginjo, Junmai, etc) and it helps to know a bit about some of the stylistic differences between sakes that are driven by region (of production).

In combination with this you need to learn how to read the information that is currently being included on more and more imported sake labels that looks like this:

SMV: +2.5 Acidity 1.8

SMV is Sake Meter Value which is theoretically supposed to give an indication of how sweet versus dry the sake is (i.e. residual sugar value). The lower the number the sweeter the sake, the higher the number the more dry the sake, with a "neutral" sake being around a +3 level. Trying different sakes and understanding which ones you like and what their SMVs are will help you choose.

The acidity of the sake is perhaps a less useful number, as values typically only fall between 1.0 and 2.0, but they do relate to the pH of the sake. Acidity is percieved in sake much as it is in wine, but as we know sometimes high acid wines are good, sometimes they are not.

Armed with those bits of info, the best thing to do is to taste, to take notes, and to remember. Just like learning about German wines at first, the names can be really difficult to pronounce, let alone remember, but over time you learn more.

Did I mention tasting? Definitely need to do that. Even great advice from a Sommelier is no substitute for your own experience. Which is why, of course, events like this one are so good to attend.

08.24.06 at 4:28 PM

Thanks Alder.
that's a great start and a good way to explain it to me. appreciate it

Melinda wrote:
08.24.06 at 4:58 PM

Bravo! It makes me so glad to hear others out there dropping knowledge about sake. It has this terrifyingly intimidating image, but like you said, it just takes some getting to know.

Living here in Japan, I'm spoiled for choice, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's been easy to learn about the stuff. Although there are a few great teachers spreading the word (like John Gauntner and the good folks over at Mitsuya in Ogikubo), the average person has to go out of their way to get informed, especially if your Japanese is less than fluent.

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