The Japanese drink suits the fall season well.
Sake is different, noted my friend, a Tokyo transplant, on a recent visit back home. We were watching the sun drop over the city from moto-i's rooftop bar in Minneapolis; Uptown's noise and bustle seemed a world away.
"It relies on a completely different brewing process," she explained. Unlike beer or whiskey fermented with sprouted grain, sake relies on a strain of fungus that was domesticated by Asian brewers millennia ago and that forms the basis of most Japanese, Chinese and Korean spirits. This fermenting process is quick and efficient, especially when sake's polished white rice is the host.
With a 14 to 20 percent alcohol content, sake is one of the stronger fermented beverages around. "That brewing process can give it a musty taste, unless properly handled," she said. (That explains what, to me, seems to be a slight mushroom-like aftertaste.) Good sake balances that savory note with the sweet, toasty flavors of the rice and ends with a refreshing mineral finish. Purists sip good sake straight up. But its flavors make for a terrific cocktail, too.
To sip at home
While there's no better way to meet sake than on moto-i's roof (with a friend fluent in Japanese), it's not hard to translate this spirit into a Western drink. If you're shopping for sake, know that two varieties are a good place to start: junmais and honjozos. The junmais is the most delicate sake, and thus the more expensive. Serve it chilled and straight up in a traditional 2-inch cup.
Less complex and thus less expensive, the traditional honjozo (Ohkagura makes a good one) retails for about $30 for a 1.8-liter or 60-ounce bottle. Its interesting flavors mix beautifully with cucumber, spicy tomato or ginger and citrus. Sake cocktails make a fine start to an Asian-inspired meal (think soy-glazed salmon or chicken teriyaki).
Sake seems just right for transitioning into autumn. Try sake in your next bloody Mary, seasoned with soy and wasabi instead of Tabasco, or drink it straight up with a slice of ginger and a splash of lime. This exotic spirit will lift your favorite drinks.
Beth Dooley is author of "The Northern Heartland Kitchen."