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Sommeliers Have New Yorkers Swapping Wine for Sake

By Serena Solomon | August 30, 2012 2:05pm

LOWER EAST SIDE — While a "good nose" and "long finish" are terms usually reserved for describing wine, a batch of sake sommeliers is elevating the traditional Japanese rice drink to near Napa proportions at some Downtown locales.

As the fermented beverage becomes more common on cocktails lists and at dinner parties, New Yorkers are seeking to learn more about the ancient drink through classes and tasting events featuring varying qualities of filtered, unfiltered and flavor-infused sakes on the menu.

"The New York market has a very mature taste for sake," said Hiromi Iuchi, 43, a trained sake sommelier and importer of the drink, who took tasters on a tour at the Eldridge Street Japanese restaurant Family Recipe Wednesday night.

At the sold-out event, Laura Nuter, who owns craft-beer hub The Filling Station inside Chelsea Market, sampled the 11 sakes being offered.

"I sell beer and drink plenty of wine, but I know nothing about sake," she acknowledged. 

Nuter's friend and fellow guest, Sheryl Zelikson, had brought a bottle of sake over for a dinner party the previous week, inspiring them to attend the tasting.

"I am happy to be breaking out of the tradition," said Nuter, adding the drink went down easy and smooth.

"There is a huge yearning for more education and more knowledge, to learn more about sake and unravel some of the mysteries," added Timothy Sullivan, a sake expert who runs the website urbansake.com and holds often-sold out "Elements of Sake" courses at Astor Center each month.

"It disperses the myths and fears about drinking sake," said Sullivan, of participating in the two-hour class. "People can find it intimidating."

The alcohol content of the sake served Wednesday varied from about 7 to 14 percent — or up to nearly 30 proof — keeping it on par with traditional wine.

Much like the microbrewery craze of beer in the United States, small-batch premium sake — or tokutei meishoshu — has experienced a resurgence in Japan.

"Before, sake was known to be an old guy's drink," said Iuchi, who moved to New York about two decades ago and lives in Williamsburg.

With a name that generally translates to "alcohol" in Japanese, sake has been around for thousands of years. However, after World War II, a shortage of rice in Japan along with an influx of foreign wine and beer imports reduced sake breweries from several thousand to about 1,200 today, Iuchi explained. 

Armed with new technology, breweries have been able to create premium sakes, spiking the interest of the nation's younger people, as well as the international market.

"Sake is categorized by the polishing of rice," Iuchi said of the brewing process. "The more polished the better."

The small-batch breweries in Japan now utilize "rice-polishing machines" that rub the rice together, something traditional brewers did not previously have access to, according to Iuchi.

"These machines can get the rice down to 35 percent of its size," she said, adding that the rice's starchy center is what makes for good sake. 

Additionally, the drink can have just as many taste and aroma elements as wine, and tasting it is done in much the same way, Sullivan said.

"Some sakes go for a prominent rice taste, another might have a big fruit profile," he said, adding that banana, green apple and melon are common flavors found in sake.

On Wednesday at Family Recipe, which opened last year, Iuchi introduced a citrus sake blend made from the yuzu fruit.

"This is for the new sake drinker. It is like a cocktail and not traditional," said Iuchi, comparing it to an aperitif.

Along with rice polishing, filtration of the sake can also create different varietals. 

Traditionally, the drink is filtered through charcoal to remove bacteria, but this can also take out some of its color and complexity.

Sakes can now come unfiltered, known as nigori, leaving the sake cloudy with a sweeter flavor.

"A lot of Americans like the nigori style more than the Japanese style," Iuchi noted.

For Akiko Thurnauer, the owner of Family Recipe, her Western customers are adventurous when it comes to sampling sakes.

"We don’t carry mainstream brands, so people don’t know our sakes so much," she said of the 16 to 20 sake types the restaurant sells.

For example, kaori is one type Thurnauer often recommends.

"It is smooth, easy to drink and nice in the summer because it isn't too heavy," she explained. 

Another of Thurnauer's suggestions is a Japanese lemon sake, which is sweet and dense like the Italian liquer Limoncello.

At the Wednesday event, taster Kathy Kendall delved deeper into what had come to replace white wine as her refreshing summer drink of choice.

"'Tell me what you think I should order," said Kendall, of how she normally requests sake from a bartender.

"A bottle of Pinot Noir I know, but this is a great substitution."

Family Recipe will host its next sake-themed event on Sept. 23, and Sullivan's next sake course is set for Sept. 17.