Sake, the fermented rice alcohol from Japan, has been popular outside of Tokyo for the last few decades, but recently its presence in the U.S.—in high-end liquor stores, on modern restaurant menus, and at chic parties—has grown.
In New York, America’s rekindled love affair with fine sake is especially apparent. Not only have a host of cool, sake-focused bars opened in recent months (like Bar Moga, which opened just last week), but the libation is appearing on the menus at some pretty unexpected places as well: Lure Fishbar in Soho, Ducked Up at the Ludlow House, and even Le Bernardin, chef Eric Ripert’s famed French seafood restaurant in Midtown. At Vogue’s own recent Last Saturday in April party (hosted by Sally Singer in advance of this year’s Met Gala), the sake was also flowing like, well, wine. The event, which took place in a glowy, misty garden in Manhattan’s East Village, had a midsummer night’s anime theme, and partygoers embraced the evening both sartorially and culinarily, dining on intricately arranged bento boxes from Brushstroke and sipping chilled sake from Heavensake.
“From what I’ve seen, sake has been popular for the last 15 years,” says Kenta Goto, owner of the intimate (and always busy) Bar Goto on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “What I’m seeing now is that more people are talking about it. There is a lot of great sake that is available, and it pairs beautifully with food just as wine does. Customers are becoming increasingly aware of this, and are drinking sake with more frequency.”
Nes Rueda, of premium sake brand Heavensake, agrees, adding that sake’s uniqueness is what may be attracting a whole new set of drinkers. “It is truly in a category of its own, and cannot be fairly compared to anything else. It is fermented from rice, which is a grain, so in theory it should be like beer. But it is not carbonated, and taste-wise it is closer to wine—but still very different. It’s also not distilled, so it’s not a vodka or a kind of spirit. It’s really in a league of its own.”
Rueda also notes that, in this wellness-obsessed era, sake—which is high in amino acids and low on acidity—holds a particular appeal for the “conscious drinker.” “People are seeking an informed choice for when and what they drink,” he explains. “The days of over-drinking are gone, and hard liquor is harsh on the body.”
Below, a guide to choosing, drinking, and enjoying sake now.
What to look for:
Like wine, sake comes in all sorts of flavor profiles; it can be light and crisp, delicate and dry, or bold and fruity. Choosing one is about personal preference, but the important thing is balance. “A good sake should never have a harsh bite,” explains Rueda. “Whether it is dry or sweet, it should present a harmonious, well-balanced flavor profile.” Rueda also says that, although there are exceptions, you should stay away from hot sake or unfiltered sakes and explore the more refined versions instead.
How to order it:
Since there are so many types of sakes—and most sake bottle labels are in Japanese—it can be difficult to make a confident decision. However, “places that offer sake on the menu usually have some good knowledge on the sakes they carry,” Rueda explains. “Don’t be afraid to ask the sommelier or waitstaff questions. Tell them what flavors you like and ask to try it; most places are usually happy to pour you a taste to make sure you like it.”
How to serve it:
Forget what you thought you knew: Sake is rarely served hot and rarely served in a ceramic tumbler. “Good sake should be enjoyed chilled, in a stemmed white wine glass so you can sniff and swirl, really allowing the sake to express its aromatics,” says Rueda. “Sake has evolved so much now that the best way to bring out the unique flavors of an exceptional sake is to serve it chilled. I also like to leave my bottle table-side, out of the ice. You will notice how the sake changes a bit as it approaches room temperature.” Goto agrees, saying that the flavor of sake can be enhanced by its temperature and the vessel from which it’s served. “If the sake is rich and bold, I prefer to drink it at room temperature from a cypress box. Picking the right drinking vessel enhances the aroma and taste.”
How to mix it:
Like true aficionados, Goto and Nes agree that sake is best enjoyed in its purest state, with no additions. “Premium sake is a very delicate liquid with plenty of aromas and natural sugars.” Rueda says. “My suggestion is to enjoy it on its own.” However, if you do want to experiment, subtleness—and a delicate hand—are key. “Try drinking it on the rocks, in a generous tumbler, and eventually drop a slice of yuzu peel or a slice of strawberry,” recommends Rueda.
Or, take Goto’s approach and try it in a Sakura Martini—a Bar Goto specialty. Just remember to take it easy: “I try not to dilute or aerate the cocktail too much when mixing,” he says. “You don't want to kill the subtle and delicate flavor that is the beauty of sake.”
Bar Goto’s Sakura Martini
2.5 oz. sake 1 oz. gin 1/4 tsp. maraschino liqueur
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass Stir with ice Strain into a martini glass Garnish with cherry blossom
This story originally appeared on Vogue.
More from Vogue: