The Tasting Panel magazine

June 2012

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Page 66 of 124

S urprisingly, saké can still conjure up thoughts of that hot, mass- produced, low-quality beverage guaranteed to deliver a hangover of the highest order and the atten- dant vow of "never again." I too harbored those feelings until about twelve years ago. While working as a sommelier at a fine dining restaurant in Chicago, I attended a wine tasting in search of all the newest vintages from the best wine regions in the world. Instead, what I remember most was the experience of tasting the highest quality ginjo saké that Japan had to offer. It was a pivotal point for me as a beverage professional. I haven't been the same since. Within a month of that saké tasting, our restaurant beverage program was expanded to include ten premium ginjo saké options. Although I immediately recognized the value of pairing saké with the raw-fish course of the evening's multi-course tasting menu, I soon came to realize that I would be remiss in limiting saké to the realm of Asian-based cuisine. I found myself suggesting the likes of Dewatsuru Kimoto Junmai from Akita with crispy sweetbreads, instead of the default premier cru Burgundy—to the delight of adventurous foodies. A new world had opened up to me. Today, I am convinced that, regardless of a menu's cultural influence, no well-rounded beverage program is complete without the inclusion of quality saké. My passion for saké took me to Japan, where I learned precisely why saké makes a delicious and dynamic alternative to wine and pairs so well with any cuisine. Saké is a mellow bever- age with roughly one third the acidity of wine. Therefore, saké never interrupts the flavors of the food. Quite the opposite: Saké acts as a vehicle for flavors on the plate. It is also rich with multiple amino acids in which the infamous umami flavors are present. Saké Rai Umami (simultaneously "discovered" in 1907 in Japan and France) is that satisfying savory richness perceived in Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, truffles and chocolate, as well as saké. Amino acids such as glutamate and In the polishing process during saké produc- tion, rice is milled down from its original size to eliminate the impurities (proteins, amino acids, fats, etc.) on the shell. The goal is to leave that fermentable starchy center intact. Generally, the more the rice is milled down, the smoother—and more expensive—your saké will be. When the seimaibui (the percentage of original grain left after polishing) reaches the extreme end of the spectrum, the result is junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo—super refined and complex sakés with a multitude of expressions. I tend to think of these ginjo and daiginjo styles as the "white wine" of the saké rainbow (though, as a brewed beverage, saké is technically in the beer family). These styles work best not only with raw fish and oysters, but also with salads, vegetables, and lighter fare. Try Tsukasobatan Junmai Daiginjo with melon and prosciutto— sheer saké pairing harmony! Just as these super-polished sakés work well as white wine alternatives, sakés with a "sturdy" core—kimoto, yamahai, futsu-shu and junmai— can act as the "red wine" of any saké program. These sakés tend to have less of a polish and are full of bold umami flavors, subtle intensity and beautiful texture. Their heightened acidity levels and umami flavors will help with the pairing of high protein and/or umami-rich foods. A few stellar examples would be Naba Shoten Minato Yamahai Nama Genshu with bittersweet chocolate, Gekkeikan Nigori with blue cheese or Hakkaisan Futsu-shu with a rare steak. Fast-forward twelve years to present day, and I'm thrilled to now find high-quality ginjo saké intertwining with great wines in many food-and- beverage programs across the country. High- quality saké belongs in every restaurant that can legally sell alcohol. 66 / the tasting panel / june 2012 guanylate are partly responsible for creating the "fifth taste" (in addition to sweetness, saltiness, bitterness and acidity), perceived on the palate as meatiness or savoriness. Umami flavors are found particularly in sakés labeled junmai, kimoto, yamahai, and futsu-shu, and coupled with heightened acidity levels make these food enhancers.

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