Blog: The Joy of Sake
The Joy of Sake, a non-profit organization for sake education, filled the Altman Building Thursday evening with over 370 sakes and as many excited tasters. The event was designed accordingly for all levels of sake enthusiasts with no hint of snobbery, which was wonderful considering the majority of my sake experience involved dropping it into beer. The evening began with a traditional Kagami-Biraki ceremony, during which a sake barrel’s lid was broken open by a wooden mallet, and the sake inside shared with all in attendance. After the opening, the crowd toasted to the beginning of the affair before spreading out over two floors to enjoy sipping, snacking and mingling.
The overwhelming selection of sakes was neatly organized into categories reflecting the “rice polishing ratio,” or the percentage of the original grain of rice left after it has been polished to remove its bran: Daiginjo A (≤40%), Daiginjo B (≤50%), Ginjo (≤60%), and Junmai (≤65%). My research indicated that Daiginjo A was where the super-premium would be located. That was as far as my new knowledge reached, and it was hardly enough to tackle the rows of sake with any sort of direction.
The game plan became simple: ask someone else to make the game plan. We were fortunate enough to have Chris Pearce, the event’s organizer and a sake expert assessor, on hand to graciously take us through a few sakes, patiently teaching us how to smell, taste, and truly appreciate the subtleties of each cup. He described the judging process for the sakes submitted for the US National Sake Appraisal, the awards of which were indicated with stars on the sake display cards. He noted that of course you can casually enjoy sake, but “When you start paying attention, that’s when things get interesting.” As experts often are, he was right. Giving us a chance to experience and describe each cup for ourselves, he guided us to the next bottle and helped us compare the different things we were tasting, noting how important smell was for each sample. He also introduced me to what became my favorite sake of the evening, “Dewazakura Daiginjo.” Mr. Pearce encouraged us to see how the sake can enhance and be enhanced by food pairings, and who were we to argue?
As we proceeded, the rooms were lined with restaurants providing delightful small plates to compliment our sakes. Our first stop was Momofuku Ssäm Bar who served a dish of “Roasted Beets with Sunflower Hozon and Raisin,” the perfect reflection of the no-longer-summer, not-yet-fall evening. SushiSamba’s “Yellowtail Ceviche” was a balanced bite of ginger, garlic, and red onion. Along with Brushstroke‘s melt-in-your-mouth “Oregon Washu Beef Stew” and Megu‘s perfectly “Grilled Shrimp” in a spicy Kanzuri sauce, it made a run for our personal favorite of the evening. The eventual winner was Sakamai’s “Ahi Poke with Foie Gras Egg Custard” plated with a richly smoked aioli, crispy burdock and sushi rice.
Mushrooms were a popular sake pairing highlighted in a few of the appetizers. The perpetually innovative wd-50 did not disappoint with its sunflower-miso dropped on a smooth blend of shiitake and daikon atop “Land Caviar”, less casually known as tonburi. Bond Street topped its “Alaskan King Crab Inari Sushi” with a touch of truffle while EN Japanese Brasserie pulled no punches with its decadent “Black Truffle Mousse,” topped with truffle shavings.
15 East and Sakagura both served octopus but that is where the similarity ceased. 15 East’s “Slow Poached Octopus” stood alone on the plate and let the incredibly tender texture do the talking, while Sakagura’s “Charred Octopus with Okra, Ginger, and Peppers” in a pickled plum and soy sauce made for a refreshing and harmonious bite that went especially well with a sip of sake. Downstairs, lanterns strung across the ceiling creating an entirely cozy atmosphere. There, we sampled some unpasteurized sakes before lining up for Bozu’s “Roast Beef with Wild Mushrooms and Peach Miso,” Sun Noodle Ramen Lab’s “Chilled Tantan Ramen with Spicy Pork” and Aburiya Kinnosuke’s “Roasted Duck with Ponzu Sauce and Tomato.”
Back upstairs, the room was growing increasingly jovial- likely less a result of the imbibing and more likey a byproduct of the nature of the evening and the people who were drawn to it. Tables packed with sake encouraged drinkers to share their opinions and experiences, pointing out which bottles had been their favorites. There were plenty of people who come to the event every year just to see the new award winners, sample the impressive appetizers, and enjoy the co-mingling crowd. Our last act before leaving was joining a crowd that had gathered at one of the Junmai tables to be led in a toast by one of the now-off-duty chefs. It was fitting that we left as we came in, toasting with some new friends to some new knowledge and to the newly understood Joy of Sake.
- Mallory Sullivan