Instead of a California cab or chardonnay, how about shaking things up this year with a gift of what the Japanese call "the drink of the gods?" Premium rice wine, or sake, is enjoying a boom in the U.S. at fine wine shops and dining hot spots -- not all of them Asian. High-quality sakes increasingly are available for up to $60 for a standard 720-ml bottle. If that sounds pricey, consider that sakes brewed in Japan with special strains of rice and pure spring water are every bit the equal of Napa Valley's fancy nectars. "You get what you pay for," says Kamakura (Japan)-based sake expert John Gauntner. "Cheap sake is an industrial product, and expensive sake is made by hand."
Part of what makes sake appealing to Americans is its undeniable Asian mystique. But that can also make enjoying it something of a challenge for those new to the drink. For starters, sake comes in varying degrees of dryness and sweetness. Drier and lighter varieties are increasingly popular, but sweet and full-bodied sake also has a large following. Most breweries adhere to a numerical system where sweeter sakes are marked with a "minus" number and drier ones carry a "plus." For example, a very sweet sake would be "-5," while only the driest varieties merit a "+10."
Dry or sweet, generally speaking, premium sake is best served chilled. Warming can blunt the delicate aroma. But check the label -- some sakes benefit from a touch of heat, especially as the temperature outside falls. This is best done indirectly by placing a flask of sake into a pot of preheated water. Avoid overdoing it: The ideal temperature is 98.4F.
Deciphering bottles can be a challenge, even when labels are in English (not always a given). Basically, there are only a handful of types to keep in mind. Junmai, or "pure rice," is the simplest. It means sake made with only rice, water, and koji -- mold spores that convert starches into sugar. In other words, junmai doesn't contain any added grain alcohol to give it an extra kick. (Most sake already contains about 15% alcohol, so junmai fans aren't missing out on much punch.) Ginjo is another important term to look for, because it's key to distinguishing premium sake from the rest.
Ginjo and dai-ginjo refer to sakes made with kernels of rice polished down to 60% or 50%, respectively, of the original size for a more refined taste. Think about how a diamond is polished from a rough-cut stone, and you'll get the idea. On the low end of the pricing scale, you can try an American-made premium sake called Momokawa Pearl junmai ginjo from Forest Grove, Ore., for $11. A Lexus of imports is the $60 Ginga Shizuku ("Milky Way Droplets") junmai ginjo, which is brewed in an igloo and strained through canvas for purity. Other classifications include nigori, or "clouded," sake, a thicker and usually sweet drink, and jizake, which is "handmade" in small lots, usually by lesser-known producers. Shirakawago Sasanigori, a sweet nigori sake, is priced at around $25, and Tenzan jizake goes for about $38.
Still confused? Sake guru Gauntner, an Ohio native who's one of the first non-Japanese to win an "Accomplished Sake Taster" award from Japan's Pure Sake Assn., runs sake-world.com, a Web site that's a great resource for novices. In addition to tutorials on types of sake and how to match sake with food, he offers lists of his personal sake picks. Other helpful sites include sakeusa.com from the Sake Association of America and sake.com, run by the Kyoto-based brewer Tamanohikari.
Embellish your gift of sake with a set of traditional sake drinking cups known as o-choko and serving vessels called tokkuri. Ceramic or cut-glass o-choko, single serving cups about the size of a shot glass, and the artfully crafted flagons are as important to sake connoisseurs as their liquid contents. "It's like holding a painting in your hand," says Robert Yellin, a Japanese-pottery specialist who lives in Shizuoka, Japan. Somehow sake doesn't taste right in even the finest crystal stemware.
By Chester Dawson