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Rice wine is fine

Select spots showcase sake

Sake is 2,000 years old in Asia, but here it’s just hitting puberty.

“We’re at that point where wine was in the 1950s, when people didn’t know what Burgundy was,” says restaurateur David Haskell.

Next month, Haskell opens Bin 8945 in West Hollywood. It’s a Caribbean wine bar-bistro, but its list will include 15 sakes. “Those of us in the business are learning as we go.”

The hubbub must seem quaint in Japan, where today younger drinkers often prefer beer, wine and the high-octane distilled wine, Soju. Stateside, the old is new, as sake bombs give way to spots on respected wine lists.

Among the restaurants that have made a home for sake are Sona, Doug Arango’s, Water Grill and, of course, Geisha House, which has 50 varieties. The steakhouse Boa shares sake sommelier Eiji Mori with Japanese grill Katana, which has the largest list in L.A. And over the last decade, boutique sake sales have doubled in the U.S.

Why the fuss? “Sake goes with everything,” says Eric Swanson, who served as sake consultant for Morimoto in New York and Shibuya in Las Vegas. “People are beginning to realize that.”

Part of sake’s appeal is its subtlety, says Doug Arango’s chef Chris Bennett. “I don’t know that I’d match them with pork chops or barbecued ribs, (but) we have a progressive oyster tasting and sake is a slam dunk with that.”

More than 80 varieties of sake rice and the degree to which they’re polished largely determine sake’s flavor. The more-polished Daiginjo creates a crisper, fruitier sake that goes well with fish; less buffing makes Junmai fuller-bodied and a good pair with meat dishes. And since sake is 80% water, the water’s source means as much to sake as terroir does to wine.

Unlike wine, sake takes as little as 35 days to make. And there’s no cellaring: it should be consumed within 36 months of being bottled. Once opened, it has a shelf life up to three weeks.

And then there’s the taste. “There’s no bite to it, no tannins. It’s just silky and easy drinking,” says Water Grill sommelier Cara Bertone. Easy drinking can also mean easy drunken; most sakes have an alcohol content of about 15%.

Whatever amount you consume, drink it cold. Swanson compares the hot sake of many sushi restaurants to “moonshine.”

Variety Weekend met with sake experts at pan-Asian restaurant Typhoon, which overlooks the Santa Monica airport runway. Typhoon serves a wide variety of sakes; upstairs “sushi hideaway” The Hump carries more rare rice wines. Wally’s Wine in Westwood has one of the city’s best sake selections, although all our prices are approximate. Bottles are 720 mL, unless noted.

(up to 30% of rice polished away)

Kamoizumi’s Komekome
(“happy bride”) ($20 for 500 mL)
Sweet orange-popsicle taste, a good dessert sake

Kariho’s Namahage
($38 for 1.8L)
Dry and well rounded, with hintsof ocelery root and radish; good rice taste on the palate

Chiyomusubi’s Chiyomusubi
Strong pineapple, melon and apricot aromas; sweet and syrupy, with traces of honeysuckle in the finish

($38 for 1.8 L)
Extra dry and earthy, light and clean

(50% of rice polished away)

Shichiken’s “Samurai”
Fizzy palate. Acidic, lemon-lime components with a long, ripe-banana finish

Yamagat’s Kaori
A light, medium dry sake with hints of pineapple, pear an honeydew melon

Tedorigawa’s Arabashiri Nama Ginjo
Very clean tasting, with a fruity, almost citrus aroma

Nariwa’s Bicyuwajo
Elegant, smooth and full-bodied with banana and berry flavors

(Up to 70% of rice polished away)

Oga’s Tama De Izumi
A great introductory sake; medium bodied, smooth and well-balanced, with strong vanilla bean “creamsicle” overtones

Yamamoto’s Matsunomidori
Nutty, earthy and dry

Suehiro’s Ken
Sharp and complex, even salty; medium dry with herby grass notes and a clean finish


Ozeki’s Ozeki
($50 for 1.8L)
The vin ordinaire of sakes. Creamy and rich, with hints of apple, pear and vanilla; slightly more alcohol on the palate

Rihaku’s “Dreamy Clouds”
An unfiltered sake. Particularly fruity with a little wood; creamy and buttery but still dry

Tasters included Geisha House sake sommelier Mauro Vitali, Katana assistant general manager and sake sommelier Eiji Mori, Bin 8945 managing partner David Haskell, Water Grill sommelier Cara Bertone and Typhoon/The Hump’s director of operations, Chris Schaefer.

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