At Karen and Sean Terrio’s wedding reception, guests toasted with cups of sake instead of flutes of champagne. It was fitting—the couple had just bought a Japanese restaurant. Now five years later, the Terrios, who own Misaki Sushi in Hyannis, have sipped countless sakes and know much about this ancient drink. “Learning about sake gives me a better understanding of Japanese traditions,” says Karen.
Once known as “the drink of gods,” sake has been around for thousands of years and is made from polished long grains of rice, spring water, yeast, and an enzyme known as koji that aids the fermentation. Although brewed like beer, it’s drunk like a wine.
Starting about three decades ago, new processes let brewers produce premium and artisanal sakes that are usually served cold in a wine glass. The quality is discerned by how much of the outer layers of the grain are polished away—the more polished, the higher the quality and cost. There is a plethora of styles from light and dry, slightly sweet, floral, with tastes of honey, persimmon or squash, to those infused with plums or left unfiltered and creamy. Look for the words Ginjo, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo or Nigori (unfiltered) on labels—these are some categories of the better grades of sake.
Sake bottles in various shapes and colors line the square tables at Misaki when Karen holds tastings with her staff. Calligraphy and sketches of historical Japanese figures, brushed characters, designs of the horizon, crashing waves and flowers, and mottos or poems in Japanese poems decorate the striking labels. The back label gives the sake’s exotic name in English, like Midnight Moon, Pearls of Simplicity, and Dreamy Clouds. While you might think certain French wine labels are hard to decipher, these are nearly impossible to read without learning a few kanji.
The fermented rice drink also makes creative cocktails. Shake with spirits and juices, and you have a saketini. Dump a hot ochoko – a tiny cylindrical cup used to serve sake – into a cold glass of beer and you have a sake bomb. ” Sake has become more trendy than ever before,” says Karen. (She still sometimes enjoys sipping the traditional warm cup of sake. “Its soothing.”)
From Hamada San, the restaurant’s Japanese sushi chef, the couple learned about sake etiquette. For example, the Japanese never pour their own sake when dining with other people. It’s up to a dining partner to fill another’s glass. “Understanding these rituals gives me a better understanding of this history” says Karen. ” There’s a lot to learn.”
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