If ordering sake at a sushi restaurant brings on a panic attack, you’re not alone. Sake is complicated, at least at first. To help decipher the labels and learn enough about the fermented rice beverage to order with confidence, we turned to sake educator Roberto Loppi.
Currently beverage director for the Montage in Beverly Hills, Calif., the Italian native is an experienced sommelier who has made it his mission to educate consumers and sommeliers about sake. He pairs sake with the tasting menu at Scarpetta in Beverly Hills, and he also created the sake menu for the Vietnamese restaurant District by Hannah An near West Hollywood, Calif.
How did an Italian sommelier get into sake? Loppi was working at Hakkasan in London and its other locations around the world and was required to match sake with the high-end restaurant’s modern Chinese food. He began to educate himself by reading, tasting — and by going to Japan, where he met sake masters and visited breweries. He got hooked on the diversity and versatility of sake, which goes back about 2,000 years in Japan (the cultivation of rice dates back more than 7,000 years).
What fascinates Loppi about sake is the drink’s purity and freshness, which is a reflection of the Japanese culture. But he’s also fascinated by the contrast between tradition and technology. “When I visited some breweries, they might have the most advanced technique for checking the temperature of the fermenting mash and not even have a little stepladder to stand on but use an old beat-up stool. That kind of contradiction is fun,” says Loppi.
The most important factor in determining a sake’s style is the amount of milling given to the rice. Grains polished down to 60 percent or 70 percent will create a very different sake than grains polished down to 23 percent, say. This is because each rice grain has a starchy core surrounded by proteins and fat. The more starch and less proteins and fat you use, the higher the grade of sake obtained. Considering that sake is made with just four ingredients — rice, yeast, water and kogi (a friendly mold ) — it’s amazing how different the end products can be.
There are different styles of sake too. Sakes with ginjo on the label are fruity and aromatic, with an appealing acidity. Daiginjo, made from rice polished down to 50 percent or less, is even more premium, light and fragrant. Junmai ginjo is from Hiroshima in the south and is refreshing, sometimes slightly sweet with a compelling complexity and a lot of savory notes.
Sakes from the snowy Niigata, up in the north, are very dry and delicate, mostly because of the pristine water and air. Nigori is very different, milky, slightly effervescent with a gentle sweetness.
Next time you’re confronted with a sake menu, start by ordering a ginjo or daiginjo, and if you like that style, try a more expensive one next time. Just as in learning about wine, it’s important to taste great examples of each style. Each time you discover a sake you like, you’re becoming more knowledgeable.
What sake to buy? Roberto Loppi picked five sakes in different styles, each of which would make a great introduction to the drink.
Kikusui Junmai Ginjo
From Niigata, a “blessed” region for sake making, this is an elegant sake in the look and in the flavor profile, delicate, dry, with refreshing tropical flavors. If your palate is set on Sancerre or dry Rieslings, you’ll like this one. Match it with scallops or burrata salad, or serve it as anaperitif. About $24 for a 720 milliliter bottle.
Masumi Nanago Daiginjo
This doesn’t come cheap, but it’s a super-premium sake. The Miyasaka brewery has more than 300 years of tradition in the lovely village of Suwa, near Nagano. Beautiful crisp citrus notes and texture to go with seared tuna or a seafood platter. About $66 for a 720 ml bottle.
Kamoizumi Shusen Junmai
From Hiroshima, it has a unique flavor profile — earthy, nutty and mushroomy — and is perfect served warm or with strong, savory dishes, both Asian and non-Asian, and with barbecued meat or hard cheese. About $35 for a 900 ml bottle.
Dewatsuru Emaki Rose
Made by another historic brewery, Akita Seishu, in the north. It’s unique and inexpensive, made with an ancient strain of purple rice that gives it an appealing pink color, and flavors of rose petal and cranberry. Sip it with grilled vegetables and tomato-based pizzas. Or mix it in a martini glass with vodka and lemon for a Japanese Cosmo. About $20 for a 360 ml bottle.
Dassai Daiginjo sparkling nigori
From the Yamaguchi region, this sparkling nigori with Champagne-like bubbles and an appealing creamy texture is widely available. Add a lime and serve it in a Champagne flute by the pool or match it with a fresh fruit bowl. About $30 for a 720 ml bottle.