Spirits: Sake Rising

<< Back to Robb Report, December 2002
  • Eric Hiss

Three may be sake’s lucky number. Americans who once considered sake just a warm sushi chaser are finding that premium sakes (usually served cold, by the way) can now be appreciated for their own sake, thanks to the emerging trend of sake flights. Borrowing from the tradition of wine flights, where three glasses of varietals are poured to complement a meal, sake flights allow novices and sake-philes alike to experience the taste and bouquet of high-end brands.

The trend is brewing mainly because such premium sakes as Hoyo and Dewazakura are arriving on U.S. shores for the first time. Each is offered in the three different sake classifications that normally make up a flight: Junmai, Ginjo, and the superpremium Daiginjo. Each classification is determined by the percentage of the rice kernel that has been polished to impart infinite combinations of character, structure, and balance. (To learn more about sake classifications, visit the web site www.esake.com.)

Although sake’s ingredients are rather simple—essentially rice, water, and yeast—the end product is bewitchingly complex. “Sake brewmasters are the original biotechnologists,” says sake expert and importer Chris Pearce. The fruits of this patient science can now be enjoyed at top Japanese and Asian fusion restaurants across the country (with the West Coast and Hawaii holding a slight advantage), where sake flights are typically served in three 2-ounce glasses neatly aligned in an obon, or wooden holder.

At Mako in Beverly Hills (310.288.8338), chef Makoto Tanaka’s adventurous Japanese-Mediterranean fusion offerings are increasingly being paired with sake flights. One flight matches Akitabare Junmai Koshiki Junzukuri (appreciated for its light and mild bouquet) with a Dewazakura Ginjo Oka (noted for a transparent flavor with a floral character and a hint of pears) and ends with the silky autumn apple finish of Onikoroshi Daiginjo.

Polished mahogany and bamboo are the backdrop for flights served at Tengu (310.209.0071), an award-winning Los Angeles restaurant that aggressively seeks out the best and rarest sakes, such as a melon-hued Omachi-mai Daiginjo, which costs $1,000 a bottle. Patrons can choose from various flights, ranging from the traditional (including Masumi Junmai, Kaori Ginjo, and Onikoroshi Daiginjo) to the decidedly nontraditional (concoctions enriched by the addition of infused pineapple and infused litchi, for instance).

South of Los Angeles in Anaheim, the new restaurant and bar 5' (714.383.6000) purveys its flights in a sleek, gallerylike space where art and photographs are showcased along with 15 premium sakes. Menu pairings are a specialty here, with flights suggested to complement a staggering New Age sushi menu of more than seven dozen selections.

In Hawaii, closer to sake’s traditional source, flights abound. A few places of note include Furusato restaurant and bar (808.922.4991) at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, which features rare sakes; Maui’s Sansei restaurant (808.669.6286), where flights from individual breweries are a specialty, and Nalu Sunset Bar and Sushi (808.667.1200), located at the Maui Marriott Resort in Lahaina. Homegrown premium brands are beginning to appear, including northern California’s Ozeki.

However, no trend goes unnoticed in New York, and this one is no exception. Manhattanites thirsting for a sake flight need look no further than Asia de Cuba (212.726.7755), which has just begun offering flights, as has Blue Fin (212.918.1400), a sublime seafood establishment. Wherever you encounter a sake flight, rest assured that good things come in threes.

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