Sake is finally picking up momentum in the United States, with stores like Sam's Wines & Spirits in Chicago reporting sake sales doubling over the past 12 months. What's more, savvy producers are putting names in English on their bottles, offering the chance to ask for a glass of "Wandering Poet" or "Cherry Bouquet."
Sake is made from steamed, fermented rice. For premium junmai and honjozo sake, at least 30 percent of the grain is polished away first. If more of the rice grain is removed, the sake can be classified as a ginjo or daiginjo; only a small percentage of sakes reach these top quality levels. In general, good sake should be served slightly chilled.
Restaurants are a great place to experiment, since so many now have sakes on their lists. For stores, True Sake in San Francisco (415-355-9555), Sam's Wines & Spirits in Chicago (800-777-9137) and Landmark Wine & Sake in Manhattan (212-242-2323) all have large sake selections.
10 Top Bottles
Daishichi Kimoto honjozo ($56/1.8 liters) "It's medium-dry, good with meats or fried foods," says Hisaya Kadoi of New York City's Sakagura.
Urakasumi junmai "Misty Bay" ($26) Recommended by Beau Timken of True Sake. "This junmai isn't big and ricey; it's a little closer to the earth."
Otokoyama junmai "Man's Mountain" ($24) Chef Chris Kinjo of Atlanta's MF Sushibar has over 40 sakes on his list, including this Otokoyama: "It's dry, light and very fragrant."
Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri junmai "Mirror of Truth" ($23) Says Larry Mechanic of Sam's, "Okuden's a little edgy, a little rustic. It's like the Côtes-du-Rhône of sakes."
Dewazakura Oka ginjo "Cherry Bouquet" ($28) "My favorite sake of all time," says Paul Tanguay, beverage director at SushiSamba restaurants in New York City, Miami and Chicago. "It has great structure and amazing acidity, and a light peach aroma."
Rihaku junmai ginjo "Wandering Poet" ($35) "This has cool hints of pumpkin and nuts, and great acidity," says Eric Swanson, sake sommelier at Las Vegas's Shibuya.
Shirataki Jozen Mizunogotoshi junmai ginjo ($35) Kane Yoon of Landmark says of this sake, "It's like water with a hint of honeydew melon."
Fukucho junmai ginjo "Moon on the Water" ($40) At Azia in Minneapolis, chef and owner Thom Pham says this jasmine-scented sake "has layers of flavor, just like a wine."
Gekkeikan Horin daiginjo ($35) Timothy Panagopoulos, owner of Boston's Osushi restaurant, calls this sake "one of the best values on the market. It's full-bodied, but not in the least overbearing."
Moon Rabbit Sparkling Sake ($9/330ml) Umer Naim, sake sommelier and manager of Philadelphia's Buddakan, loves this sparkler. "It's a little raisiny, like a Moscato, but fresh and easy to drink."