Saké: a Japanese drink made from rice, always served hot, smells a bit like rubbing alcohol, and not particularly good.
These were my first impressions of saké, and may very well be your opinion of it now. My first encounters were in Canada with saké bought from The Liquor Store (in most provinces in Canada, the sale of alcohol is completely controlled by the government and is sold in two different shops: The Beer Store and The Liquor Store. No confusion there- although you can buy beer at The Liquor store, but the opposite is not true, hmmn.) as an accompaniment to home-made sushi. It was cheap, in a large bottle and capable of delivering quite a hangover. But it was fun to try something new, heating up the saké in hot water and drinking from little cups. However, the taste left something to be desired so drinking saké was not a very frequent event- until I came to Japan.
Saké: a Japanese drink made from rice, served in a range of temperatures from chilled to warmed, fruity aromas, from dry to sweet, and delicious.
These are my impressions of saké now, and I hope they will become yours too. Why did my opinion change so much? Well, by coming to Japan I was exposed to high quality, hand crafted saké, and it makes all the difference in the world. Delicious saké is a little more expensive than the cheap stuff, known as sanzoushu (三増酒 or “triple sake”), much like good wine is a little more than table wine, but well worth the investment if taste is important to you. And the varieties here! Different combinations of rice varieties, yeast, rice polishing (the good part of the rice grain is the starch in the middle, not the minerals, fats and proteins in the outer portion), fermentation temperature, filtration, the list goes on, can create a staggering diversity of flavours and types. While wine generally leaves this up to the variety of grape, saké has many more variables that can be tweaked to create quite different tastes. Those are the reasons my opinions of saké have changed from luke warm to positively glowing. But what really intrigues me is how saké is made- quite a different process from beer and wine, and unique in the world of alcohol. More about this later.
The good news is that saké is becoming more and more popular outside of Japan, and specialty shops dedicated to it are beginning to open (for example: http://www.truesake.com). I encourage you to put your previous notions aside and give saké a fresh start. I plan to write a post soon to help you decipher the label on the bottle, as you only need to learn a few Kanji characters to know what you are buying. It will be a good exercise for the right side of your brain too. Thanks for reading.