Monday night is Sake Night at Octobachi. Inches away from me, two coeds are making out, occasionally bumping up against me as I slurp a peach/pear/apricot sake smoothie. It’s delicious. Sugary, of course, but after an array of sake concoctions over a long afternoon of sake touring, it’s a welcome respite, even with the sex-crazed, sake-infused college kids going at it over my shoulder.
The bartender, a guy by the name of Ben Harper, is ready to celebrate Sake Night as well. We crack open a bottle of Moonstone Coconut Lemongrass Nigori, an unfiltered Oregon-brewed take on the traditional Japanese rice wine. We savor the gingery crispness it leaves on our palates.
Truth be told, sake isn’t just a Japanese export. From Malaysia up to Korea, nearly every Far East nation has its own variation of the boozy rice concoctions. Tony Chu, the owner of Red Orchids in West Ashley, traces his family’s Chinese heritage as rice wine makers back multiple generations, but for his own sake, he relies on the Japanese tradition. He may also be the preeminent sake scholar in Charleston. “Each year I take up a new hobby,” says Chu, pouring a glass of daiginjo (premium sake) by award-winning brewer Chokaisan. “It’s taken me seven years to learn it thoroughly, and I still have a lot to learn.”
Each winter, Chu collects water from a 500-foot well at a friend’s house near Summerville, and when the cooler weather of autumn sets in, he starts brewing. “When I make sake, I want to make sure it’s as close to the elements as possible,” Chu explains, detailing the brewing process that begins in his backyard.
Far more similar to beer than wine, sake is born with the creation of koji, the “starter” that breaks the starches in rice down into sugars. Technically a mold, koji is closely related to penicillin and behaves much like the yeast in sourdough bread. “Koji dignifies a sake’s whole aromatic profile. It’s what makes one sake taste different from another,” Chu says.
In the first four days of sake creation, koji is progressively added to a vat of steamed rice, dropping the temperature with each addition. Due to the Lowcountry’s mild winters, Chu is forced to transfer his batch from the outdoors into a refrigerator on day four when it requires nearly freezing temperatures. “After that, you let the temperature rise slowly until you see bubbles,” he says. “When bubbles appear, that’s the temperature you should condition that particular sake at.”
The whole process takes about a month. Unlike wines, sake is often best when it’s fresh. The fermentation time determines a batch’s sweetness. A few days will produce a smooth, light sake while two weeks will result in a crisper product with higher alcohol content. Of course, major producers have figured out shortcuts that speed the entire month-long sake process into less than a week, primarily by utilizing heat. For many people whose experience with sake begins and ends with a flavored version served hot at a hibachi restaurant, that abbreviated version of sake production may be all that they know. The quality and taste spectrum among sakes, however, can be as striking as the difference between a bottle of Wild Irish Rose off the bottom of a gas station shelf versus a three-figure bottle of Napa Valley’s finest pinot.
“To me, fast cooking does not make good food. Likewise, it takes time and love to make great sake,” says Chu.
Unlike wines, region and soil don’t play as big a factor in determining sake quality as the process used to make it. Daiginjo premium sakes require polishing the grains of rice down to less than 50 percent of their original size, removing the outer layers of protein and fat and leaving only the carbohydrate core. Cheap sakes don’t polish the rice to nearly that extent, leaving behind plenty of hangover-inducing lipids that are only exacerbated by the addition of sugary flavorings for hot sake.
“If you have a great daiginjo sake and you serve it hot, it’s like asking a chef to microwave some Mt. Veeder Sauvignon Blanc and then add some maple syrup,” Chu says. “People have worked so hard to polish the grain, find the cleanest water, store it at the ideal temperature and painstakingly perfect this perfect drink, and now you’re going to heat it up and corrupt it?”
Even at Red Orchids, Chu doesn’t mind embellishing a quality sake a bit. He’s particularly fond of mixing daiginjo sake with Oban 14 Year Scotch. But ultimately, nothing he can sell at his restaurant will compare to the nama (unpasteurized) sake he makes at home.
Sake served in the U.S. is almost always pasteurized. Filtered and unfiltered varieties exist that deserve their top shelf status, but for Chu’s tastes, nothing touches the quality of a fresh nama sake. Of course, shipping nama sake across the world requires careful temperature control throughout multiple stages of transport. Just an hour of light or heat can dramatically affect the quality.
Sake for the Everyman
For drinkers interested in stepping up their sake game from the syrupy hot variety but less interested in tapping into their savings account at the bar, Charleston has plenty of other sake options well worth exploring. At Mt. Pleasant’s Bambu, bar manager Ben Zorn infuses a fresh batch of Asian pear and Fuji apple sake each week, heating a standard Gekkeikan sake just enough to release the fruit’s flavors into the rice wine, before finishing it with vanilla bean and cinnamon. At Bambu, Zorn takes an average sake and gives it flavorful depth, even utilizing his infusion in a SakeTini with Stoli Vanilla vodka and Amaretto.
Similarly, West Ashley’s Bushido uses Gekkeikan for a white chocolate sake martini. Featuring Pinnacle whipped cream vodka, Crème de cacao, and a rim covered in chocolate crumbles, the drink sips like an ideal after-dinner digestif.
On King Street, Co’s sake sangria melds strawberry, cucumber and plum wine with dry sake, while their Mango Thai Basil Mojito balances muddled basil with rum, mango, and lime. Although the sake gets lost in the multitude of flavors, it’s a twist that could help bring sake-naysayers into the fold.
For the unpretentious sake-seeker on a budget, Octobachi may be the reigning sake king of the peninsula. Beyond the sake smoothies and thoughtful collection of Oregon and Japanese bottles, their cocktail list includes pleasures like the Cream Soda, a whipped amalgam of heavy cream, vanilla syrup, soda water, and four shots of sake. And if you’ve exhausted their regular menu items, bartender Ben Harper isn’t afraid to get creative, splashing together jalapeño slices with Sierra Mist and fresh mint from their windowsill herb garden for an unusual but surprisingly tasty blend of flavors. There’s even a sake Bloody Mary for those painful mornings after a long night of dancing under strobe lights at Wasabi.
“We try our best to come up with some interesting stuff,” laughs Harper, pouring yet another on-the-spot creation, a hot sake with jasmine tea, ginger, and lemon basil.
Although mixing sakes may not be a purist’s idea of a true sake experience, it’s an undeniable truth that many people will consume the majority of their rice wine via abominations like the “sake bomb.” Some people don’t mind sipping Aristocrat vodka straight from the bottle, either, and that’s their prerogative (at least until their livers fail).
For those willing to dig a little deeper and broaden their experience, Charleston’s wine and liquor stores offer plenty of higher-end variety.
Due to concerns over radiation in water following the post-tsunami Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Oregon’s sakes have been quickly growing in popularity at local retailers like Bottles and Total Wine. Harry Tatoian, a wine associate at Total Wine, often steers customers toward Oregon’s Mura Mura brewery, particularly their Meadow junmai ginjo. “I like this the best because it’s crisp and clean,” says Tatoian, who prefers his sake on the dryer, less sweet side. He also touts the Sho Chiku Bai Nigori, the most commonly found unfiltered sake at area restaurants. “Chill it up and shake it to serve it,” he says. “It’s got a little black licorice and vanilla and goes really well with spicy food.”
At Bottles on Coleman Boulevard, assistant manager Jason Selby echoes the benefits of pairing spicy dishes with sake. Bubbly “champagne” sakes like the Gekkeikan Zipang, in particular, go well with tempura fried food, dumplings, and even tuna planks. “It’s not too bold and powerful to overtake the flavor of the food,” says Selby. Other sakes, like the Kuro Ninki Junmai Ginjo, he touts for enjoying on their own, comparing them to microbrewed beer. For a higher end unfiltered sake intended to be savored, he recommends the Tozai Snow Maiden Junmai Nigori for its fruit tones and long finish.
“Head to head, the best Japanese sakes will outshine the U.S. competitors in style and strength,” says Selby.
Still, that could soon change. Small sake breweries will undoubtedly continue to emerge. Blue Kudzu Sake in Asheville plan to sell their first batches in North Carolina in 2013.
If concerns about fallout from Fukushima prove warranted, it could spark a boom industry in the U.S. At Red Orchids, Chu did not serve sake for a year, bringing it back only this fall after determining through news reports and studies that the products were safe.
“With radioactive breakdown, you have the first 20 minutes and then you have the next 14,000 years,” says Chu. “We wanted to make sure that our customers would not be glowing in the dark for 14,000 years.”
Now that sake is back on Red Orchids’ shelves, he’s back to educating inquisitive customers on the intricacies of his favorite drink. Chu notably discourages people from drinking sake in the traditional shot glass-style sake sets, pointing out the difference in aromatic quality experienced with any wine when poured into a wide-brimmed glass. Chu says that mixing a quality sake with cheap ingredients is like “a beautiful girl sleeping with a hoodlum.”
He says, “They took all of this loving time to create the perfect baby, polishing rice down into little pearls.”