I recently proclaimed a huge confession: I don’t get sake. I had attended sake tastings, sat through sake classes, watched sake documentaries. I had tried it, warm and cold, budget and high-end, paired with sushi and ramen. Its subtleties were lost on me — I could barely enjoy a sip, let alone embrace its elusive joys.
I shared my confession with sake expert Jonathon Edwards. “You have to stop drinking wine for a week. Drink sake and nothing else,” said Edwards, who works for importer Vine Connections. Wine takes over the palate, he explained, preventing the delicate nuances of sake to show through. “Soon you will be able to understand.”
Excited to learn and to purge my palate, I started my seven-day #sakecleanse with a tasting at Binny’s Beverage Depot, a Chicago wine and spirits superstore. Edwards was there, plying his wares, encouraging me to taste through the lineup, pointing up flavor profiles. I spoke to other sake neophytes in attendance, all who seemed equally mystified and curious.
At the end of the evening, I stocked up for my week, purchasing the myriad varieties I had tasted. “What does sake taste like?” asked the woman behind the checkout. I told her I didn’t really know.
On day two of my immersion, I hurried home to the pretty bottles lined up in my fridge. Shrimp with carrot top pesto was on the menu. I paired it with Endless Summer, a honjozo-style sake with a pronounced saline tang that telegraphs its coastal origins — it absolutely sang with the seafood.
The third night landed on movie night — I’ve been known to smuggle cans of wine into theater, so why not portable sake? I filled my tote with a selection of chilled minis in jars and cans. My companion left hers untouched, but I found my cup of sake to be just the relaxing thing.
I came home on the fourth night after a pretty grueling workday. Was a glass of sake going to do the trick, taking the place of a silky gamay with my cheese and crackers? Hell, yes. Most of the acidity in sake, I learned, comes from lactic acid, and the high glutamate content delivers an umami punch, perfect with artisan cheese.
I couldn’t continue a #sakecleanse without some high-end sushi, so I requested date night at Arami, a sexy sushi den. Again, my companion was reluctant, (he ordered Asahi, a Japanese beer), but I went for a glass of junmai nigori, a cloudy, unfiltered style, from the extensive list. Sake won the second round — we both went for a glass of nama (unpasteurized), whose bold freshness highlighted the elegant raw fish.
By day six, the nights were getting chillier, so I met a friend at the restaurant Sushi San for a cozy couple of carafes of warm sake and tako tacos. We poured for each other as tradition demands and left with a glow.
I saved the best bottle of my haul for last — to pair with a home-cooked meal at a friend’s place. We opened the Yamada Everlasting Roots, an earthy, rich junmai that matched the pork, ginger and mushroom donabe hot pot, and an Italian red. The wine was left virtually untouched.
The results of my weeklong sake plunge? Sake completely surprised me. It satisfied as an after-work beverage and a food-pairing workhorse. It’s fun to have a bottle in the fridge at home and exciting to explore restaurant drink menus. My #sakecleanse led me to a new drink buddy, and we’ll be friends for life.