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In the Drink

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The past 2,000 years have done a lot for sake. Back in the day, villagers would chew on grains of rice (and nuts) to polish, or mill, the kernels to eliminate the outer layers and unearth the starch-rich center. Drenched in saliva, this “mash” was then spit into a communal tub, where co-mingling enzymes spurred the fermentation process. Praise to the ancient Chinese brainiac who discovered that adding koji (a mold enzyme) and yeast to the rice could generate the same reaction. Made with grains, water and yeast, sake is fermented (not distilled) and aged about six months. And like with beer, head brewers (called toji) play a huge roll in perfecting each blend. Deceivingly complex, sake’s flavors and fragrances are subtle. Its character is measured by its acidity, texture, earthiness/refined-ness, fullness and balance. Sakes with more refined, light, fragrant and dry flavor profiles are labeled daiginjo and junmai daiginjo. Junmai refers to pure sake, with nothing added but water, koji and rice. Though connoisseurs shun warm sake, there are plenty of premium blends available specifically suited for heating (and labeled as such). Just be careful not to overheat; the proper temperature should hover around 104 F. Over-chilled sake also loses its flavor and should be served at a temperature close to white wine—or even a little warmer. Test-drive your sake preferences with weekly flights at Margaret Kuo’s in Wayne (magaretkuos.com): $20 gets you a sampling of one warm and three cold varieties. Just remember not to drink too much. The alcohol content is generally between 12 and 18 percent, higher than beer. And never serve yourself; pour for someone else, and they should reciprocate.

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