June 15, 2017
The ultra-rare Kakurei Hidehiro Shinbo Daiginjo sake ($1,900).
If the only question you’ve ever asked about sake is “hot or cold,” then Sayoko Ieto would like to have a word with you. At Zuma, the hit contemporary Japanese restaurant at the Epic Hotel, she meticulously curates an ever-evolving menu of nearly 100 sakes. The dizzying selection reflects the fact that more and more Americans are being swept away by the allure of the Japanese libation, a fermented brew every bit as intricate and exhaustive in its craftsmanship and gastronomic possibilities as any wine.
“It used to be that people only cared about sake bombs,” Ieto says. “Now customers want to learn everything about it.” Indeed, Japan has seen exports of the spirit double in the last decade, with America becoming the third-largest importer worldwide. According to Ieto, what’s most impressive is our rapidly growing appreciation for tokutei meishoshu—premium sake brewed from rice that’s been polished down to less than 70 percent of its original size. It offers a purer taste than the utilitarian futsushu table sake and presents several sub-designations such as junmai (which tends to be more vigorous), honjozo (often smoother), and ginjo (which is more delicate).
And there’s some real upper-echelon stuff starting to hit our shores. There are only 300 bottles of ultra-rare Kakurei Hidehiro Shinbo Daiginjo in existence, 18 of which are in the US. Zuma is currently home to six. “I have been lucky to taste it, and I can only describe it as deeply complex yet exceptionally pure,” Ieto says. “Elegant.”
The new sake horizon can be daunting, but it’s also enticing. Ieto recommends sake flights, a tasting platter of different varieties—an experience that has become all the rage at Japanese izakaya restaurants like Zuma all over the country, and even in Japan, where younger drinkers are themselves just as new to the mysterious intricacies of sake as we are. Have fun exploring.