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Saké to Me: A beginner’s guide to the Japanese brew 

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo

To be completely honest, I went into this assignment with little background on Japan’s drink of choice. Sure, I’ve had the occasional saké sip, though I never bothered checking the brand.

At the behest of booze-guru Ron Bechtol, I visited with Howard Hu at Sushihana (1810 NW Military, (210) 340-7808) because if I was going to learn about saké, I might as well learn from one of the city’s most prolific saké slingers. Hu and his staff have carried the beverage for the past 10 years.

The selection has grown to some 40 varieties but it’s still a far cry from East and West Coast dispensaries where Hu gained some of his knowledge on the libation made of fermented rice.

“I was in LA at a Japanese market, and there were literally 2,000 different kinds of saké … you don’t find that here,” Hu said.

Unlike wine that is broken up by regions and varietals, saké is broken down into classifications directly related to the production process. It’s a pretty arduous affair. According to urbansake.com, the process begins with milling or polishing the rice (oh, and there are about 70 different kinds of rice used for this) to expose each grain’s “starchy core.” Classifications are drawn from the percentage of rice milled and are directly linked with price point. An accessible junmai classification means at least 70 percent of the grain remains intact when milled; a mid-level junmai ginjo has a 60 percent rate; and pricier junmai daiginjos contain 50 percent of the original grain.

Bottles at Sushihana can range anywhere from $20 for a 300-ml Yaegaki Kurobin “Black Bottle” to $120 for a 750 ml KEN “The Sword” Daiginjo (sweet and velvety, it’d be easy to polish off this bottle between friends).

Hu often lowers the prices on junmai ginjos to encourage diners to try smoother saké, but marketing also plays an important role in which sakés make a splash. As Dave Morgan, South Texas Sales Manager for Mexcor, said, saké producers are moving towards more stylized bottles and flavored varieties (Sushihana carries Moonstone plum and HANA’s Fuji apple, lychee, peach and pear) favored by women and younger drinkers.

“I think that also comes with the industry as a whole, where skinny margaritas, flavored vodkas and rums [abound] … women are controlling the funds and spending the money,” Morgan said.

As with most things, sampling might be the best bet for finding a saké preference, and with several thousand bottles to choose from, it looks like we’ve got our work cut out.

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