During your next cookout, Marc Smookler wants you to consider a different drink pairing for your cheeseburger. It's a choice you might find odd — sake, a fermented rice beverage that originated in Japan.
Not all sake would work with a nice, juicy burger, of course, the same way that not all beers or wines would. But Smookler, the Austin-based co-founder of online retailer Sake Social, is happy to point out what will. He believes sake is an underappreciated beverage in the U.S., with enormous food-pairing potential that goes beyond sushi and other Japanese cuisine.
In case you're wondering, a feisty, full-bodied ginjo sake such as Manotsuru Four Diamonds can stand up to the heft of grilled meats. Semi-dry, it's got some heat to it, as well as aromas of white pepper and ripe watermelon. It's clear and colorless like vodka. Another sake Smookler stands by is almost the complete opposite: Ozeki Nigori is unfiltered and creamy, rich and sweet, with the look and tropical taste of coconut milk.
Sake (pronounced like "sah-keh") can be sorted into a variety of categories that are often differentiated by what's called the polishing rate, or how extensively the rice grains have been milled before the fermentation process. Ginjo is among the most polished of sakes, which is significant because "the more polished sakes will have more cleanliness of flavor and tend to be more expensive, as more rice is required to produce it," Kyoten Sushiko chef Sarah Cook says.
Other types of sake include nigori, which is unfiltered and still has rice sediment in it, and genshu, which is undiluted and thus higher in alcohol than others, at about 18-20% ABV.
Hai Hospitality beverage director Jason Kosmas can't get enough of Fukucho Seaside Sparkling — yes, a sparkling sake, full of bright citrus notes, which gains its gentle effervescence through secondary fermentation in the bottle.
All that barely scratches the surface of sake's essence. But you've got to start somewhere. At Austin's Uchi and Uchiko, among the restaurants that Hai oversees, newcomers to sake might come in familiar only with hot sake and sake bombs. But if they're ready to branch out beyond those college drinking standbys, starting with a ginjo or the sparkling might not be the best way to go.
Instead, the creamy nigori serves as a good gateway brew "where the whole world of sake begins," Kosmas says.
He and Smookler agree that sake hasn't achieved the popularity — or casual consumption — of other fermented alcoholic beverages, like beer and wine. That's partly why Sake Social remains a part-time job for Smookler and his wife, Marisela Maddox.
"I don't think the American market is ready for a full-time sake business," Smookler says. "But if it did happen, that would be a sign of people's curiosity, that they're into it. ... I think it would also take a certain mindset to overcome. In Japan, people have their sake with a hamburger, but here, it's with a fancy dinner or with sushi at a restaurant. Wine and beer has made that in-road; culturally, this hasn't."
If there's any time to try sake, however, it's now, with temperatures that are about as hot as they're going to get this year. A lot of premium sake brands should be served chilled, Smookler says, to draw out subtle aromas and flavors. Their refreshing nature makes them well suited for the swelter.
"Sake is super clean, very refreshing to drink," Kosmas says. "One thing that's dangerous but good about it is that it's lower in alcohol, below spirits but above wine. It's going to be stronger than the average glass of wine, but with that being said, it's just nice to sip. There's something beautiful about it because it's delicate without being precious. Sake has a lot of subtleties and a robust nature at the same time."
A lower ABV is more desirable in the high heat, in order to drink responsibly.
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Like Uchi and Uchiko, the standout Japanese restaurant Kyoten Sushiko — which Cook has been running in the Mueller district since it reopened this spring — tries to source a range of sakes, especially those that are more obscure. All of them, she says, tend to be irresistible as a beverage pairing for food.
"Sake and food play very well together, because they are able to accentuate flavors in one another in a delicate and nuanced way," Cook says. "Pairing an uni-stuffed morel mushroom, for example, with a sake that smells like mushroom but tastes sweet and pure can both reinforce that sense of mushroom while balancing out the brininess of uni. ... The wide range of sweetness, cleanliness and acidity also means that sake can be used to balance or offset confident flavor profiles in a unique way."
Sushi restaurants with extensive sake menus are a good way to begin your exploration of the brew. The next step, if you want bottles to have at home, might be online sources like Smookler's Sake Social. Tagged as the largest online retailer of Japanese sake, the site also has a database of articles explaining what sake is, how it's made, which styles your palate might prefer and how you should drink it.
Smookler and Maddox love sake so much, they sip it together at home like it's white wine. (That's how to drink it: chilled in a white wine glass.) This season, they'll turn to dry sakes like Hakutsuru Superior, which is the sake substitute to wines as diverse as merlot and pinot grigio and to crisp beers like pilsners. (Sake, in fact, is brewed like beer.)
Feeling adventurous? Cook has an even more off-the-wall option.
"One style that I have been loving this summer is taru, or cedar-aged sake," Cook says. "The sake is brewed and then put into cedar barrels, which gives the sake a distinctive cedar flavor. There is something so totally unique yet also nostalgic about the resulting sake, like a wood cabin in the summer."