“I would probably drink sake out of a paper bag and enjoy it… I think sake is magical. It's a centuries old craft. Some families have been brewing sake for over 30 generations...that's old 'vines'. ” - Nancy Cushman, Co-Owner/Founder of Cushman Concepts and Advanced Sake Professional
While America has been slow to adopt a true sake appreciation, the Japanese rice wine, which for years has been consigned as a sushi-shoveling lubricator or “bomb” device, is ancient, complex, varied, and described in foreign terms and symbols. It is little surprise the English-speaking world has been intimidated for so long, but as interest in the craft and beverage world continues to grow, people are beginning to demystify and even brew some new versions of the spirit. To help separate the clear from the cloudy, we’ve asked Nancy Cushman, Co-Owner and Founder of Cushman Concepts and sake-enthusiast, for sake pointers.
How does sake stand apart from other spirit or wine offerings?
I think sake is magical. It's a centuries old craft. It's a completely ethereal beverage to me based on the long history and the generally more subtle profiles, which makes it so much fun to explore. Some families have been brewing sake for over 30 generations. That's old "vines" (although no grapes are used in the making of sake...). It is also more subtle than most wines and yet a beautiful partner to so many different types of cuisines, even non-Japanese cuisines. I also fell in love with sake on one of my first dates with my now husband, chef and business partner, Tim, so it holds an extra special place in my heart and mind.
What are the differences between filtered and unfiltered sake? What are other major distinctions between sakes?
Filtered sake is different primarily in color and texture. At the end of the brewing process, most sake is filtered through fine mesh to remove the sake lees. Unfiltered sake leaves some of the lees in the liquid so it gives a cloudy white appearance. This is effectively a rice cloud. And that can add to the texture feeling a little more silky and substantive. It can also lend a sweetness in some cases. Completely filtered sake will be clear.
The biggest distinction between the main and major premium sake categories - - daiginjo (polished to 50% of original rice grain), ginjo (60%) junmai/honjozo (70%) - - is the rice polishing. The more polished the rice is before it goes into brewing, the more delicate and refined the sake will be at the other end. The less polished, the less refined -- although all premium sakes still have a lovely level, craft and refinement to them. Yeast type, water and the specific brewing process and techniques are also key to the end result.
To chill or not to chill - When is it best to opt for hot sake?
I'm not a sake snob, so hot sake is great whenever you feel like having hot sake. I personally like it more in the winter when it's chilly, but it's good year round. That said, much premium sake is brewed to evoke flavors that are more delicate, so heat can crush those when applied too heavily or sometimes at all. On the flipside, some heat nicely. The brewers and bottle labels are getting better about indicating at what temperature it is best to enjoy chilled or heated. For premium sake, most of the time, a white wine type chill is quite nice.
Shoot it fast or sip it slowly - What’s the best way to drink sake?
I'm a sipper, but have been known to also do a sake bomb. With premium sake, please don't do bombs. It's best to savor and taste in the same way you taste and enjoy a great wine. Maybe only drink fast if you're in a hurry and don't want to waste it...
What are some tips and keywords to use when helping guests order so you can sound like a pro?
I like to ask guests what they enjoy for wine and then make a sake comparison, offering something they might like based on their wine preferences. It's fun to have a discussion of discovery with guests to find something they like.
Here are some starter questions in regards to aroma and on the palate: “Do you like something with fruit notes? Floral notes? Light, medium, full body? Earthy? Vegetal? Clean pure rice flavor?”
What other cuisines does sake pair well with?
Sake is so incredibly versatile which is another reason I love it.
- Italian: Earthier junmai is great with Italian and pizza in particular - - the umami of the tomato sauce and cheese can be a great match to a beefy junmai.
- Mexican: A floral ginjo goes well with the herbal notes and acidity of Mexican food.
- Thai: An unfiltered nigori goes great with spicy foods like Thai because it can have a nice cooling soothing effect on the hot chilies.
- American (California Grill): We serve Hakkaisan Ginjo and Honjozo at Covina, which is a California grill inspired restaurant in NYC -- and that pairs well with brussels sprout pizza, grilled chicken and hummus.
How much does the type of Sake you drink with a meal impact the taste?
I generally find the most enjoyable sake and food combinations have a balancing and enhancing effect. Think of sake like salt (not to be thought of as salty) in the sense that it elevates or supports the food like a quiet partner vs. a loud partner. Sake has a supporting role, but an important one that continues to enhance the flavors.
I find when eating a rich otoro or fatty tuna sashimi and then taking a sip of the cleanest sake, that it cleans and clarifies the palate before taking the next plunge.
What is the best type of glassware to drink sake from and does the receptacle you use to drink affect the flavor?
I love to drink out of the small traditional o-chokko. There are glasses made now for sake which also deliver premium sake to the best place on the palate and for enjoying the aroma on the nose. I would also probably drink sake out of a paper bag and enjoy it, so drink from whatever makes you happiest.
Sake is still fairly new to the US. What are some ways that work for you to get guests to consider it as part of their dining experience?
It's really about engaging in a conversation about it. Once you start finding out what a guest likes for wine, guests are generally open to being adventurous and trying something new. The best thing is when their eyes light up and they find something they really love and then come back to have it again or continue the exploration.
About Nancy Cushman:
Nancy Cushman is the Co-Owner of Cushman Concepts as well as an Advanced Sake Professional and self-proclaimed super sake enthusiast. Prior to becoming a leader in the hospitality industry, she had a successful career in national account management, marketing, and advertising.
After her first sake experience, Nancy became fascinated with it and made studying the beverage her mission. She left her career as an advertising executive and in 2006, she completed the Sake Professional Course in Japan with John Gauntner, who is recognized as the world’s foremost sake expert. In Boston in March 2007, she opened o ya, a contemporary Japanese restaurant, with her husband Tim Cushman. Chef Tim and Nancy Cushman have expanded their restaurant group which now includes Covina, Roof at Park South and a second o ya in Manhattan as well as Hojoko in Boston’s Fenway Neighborhood.