Sake has been jostling for mainstream acceptance in the States for well over a decade. Like tequila, it often suffers from the association that drinkers have with their unfortunate college antics—sake bombs and saketinis may have helped many people become aware of the beverage, but they don’t exactly inspire people to dig deeper into the genre.
Still, sake enthusiasts have continued to chip away at misconceptions, pushing people to think about it outside the context of all-you-can-eat sushi joints. In Japan, sake is consumed with the same reverence and appreciation for nuance that one would bring to wine or craft beer. It has layers, regions, textures, preferred temperatures, and pairs well with food other than raw fish and rice.
It’s time to go beyond the bastardized rice wine and table games. Let’s break it down.
The Expert: Chris Johnson is the head sommelier at Chelsea Asian-fusion restaurant Cherry in the Dream Downtown Hotel, New York. Johnson may have lived in Japan for three years and serve as the head judge (for the last 13 years) of the U.S. National Sake Appraisal tasting competition, but he started from bottom, too—he admits his first taste of the stuff was in the form of a sake bomb.
“When I first found out I was moving to Japan to teach English, my best friend since I was a kid wanted to take me out for sushi and sake, because that is what I’d be eating every day,” says Johnson. “Obviously that was not the case, and thank goodness it wasn’t because it was from a mediocre sushi joint in my hometown.”
As soon as he returned to the U.S., Johnson jumped right into the growing sake culture in New York. “I’ve watched distribution grow from 50 varieties to more than 700 served today.”
He currently lives in Manhattan with 40 bottles of sake (and counting), and he preaches the motto, Sake will surprise you. “My job is to take the sake bomb drinker into being a sake drinker.”
Here, Johnson breaks down the fundamentals of sake—arm yourself with the knowledge, then get out there and start drinking.