TAKARA SHO CHIKU BAI SAKE—Have it hot, but don’t let the angels get it

My dad got home from Ontario today, and I foolishly thought this meant I’d have my choice of two typists. But they were busy reuniting. Go figure—ten years together and my parents are still into each other. It is totally disgusting.

sake takaraA toast, therefore, with something almost undrinkable: TAKARA SHO CHIKU BAI SAKE. No mistake about it, this California sake is rough stuff. Fail to heat it sufficiently and its vulgarity will hit you as full-frontally as two nauseating parents who forget to shut the door. You want this stuff almost hot so you can’t taste it, but not hot enough that you’re sacrificing booze unnecessarily to the angels (who might barf it back at you—if I were an angel with a sake predilection I’d hang out over Japan, for crying out loud, not California).

Does TAKARA SHO CHIKU BAI SAKE have any sort of flavor? you might wonder. There is detectable fruit in this sake, accompanied by sharp paint-thinner notes. If you make an effort not to discern any subtleties, you’ll find that it just tastes like booze, and therefore I recommend it. There are certainly worse ways to ingest 15% alcohol.

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GEKKEIKAN SAKE—A prescription for violent animals

My Fellow Inebriates,

After Sunday night’s humiliation by Miss P, my friend Scarybear—far from not being himself—has been even more of himself. Which is to say: preoccupied with annihilation while somehow giving off a stronger funk.

He wasn’t always this way. Scary came to the house two years before yours truly—before any of the other animals. He dominated for two years. He had attention; he had snacks; he had unlimited television. (Renting from a cruddy landlord back in 2005, my soon-to-be parents retaliated passive-agressively by running their plasma TV eighteen hours a day with only Scary in front of it.)

Alone watching the Space Channel, Scary became an expert on every iteration of Star Trek and Stargate, not to mention crap shows like Andromeda. And when Dad came home, Scary got to watch those shows again. He had things his way for a very, very long time. He was the bear.

In December 2005 everything changed. Who knew a small pink bundle could effect so sudden and absolute a coup? Home for maternity leave with P, my mum now controlled the TV, exposing Scary to reality shows, news, and, worst of all, dramas. She parked herself in front of the plasma, surfing randomly while baby P fed. If losing the Space Channel wasn’t dreadful enough for Scary, he had to witness Mum being milked and was often a baby-barf target.

All of which was compounded by an onslaught of new animals: ducks, elephants, frogs, and bears.

Everything had been perfect. And now it sucked.

It actually altered Scary’s mind. Who knows—maybe he was always an asshole and nobody knew it because he always got his way. But now that he wasn’t getting his way, he became angry. He became morose. In his head he reran episodes of sci-fi shows he’d seen enough times to memorize, obsessing about the hazards of space until those dangers seemed immediate enough to gobble him up.

Unable to get out of his obsessive rut, Scary couldn’t find another crutch. One time I suggested we join forces and open a bottle of GEKKEIKAN SAKE. He kicked my ass! After that he kicked my ass all the time, just for something to do.

Eventually the bottle did get opened, though, without Scary’s involvement. At 14.6% alcohol, it could have mellowed him out. GEKKEIKAN is one of three bottom-shelf sakes stocked at our neighborhood booze shop and distinct for being bottled in the U.S. rather than Japan. There its distinction ends.

At its comparatively low price point ($10.99 for 750mL), GEKKEIKAN is a likely offering at cheap sushi outlets where Japanese provenance is unimportant. It makes perfect sense for American producers to get in on the sake game, especially with a lackluster public appetite for beer. For many sushi aficionados, a meal without sake wouldn’t be a meal, and doubtless this mentality assists sake producers in keeping a market foothold. Whether people drink sake without sushi is another matter. If anything, sake’s tether to Japanese food is probably frustrating for North American marketers wishing to expand the product’s reach.

Sake divides neatly into two camps: cold and warm.

  • Higher-end sake—the type found in small, picturesque bottles—meant to be drunk cold so as to appreciate its character. It is, after all, a type of wine, albeit made from rice.
  • Lower-end sake—bottom-shelf offerings intended for copious consumption with Japanese cuisine and drunk warm to mask any disagreeable characteristics.

Along with HAKUTSURU and Takara, GEKKEIKAN falls into the latter category. Still, I thought I’d better try it both warm and cold because that way I’d get twice as much.

Now, I am freaking terrified of the stove. I had to rely on my mother to get the sake to its optimal temperature. Child’s play, you might think, but she needs to be watched; previously she’s forgotten a saucepan of sake on the burner and allowed the precious alcohol to evaporate.

When the sake is warm-to-hot without boiling, smooth grainy flavors waft generously from the glass. On the tongue it warms and expands with medium body and hints of fruit and herbs. Much of this charm is carried in warm vapors; the heat is pleasant and alluring. Once you let GEKKEIKAN sit and cool, however, the charm is reduced.

Now that’s more like it. Eighteen liters.

This is the problem with cheap sake. Optimal temperature forgives a lot in a cheap sake; imperfections hide behind a warming sensation. Dropping to room temperature exposes both its off-notes and its simplicity.

Naturally the solution is to pound it before it cools. Keeping GEKKEIKAN at optimal temperature is an exercise in chasing the dragon. You don’t want it to disappoint you, but its sweet spot is narrow. Not that sub-ideal temperatures render it undrinkable. GEKKEIKAN is mostly harmless, although it will wreck you if you pound it for the sake of maintaining that ideal. Of course, if you’ve let it cool and can’t reheat it, you might pound it just to be done with it. It’s not offensive enough to push away because the temperature isn’t right.

Either way, it’s a recipe for getting drunk quickly.

In just the way heat masks flaws in sake, sake (I’ve often thought) could mask flaws in Scarybear. Except he’d probably be an angry drunk.

HAKUTSURU Excellent Junmai Sake

My Fellow Inebriates,

I’m so happy to have tasters share their liquor faves with me, and I was delighted to receive the following tasting notes from my friend Sophie:

LB, I started early and tasted something called sake. I am told it is a rice wine. I prefer to drink it hot. They pour it in little cups and you slam them down in one gulp. At least I did. Here’s what I’d say: Warms you up going down, makes you happy, tastes like booze. Oh, and you can drink a lot of it.

I love the fact that Sophie started early. Every day I wake up with a big jones for alcohol but sometimes feel a tad constrained by social mores and fail to get drinking early enough for my tastes. I think sake is a superb breakfast accompaniment, or substitute really—there’s something light about it that suggests morning.

I don’t know if Sophie started with HAKUTSURU Excellent Junmai Sake but it’s my first choice among the Japanese wines. It’s inexpensive and boasts a quite sufficient 15.5% alcohol content. But how does it taste?

Sake’s a tricky drink because preference is so individual about correct temperature. For Sophie it’s “hot” and for me it’s “very warm.” This is because I am so terrified of overheating it and accidentally burning off some of its valuable alcohol. But let’s say you have your little cup at the perfect temperature. Well, it’s going to cool down pretty fast, so you have a small window of time to drink it in its ideal state. So you slam it like my friend Sophie, and next thing you know, you need a refill. This can go on for quite a while, especially if you buy your HAKUTSURU in the 18L cubic container.

This rice wine is full-bodied but tastes deceptively light and dry. Whether you drink it warm or cold, it warms you as it goes down. Oh yeah, and it tastes like booze. As Sophie says, you can drink a lot of it, precisely because it is so subtle and inoffensive.

A lot of people recommend pairing sake with food, particularly spicy and savory food, and if you do so you’ll be able to get away with drinking more of it. But it’s a lovely beverage on its own.

Of course, overindulging in sake can lead to all sorts of inappropriate situations, so be careful, and make sure, when you go on a sake bender, that you’re with someone you like.