"If you could taste a cloud, I'd imagine this is what it would taste like," says Erika Clark, beverage director for restaurants Soba and Umi. The Japanese consider it bad luck to pour for yourself, so she carefully fills my small ceramic sakazuki, saké's traditional demitasse, with Divine Droplets, made on Japan's northernmost island. The taste is clean and clear, like spring water and freshly steamed rice. It's completely unlike anything I've ever had, and this might be because it was made with the aid of an igloo. While the rice mash for other types of saké is fermented and pressed, the mash for Divine Droplets is packed into canvas bags and hung in igloos to drip only the purest-quality saké, protected from contamination by sub-freezing temperatures. Takasago Shuzu, its producer, rebuilds the igloos every year.
Though saké is traditionally made only from rice, filtered water and Koji mold, it has been in production since at least 712 A.D., giving it hundreds of years to develop and change. The nuances of the drink inspired Clark's personal mission to provide a diverse list of saké and a knowledgeable staff. That's why Umi and Soba now boast the most extensive list in the city. By improving accessibility and keeping prices reasonable, Clark hopes to encourage customers to try something new.
As a saké beginner, you must first decide whether you want a sweeter, creamier, unfiltered nigori or a cleaner, more astringent saké. If you like nigori, simply let your taste buds be your guide. If you prefer a cleaner flavor, you can begin to discern quality through the percentage of the rice grain that has been polished away during milling; the higher the percentage, the better. The designations honjozo, ginjo and diaginjo indicate 30 percent, 40 percent and more than 50 percent milled away, respectively. Also, look for the indication of junmai, which certifies that no supplementary alcohol has been added to saké's trinity of ingredients.