I have only ever been to one sake tasting and it was by accident. It was a dinner arranged to meet with Jeffrey Steingarten, longtime food writer for Vogue. I had read his work and there was a lot to like about it, a man who went places and ate out a lot and reported back to no one in particular, who let his fancy dictate the course of things, indicating no higher motive. A true flâneur, in other words, and funny. My sister Melissa knows him as an old friend of her husband Bruno’s family. Dinner was set at a small Japanese restaurant in the East Village for a Sunday evening. Noblesse oblige.
I was the first to arrive. Steingarten rang ahead to say he’d be a few minutes late. No problem. It reminded me of going to concerts when I was younger, where the doors would open hours before the headlining act even set foot on stage. A few drinks seemed to be the perfect use of the overture. Melissa showed up with Bruno, and his parents followed a few minutes later.
About sake, I know that it is made of rice and that it is not a homophone of the great Edwardian writer Saki, ending instead with a long A. I have only distant memories of family dinners and, beyond that, little enthusiasm for the stuff.
In the first place, it all tastes about the same to me. Unlike wine and beer which are concocted in any number of ways, in different colors, blends, barrels, and levels of carbonation, sake is generally a clear, nearly flavorless liquid of about fifteen percent alcohol. What subtle flavors exist are left behind from the fermentation of polished Japanese rice, already known for its subtle flavor. I once spoke with a distiller in Japan who confirmed as much: “Even for an expert, the difference is slight.”
On top of that, it is always served in those lilliputian glasses, which somehow manage to require more pouring than actual drinking, a process mediated by an elaborate ritual of serving one’s superiors and never pouring one’s own glass. How many times have I reached the end of the night in complete sobriety with strained wrists by that method, in the company of my drunken elders.
Perhaps for these reasons, sake has occupied a niche role in my life, reserved for birthdays, weddings, and other formal occasions. I am convinced the Japanese have forgotten about it as well, preferring the taste of cold beer and increasingly wine, indulging in their more historic brew only as required by tradition, as they will with a kimono, wooden sandals, or some other throwback. My theory is that the distilleries have compensated for this downward trend by redirecting their efforts towards urban centers around the world, where fine sake circulates as the Emperor’s new drink. Can you taste the difference?
I was thinking of none of this when the maître d’ informed me of the sake tasting that I had unwittingly attended and, as it is against my belief system to turn down a drink, I did not protest. We were given the small glasses and directed to the master of ceremonies, a petite Japanese woman with bobbed hair, tucked away in a corner by the coat rack.
“We recommend trying each kind of sake hot and cold,” she said, handing me the tasting list with a pen for my notes. The first was a milky nigori served hot. I tiptoed back to my seat to avoid spilling. There were traces of fumaric acid that in the heating process drew the unmistakable waft of urine to my nose. I had spent enough time in cities to have become a minor connoisseur of this particular smell, and I was not relieved to find the taste no better, kicking myself for believing otherwise. I went to the bathroom and rinsed out the glass, commiserating with another who had gone to do the same. Served cold, the sake was without odor and tasted fine, delicious even, and I breathed an awesome sigh of relief.
Warm: notes of…urine, I jotted down. Cold: better.
The restaurant was crowded. A Japanese girl in half a pink dress entertained a group of older men in grey flannel suits, who made sure to deplete their drinks at exactly the same rate as she, following the contours of the half dress on their synchronized refilling trips. Telephone for Mr. Navasky. Steingarten says he’s just leaving the house. Bad back. Start without me. We took a look at the menus.
The flights passed by in increasing merriment, hot and cold in turns, like a revitalizing bath. I had abandoned my note-taking and began sketching myself in profile. I was falling in love with each new glass, tightening the palate, an illustration of the old Buddhist belief that all things are the same and that only our attitude determines whether it is heaven or liquid subway. I taste honey in that one, which depending on how you look at it may be good or bad. This terrific drink suddenly seemed all the rage to me, everywhere, even in Japan. Sake, what was beer or wine compared to this?
Bruno and I discussed an idea he’d been nurturing, to apprentice as a tofu maker in Kyoto and open a seasonal tofu shop in East Hampton. Will they go for it? I wondered. Thinking of sake’s success, I was sure it would work. The people at the next table over were taking photographs of their courses, such a troubling trend, I thought to myself, as I quickly snuck a picture of my own plate, a fried burdock amuse-bouche.
Ready for another glass? Yes, but only just. Any more and my sister will pinch my leg under the table, which carries with it a kind of infantilizing pain. I’m already onto Buddhism, I mustn’t get drunk. I imagined myself fumbling to greet Steingarten in the state of a latter-day Orson Welles, rambling on about the world’s finest sake. I ordered a green tea then changed my mind, too obvious, a bowl of ochazuke instead.
An exception was made for the final bottle, flavored with yuzu and mildly sweet, since it could be called a dessert. The sommelier asked me what my favorite was and, pressed for a straight answer, I glanced at my notes and asked to taste the third, fifth, and sixth again. It was a tie, I said to her, between all of them, though cold is preferable to hot. Jeffrey Steingarten arrived an hour later to find us all in a very good mood.