Nigori Sake: Shaken, Not Stirred

Only a couple of weeks ago, I was lamenting the fact that classes about sake, rice wine from Japan, weren't as prevalent as those about wine, beer or even spirits. As if in response from the sake gods themselves, I heard about a sake and sushi class next Tuesday, October 19, at Benihana (9707 Westheimer) -- yes, Benihana -- from 6 to 8 p.m.

Before you even ask, YES. Yes, of course I am going.

But until then, I haven't stopped perusing the aisles at Spec's every week and picking out a new sake to try. A few weeks ago at Umai, the ever-pleasant Anita recommended a nigori sake with our meal and I fell in love with it. The bottle of Sho Chiku Bai was only $10 and was the color and consistency of skim milk, if skim milk tasted sweet and tart and slightly alcoholic. We drank it with our meal like it was mother's milk.

Nigori sake is the unfiltered -- some would say more primitive -- version of the clear sake to which I was more recently accustomed. Regular sake is filtered to remove the grain solids, or bits of rice left behind during the fermentation process, but leaving those solids in the nigori sake results in a much sweeter and creamier beverage. Since the solids settle near the bottom of the bottle, sake must be shaken prior to drinking. When's the last time you read the words "shake well before serving" on your bottle of dinner alcohol?

I've found that I'm one of those who prefers sweeter sakes, so I took to the Sho Chiku Bai nigori sake like a duck to water and found myself at Spec's the next week looking for something similar to shake up at home. I settled on a bottle of Yaegaki for $6.30 that stood out to me because of its unusual brown glass bottle.

As it turns out, Yaegaki is one of the few American brewers of sake and, as I understand it, the smallest as well. Unlike the sparkling sake I tried a few weeks back, the Yaegaki is much stronger stuff, weighing in at 16 percent alcohol by volume. And unlike the Sho Chiku Bai, it had a much fuller, almost oily mouthfeel.

It smelled intensely of melon, lychee and slightly of bananas. One review I read online also said that it smelled plasticky, which I sadly had to agree with. It has a slight plastic taste to it as well, at the back of the mouth, which was not at all appetizing. I didn't realize that you should drink all of the nigori sake once you open a bottle and made the mistake of returning the half-drunk bottle to the refrigerator and attempting to drink it two days later. Like regular wine, nigori sake oxidizes once opened and the taste changes significantly. Also like wine, it doesn't change for the better.

Undaunted, I'll keep trying other sakes and working my way through the limited selection at Spec's for as long as I can. It's like an adventure with each bottle, especially as I can't read a lick of Japanese and often have no idea what I'm getting myself into. I look forward to that changing at least slightly next week.

By the way, if you're also interested in taking the sake and sushi class next Tuesday at Benihana, the cost is $35 per person. It includes a two-hour sushi-rolling class and a sake tasting with suggestions on choosing and pairing sake to food. Reservations can be made by calling 713-789-4962.