White unblemished purity: Such is the innocuous nature of the perfect grain of rice. But set a colony of koji spores, another of yeast, a master sake brewer, and his staff of loyal minions loose on the ivory pearls, and the fragrances and flavors that emerge are almost dizzyingly beautiful. Even the sake itself is crystal clear, yet the good stuff smells like perfume. How does it happen?
Intent on this very question, the noses of three tasters work overtime for an hour at Corkage Sake and Wine Shop on Fulton Street during one of the weekly sake-appreciation classes ($35) hosted Mondays at 6 p.m. by sommelier and manager Yoshi Sako. As he fills our glasses with several traditional styles of sake, billowing scents of fruit, nuts, and honey meet our nostrils. Sako attentively watches his guests, anticipating their reactions. "So, what do you smell in that one?"
His pupils all say at once, "Licorice," after sniffing the first pour, the daiginjo sake. The next, a ginjo, is redolent of Bazooka Joe bubblegum and lychee, while the junmai is nutty and round in flavor, slightly gritty in the mouth, and earthy.
"That's very typical," Sako says. Junmai, he explains, is a less refined grade, brewed with rice from which only the very outer layers of bran and germ have been polished; finer sakes - like ginjo and daiginjo - are made from rice kernels polished more completely, to as small as 50 percent of the kernel's original size. Sadly, daiginjo is costly. A bargain hunter can find good wine for less than $10, but good sake is often $30, $40, $50, or more. The best way to experience may be to drink by flights, at a place like Corkage.
Sako tells us he once spent a month working at a small brewery called Kubota Shuzo in Kanagawa, outside Tokyo. Such small breweries often hire repeat seasonal staff to work the facilities, but Sako gained access by haranguing the master brewer by e-mail for weeks, pleading for the chance, offering to volunteer, until the man relented and allowed Sako to join for that winter's brewing season. For a full month, without a single day off, he worked 14-hour shifts with the regular staff of three, and though it was several years ago, Sako vividly recalls the smells -- during the "malting" process, by which a mold called koji converts the starch to sugar, scents of chestnut filled the small facility. During this early production stage, constant attention to temperature and humidity is required, and at Kubota, one man always slept on the floor beside the koji basin and woke up every two hours through the night to inspect progress and give the stewing rice a stir. Subsequently, during fermentation, Sako says, the rice emitted powerful scents of banana.
His three guests at Corkage marvel at the description as we taste. Sako leads us through five sakes, starting with an unpasteurized namazake, filling the bulk of the hour analyzing the junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo, and finishing with an ulfiltered nigori sake, as white and gritty as goats' milk.
We also get a few bonus tastes. One taster describes the Kamoizumi Shusen "Three Dots" as "salty," before another nails the elusive flavor: shiitake mushroom. The Junmai Ginjo 55 from Huchu Homare, brewed with an esteemed variety of rice called watari bune, smells predominately of licorice and peppermint and tastes of lychee, honeydew melon, and pineapple. Tomita Brewery's Shichi Hon Yari ("The Seven Spearsmen") is a junmai-grade sake, floral yet briny and woodsy, faintly suggestive on the tongue of maple syrup and mushroom. And the Matsunoi "Wishing Well," a honjozo, or sake fortified with spirits, is nutty and broad in the mouth, 16 percent alcohol, and with a backbone of hazelnut, whiskey, vanilla, and coconut. Like most of the others, it's clear as air. Only the koshu, or aged sakes, have real color. Sako offers a flight of such treasures. One, the A Zen Ai, aged five years, is tawny as bourbon, with faint scents of chocolate and, more pronounced, squid ink. Another, the Hanahato Kijoshu, also an oxidized, rusty brown, is dazzling - of fudge, brandy, prune, and cigar notes.
That rice can produce such mesmerizing scents and flavors makes sake a wonder of fermented things. It makes masters of those who brew it and wizards of those who understand it - and it leaves the rest of us awed, if not speechless, as we sniff and taste, still asking, "How does it happen?"