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As sake gains popularity in Tampa Bay, here are the best places to try it

In the United States, sake has long been under-appreciated and misunderstood. From rampant mispronunciation of its name — it's "sah-kay," not "socky" — to confusion over whether it should be consumed warm or cold, the alcoholic beverage made from rice has not received the respect that it commands in its native land of Japan.

That might be changing, as more and more restaurants and bars expand their sake selection and elevate the sake drinking experience beyond shots taken during a sushi dinner. Whereas that selection may have once been a choice between "hot" or "cold," curious drinkers can now explore the nuances between varieties like ginjo and daiginjo, nigori and nama, junmai and honjozo, and every intersection therein.

I recommend starting traditional, with a visit to Mike's Sushi & Sake in Palm Harbor. Mike's is a modest sushi restaurant well-loved by its many regulars, some of whom keep their own personal chopsticks at the restaurant. The sake list covers a lot of ground, featuring a few interesting specialities, such as a carafe of house sake with two hollowed out apples in place of glasses for $10.

Another unique choice at Mike's is the Bunraku Nihonjin no Wasuremono. This sake is classified as yamahai junmai, which refers to the brewing process and quality of the finished sake. Yamahai is a very traditional, labor-intensive process that is fairly uncommon in sake production today, while junmai is a designation used for sakes containing fermented rice only — no distilled spirits added. This uncommon sake is light and crisp, with melon notes and a dry finish. It also comes in a beautiful blue, dimpled bottle that guests usually take home once it's finished.

Tampa has its fair share of popular Japanese restaurants, and many of them offer very competent sake selections. But some of the newer names in town are giving sake the connoisseur's treatment, breaking it down into flavor and style categories, complete with tasting notes.

At SoHo Sushi on West Kennedy Boulevard, sakes are broken down by dry, semi-sweet and sweet varieties, including peach- and lychee-infused versions. Try the Otokoyama (literally, "man's mountain"), a tokubetsu ("special") junmai sake from Hokkaido that's a classic among in-the-know sake drinkers. The tokubetsu designation comes from the milling process, which removes 45 percent of the grain, placing it between the ginjo and daiginjo classes (see sidebar). It's mildly earthy and bone dry — a strong sake that pairs well with flavorful foods. Best of all: Bottles are half-off on Tuesdays.

At Seminole Heights' hot new ramen joint Ichicoro you'll find more than a dozen sakes on the menu, including the ever-popular Tozai Snow Maiden, a nigori sake known for its delicate banana and mango notes. Nigori sakes are unfiltered, which gives them a milky appearance and creamier mouthfeel. Although the nose would suggest a fair amount of sweetness, don't expect a dessert drink, by any means — the fruit flavors are followed by a mild acidity and dry finish.

Traditional sake is all well and good, but there's no rule against mixing it, either. Some bars, like The Queens Head in downtown St. Petersburg, use sake as a stand-in for harder spirits, as a way to offer classic cocktails without needing a liquor license. The Queens Head serves martinis and Bloody Marys made with sake, but the best of the bunch has to be the mojito. Sake works great as the base for a refreshing, mint-filled drink.

Down the street at Sab Cafe, there's a full list of original sake cocktail creations. Here, sake isn't a substitute for the harder stuff, but rather a star in its own right, with mixed ingredients intended to play along with the flavor of the sake, rather than mask it.

Yes, you can order the classic sake bomb — a shot of Sho Chiku Bai dropped into a half-glass of beer — but you can also enjoy the Asian Delight, which mixes the same sake with freshly pureed cucumber juice and is served martini-style. Then there's the Great Tea Cocktail, which uses Sho Chiku Bai, Hana Lychee-infused sake and green tea simple syrup to create a sweet, exotic and wholly original flavor.

At some point you'll want to get back to the basics and really explore the nuance of the various sake varieties. Your best bet is St. Petersburg's Souzou Asian Fusion, which offers a range of high-end sakes, as well as sake flights, allowing you to try several different styles in one sitting.

The restaurant's two sake flights cover an extraordinarily wide range of styles. Each contains a top-end junmai daiginjo variety (either Konteki Pearls of Simplicity or Ko's Ten), as well as two other interesting picks, ranging from Hana Hou Hou sparkling sake to Tozai Blossom of Peace, a sake made with ripe Japanese green plums. At $18 a piece, I'd recommend getting both flights and splitting with a friend.

If it all seems overwhelming, consider more familiar drinks, like wine or whiskey. Any respectable wine drinker knows that different grapes contribute wildly different flavors to their various wines, and every whiskey drinker knows that scotch, bourbon and Irish varieties are further apart in taste than they are geographically.

Sake is in many respects just as complex and varied as these drinks — we just haven't been paying attention. With the wealth of great sakes available now in Tampa Bay, there's no excuse not to learn more.

Contact Justin Grant at jg@saintbeat.com. Follow @WordsWithJG.

A crash course in sake

Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from rice. The Japanese term for it, "o-sake" is also used to describe alcohol in general. Here are some tips for consuming it stateside, including how it's made, what all those strange words mean and how to drink it without looking like an amateur.

What is it? Sake is a rice-based alcoholic beverage made by fermenting polished rice with koji (a type of mold) and yeast. Although it's sometimes referred to as rice wine, it's usually a bit stronger than wine (generally between 15 and 20 percent alcohol by volume).

Warm or cold? Rule of thumb: Serve premium sake lightly chilled. Warm (never hot) sake is traditional, but modern sake brewing has produced higher-end sakes that lose complexity when warmed. Cheaper (and sometimes not-so-cheap) sake is often quite good when served warm, but if it's the good stuff, you usually want to keep it cool.

What do all these names mean? Sake is classified by whether or not it's been mixed with distilled spirits and how much of the rice grain has been polished off prior to fermenting.

Futsushu: Low-grade sake, with less than 30 percent of the rice grain polished. You won't see this often.

Honjozo: Mid-grade sake, 30 percent polished, with some distilled spirit added.

Junmai: At least 30 percent polished (often more), with no distilled spirit added — pure sake.

Ginjo: This one is 40 percent polished, with 60 percent rice grain remaining.

Daiginjo: This is 50 percent polished, and therefore has 50 percent rice grain remaining. Considered the highest-end category.

Junmai Ginjo/Daiginjo: Sake that fits into both the junmai category, as well as ginjo or daiginjo.

Nigori: Unfiltered sake. It has a milky appearance and typically has a more pronounced rice flavor.

Nama: Unpasteurized sake.

How to drink it? First off, never pour sake for yourself if you're in a group — always pour for others and allow them to pour for you. This is a Japanese tradition known as o-shaku, and it will make you look like you know what you're doing. When someone else is pouring for you, hold your glass in two hands.

Smell the sake before drinking it, and swirl it around in your mouth before swallowing (preferably while breathing through your nose). This is the best way to experience the full flavor of the sake.

And when toasting, say as the Japanese say: Kanpai!

IF YOU GO

Mike's Sushi & Sake: 33855 US Highway 19 N, Palm Harbor. (727) 784-7300

Soho Sushi: 3218 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. (813) 873-7646;

sohosushi.com

Ichicoro: 5229 N Florida Ave., Tampa. (813) 517-9989;

ichicoroya.com

The Queens Head: 2501 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 498-8584;

thequeensheadbar.com

Sab Cafe: 111 Second Ave. NE No. 100, St. Petersburg. (727) 822-2100; sabcafe.com

Souzou Asian Fusion: 435 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 893-4050;

souzoufusion.com

As sake gains popularity in Tampa Bay, here are the best places to try it 03/28/16 [Last modified: Monday, March 28, 2016 11:51am]
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