A cold rain fell on my bare head as I dashed across the wet asphalt into Neo-Asia on Glenwood Avenue. The chairs in the lobby were full of others awaiting take-out orders, so I headed for a seat at the sushi bar.
Would I like the sake sampler while I waited? the host asked. Thursday night special for $5.
Usually I view sake as a four-letter word, but the damp chill of the night and an aggravating tickle in my throat made the prospect of a warm drink appealing. Quickly a tray of five small glasses arrived, in each a couple of ounces of the fermented beverage commonly referred to as rice wine.
Only one sample was warm. It was a light tan liquid that resembled vegetable stock. It smelled vaguely of mushrooms. I took a tentative sip, and the savory warmth soothed my throat. There was a hint of acid, but nothing like the overpowering vinegar that had made me a sake-avoider. All in all, it was pleasant and tasty, though drinking it bore scant resemblance to sipping the cool, crisp whites I usually prefer.
The other four samples were more familiar cool, sweet and fruity, variously flavored with tastes of lychee fruit, plum and what I think was raspberry. As I sipped the fruity sakes, I began to contemplate how vast the range of sake must be. Turns out I had just scratched the surface.
Sake surged in popularity the mid-1990s along with sushi, but the number of varieties available in smaller markets like ours remained few. About 10 years ago, as bartenders were morphing into mixologists and experimenting wildly with ingredients, saketinis started showing up on drink lists at better Asian restaurants. I remember loving one served at Wilmingtons Indochine made with milky, white unfiltered sake and orange liqueur. It was enough to make me give cool, unfiltered sake a try, but I wasnt won over.
The $5 sake sampler I had last month was enough to turn my head, though, so I started keeping an eye out for more chances to try it. All of sudden, I was seeing sake everywhere. According to the beverage news service Shanken News Daily, American appetite for sake has been growing steadily since 2005, and really took off in the past two years. Stronger sake sales remain largely confined to the larger cities, but theres enough available in the Triangle to expand your understanding if youre interested.
The Raleigh Wine Shop on Glenwood South carries five varieties. Co-owner Seth Hoffman says he doesnt sell a lot of sake but likes to dabble in it. The terroir of sake, the defining natural characteristic, Hoffman explained, is water. And making the most of sake depends largely on temperature. Better sakes are served cool or at room temperature to allow their delicate flavors to shine.
I pick a slender pink-tinted bottle with pretty flavors on the label. Beneath the airy Japanese script, the name of the wine is somewhat awkwardly translated as Karen Coy, with the short description light and fruity beneath. It is from the Niigata region, where the mountains get up to 30 feet of snow a year. According to the NiigataSake.com web site, the pure snow makes the finest sake.
The label directs me to serve it chilled, so I stick it in the fridge door alongside a bottle of pinot grigio. But when I take the first cold sip, Im disappointed. The acid is harsh and the promised aromas of lychee, apple and strawberry nonexistent. So I pull the bottle out of the fridge.
Forty-five minutes later, the glass is cool but not cold. I try another sip, and the difference is revelatory. The acidic notes have mellowed, and it trickles across the tongue with a basket full of sweet fruit. What really knocks me out, though, is the mouth feel. Lighter and smoother than any white wine I can remember, it truly brings to mind the purity of mountain snow. I raise a glass to serendipity as I ponder what other wonders the world of sake may hold.
Amber Nimocks is former food editor at The News & Observer. Reach her at amberwrites.com.