Updated Friday, December 14, 2012 at 02:01 PM
THE FIRST sake I ever tried was poured — hot — into a tiny ceramic cup from what appeared to be a miniature vase. So what if that mass-produced plonk tasted like diesel fuel smells?
Sake was exotic, and I was enchanted.
In the decades since, I've savored sake from Belltown to the Big Apple, sipped it warm from a wooden "masu" and cold from a cut-glass "choko." These days I frequently drink sake at home, chilled, in a wineglass.
I've poked my nose into a vat of fermenting mash at an artisan sake brewery in B.C. and toasted "kanpai!" in Seattle with a seventh-generation sakeman whose family business, Tenju Shuzo, has been brewing in Akita prefecture since 1874.
By now you'd think I'd be a sake expert, right? Wrong. There's so much to learn.
For years, I was self-taught, buying recognizable sippers such as Black Bottle and the azure blue-bottled Mu at well-stocked Asian markets — or my local wine merchant. Then I discovered Sake Nomi in Pioneer Square, one of the few shops in the U.S. devoted to my favorite adult beverage.
Seattle's sake sensei Johnnie Stroud has been pouring premium sake at his tasting bar since 2007, educating customers on the finer points of sake-making while offering the opportunity to indulge in a sake-tasting.
Despite sake's growing presence in supermarkets and specialty wine shops, "Most people have never encountered sake outside a restaurant," says Stroud, and too few restaurants have extensive sake offerings.
Stroud and his wife, Taiko, who sell 160-plus premium sakes, welcome "nomidachi" (drinking buddies) with a weekly-changing selection of six tastes for five bucks, waived with purchase.
Among the best-sellers is Tsukinowa (translation: "Moon Ring") whose head brewer, Hiroko Yokosawa, is one of the rare women in Japan's sake industry and a former English-language student. Her teacher was none other than Stroud, who spent seven years in Japan before returning with his Japanese wife to the U.S. in 1996.
The teaching experience comes in handy at the shop. Convincing the uninitiated there's more to sake than California-based giants like Ozeki has been a slow process, he says, hampered by the notions that sake must be served hot, knocked back like a vodka shot, slammed as a "sake bomb" or sold as a saketini.
Among his teaching tools is a video that brings the intensive work of premium sake-making to life.
"When people watch the video and see how much manual labor and care is put into making sake, the sticker-shock is not so bad," says Stroud. "It's hard to get a good bottle of Japanese sake for under $20."
At Sake Nomi, nomidachi learn to appreciate seasonal specialties like Seikyo "Omachi," an unpasteurized namazake from Hiroshima ($52), and Stroud's made a convert out of me with such cedar-aged treasures as Kikusakari Tarusake ($32).
Customers often ask, "Where do these amazing flavors come from, those fruity, floral aromas?" His answer: "From the raw materials, the rice, water, yeast — the other half is where the art and skill of the brewer come in."
These days, Stroud is heartened to see more customers buying sake for gifts and to bring to dinner parties. "People expect wine," he says, but Japan's elegant export brings something new to the table.
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer.
Try it yourself
Sake Nomi: 76 S. Washington St., Seattle, 206-467-SAKE, www.sakenomi.us.
BARRY WONG / SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE TIMES
Sake is served in a traditional wooden cup or masu. The box, originally used as a measure of rice, could be found in most households in feudal Japan. Patrons would bring their own masu to drink sake, assuring they would get the correct pour.