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Bartender Seanna Whalen pours a junmai daiginjo sake called Dessai 50 at RED, a Japanese fusion restaurant on West Washington Avenue. 

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

The owners of RED, a buzzy, stylish Japanese fusion restaurant on West Washington Avenue, started with a sake list that was long on options but not on detail.

“We started just listing sakes and descriptions,” said Tanya Zhykharevich, who owns RED with Jack Yip.

But despite an ever-increasing number of quality sakes at Shinji Muramoto’s restaurants, Morris Ramen and RED itself, sake remains foreign to many locals. At RED, sales are significantly lower of sake than wine and cocktails.

Zhykharevich herself found it difficult to educate both staff and customers. Many have no way of telling the difference between honjozo, nigori and junmai daiginjo, which understandably puts a chill on spending $15 for five ounces of it. 

“We’re trying to bring more stuff, but because it’s imported from Japan, the price point is expensive,” she said. “It’s harder to find something that’s going to appeal to customers for their budget and their taste.”

Then two things happened. Zhykharevich went to a restaurant in Chicago that had a map of Japan on its menu, noting the regions where sake comes from. Then she met Dave Stefanski, a wine and sake specialist at the multi-state distributor Breakthru Beverage (formerly Wirtz Beverage).

With his help, RED developed a new list with more detail about style and flavor.

“I said, we need to redesign our menu so it’s more user-friendly,” Zhykharevich said. “There is nothing worse than being a customer who’s just afraid. They get overwhelmed and they close the menu and say, ‘Give me something.’

“By giving a little description, they can spend a little more time reading about … what is junmai, what is junmai ginjo, what is junmai daiginjo?”

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Sake at RED on West Washington Avenue ranges from lightly sweet and bubbly to crisp and dry. Some are cloudy and a little sweet; others are bold and funky. 

Sake lives in its own beverage category. Made from rice, it can have a flavor profile similar to wine, with floral notes, citrus and melon flavors and a finish that ranges from lightly sweet to very dry. Drinkers often find umami flavors in sake.  

Alcohol-wise, sake compares closely to wine. RED carries sakes ranging from 8 percent alcohol by volume in a cloudy, slightly sweet nigori sake to 16 percent for the crystal clear, lightly melon-scented Dassai 50 junmai ginjo. The full-bodied, savory Kikusui Funagushi, a honjozo sake, tops out at 19 percent.

Unlike most wine, sake is fermented twice so the process is closer to making beer. Sake brewers wash and steam the rice then add yeast and molded rice called koji. That mixture, plus later additions of more rice, koji and water, ferments over several days.

Classifications of sake like junmai, honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo refer to how much of the rice grain is milled away.

Stefanski explained that at 70 percent milling, fats and proteins that remain on the rice result in “richly textured sake with more earthy and grainy aromas and flavors.” Honjozo is milled to this degree.

By the time one gets to junmai daiginjo milled to 50 percent, those flavor characteristics “become more refined and delicate in texture, with floral and fruity notes on the nose and palate,” Stefanski said.

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Sake at RED

The sake list at RED is arranged by category, from junmai and honjozo (fuller-bodied sakes milled to 70 percent of the rice grain) to junmai ginjo and ginjo (60 percent) and junmai daiginjo (50 percent). Nigori sake, a sweeter, unfiltered style, is what bartender Rob Johnson often starts newbies with.

RED’s list currently includes 16 sakes representing seven different styles.

The lightest, sweetest and lowest in alcohol are the sparkling sakes. Bunny Sparkling Sake ($18/ 300 mL) flavored with a Japanese cousin of the lemon called yuzu was very light and a bit sweet with tiny, spritzy bubbles.

RED bar manager Rob Johnson likes to start sake newbies out with nigori sake, another sweeter style. Kurosawa ($11 for 5 ounces/ $18 for 9 ounces) was cloudy and almost creamy, more rustic than some of the pricier bottles.

“It’s one of those niche things people are just starting to learn,” Johnson said. “A lot of restaurants use complicated words to describe things, so people feel pretension behind it.”

For diners who know a little more, that’s when he suggests a sake to pair better with the food they order. For example, honjozo sakes can be more assertive.

One honjozo, the Kikusui Fungaushi ($16 200 mL can), is described on the menu as “like banana bread in a glass.” Johnson said that he’s inclined to serve it with cucumber over ice to tame a little of its burn.

Even more savory was the Oni no shitaburui ($14 5 ounces/ $27 9 ounces), is a “super dank” honjozo sake with creamy, nutty flavors. The name translates to “devil’s wagging tongue” and the sake itself had more pronounced alcohol and a richer, fuller body.

“This is something I would recommend with our rolls,” Zhykharevich said. “If you order a super volcano roll, or other crazy ones with a lot of sweet, spicy sauce, this is what I would recommend with that.

“It would just go together with the craziness in your mouth. I want tempura with this sake. Something rich … indulgent.”

By contrast, a junmai daiginjo sake called Dessai 50 ($17 5 ounces/$32 9 ounces) is “so clean, it has to go with just pure fish, to just wash the soy sauce out of your mouth,” Zhykharevich said. “It stays clean.”

Ginjo and junmai daiginjo sakes often have refined, more complex flavors, Johnson said. These are also the sakes that can stand on their own. A junmai daiginjo called Wakatake ($16 5 ounces/$26 9 ounces) offered flavors of melon and a fresh, floral nose.

A junmai ginjo called Amabuki Himawari ($16 5 ounces/$30 9 ounces), translated as “Sunflower,” was simply lovely, with a lightly citrus aroma and a crisp, complex finish. It had a toasty quality to it, like good Champagne.

Stefanski offered a helpful pairing for those more accustomed to wine. Those who like richer, heavier wines (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit sirah) might go for junmai and honjozo sake.

Sauvignon blanc and rosé drinkers may gravitate toward ginjo and daiginjo because of “their crispness and delicacy.” Folks who like things a little sweeter should try nigori and bubbles.

The most important message the team at RED has is simple: Just try it.

“Don’t be afraid to ask,” Zhykharevich said. “It’s the same as with wine … different varieties can be sweet, it can be dry, it can be full bodied or lighter bodied. People are still so timid to try it.” 

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Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.