Sake to Me: Chill Out With Japan’s Traditional Drink

Why you should be drinking cold sake this summer, and where to find it

When you think of drinks to cool you off during the summer heat, sake probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind. That’s a shame. Because one of the main strengths of Japan’s famed brewed-rice beverage is its sheer versatility: It pairs with a multitude of raw and cooked foods (arguably more so than beer or wine), it can be served at a variety of temperatures, and is made in styles that range from dry and fruity to sweet and effervescent. It mixes pretty well into cocktails, too, but like wine, most people prefer it neat to savor the subtleties.

Given the rather large breadth and complexity of sake styles (here’s a good brief primer) there is a bit of a learning curve, but considering you’ve likely managed to familiarize yourself with the nuances of sushi and ramen, Japan’s other cultural obsessions (there are many) should prove no problem.

Wine shops like K&L Wines, Wally’s, or Wine House offer great resources for beginners, while more advanced connoisseurs can check out the selection at Japanese markets like Woori and Mitsuwa, which offer larger selection but with less English explantation.

But really, the best way to jump into the world of sake is to visit one of L.A.’s countless Japanese restaurant and ask for the sake list. The staff will be more than happy to what you’re thirsty for, which given this weather is probably something chilled and refreshing. Here’s where to look:

Home the most comprehensive and fascinating sake list in L.A. (one “ultra prestigious” bottle goes for $2600) this Sunset Strip robatayaki expertly pairs sake with sushi and grilled skewers. To stand up to richer dishes, try the Narutotai Ginjo Genshu Nama, a slightly viscous unpasteurized sake that’s earthy and ultra-rich  (it smells a lot like fresh cedar) but surprisingly vibrant too.  Served in a metal can, think of this undiluted “cask-strength” as the sake equivalent of a Belgian Trippel: big, bold and full of flavor.

Kagura Downtown
This Little Tokyo restaurant boasts around 25 selections of premium sakes, plus curated sake flights and the popular fruit-flavored Japanese alcoh-pop drink, Chu-Hi. Try the Hitorimusume “Only Daughter” Nigori, a dry unfiltered (cloudy) sake that has some serious coconut and tropical fruit notes (like sunscreen, in a food way).

You’ll find a great lineup of offbeat and modern sakes at this crowd-pleasing West L.A. sushi bar, many with super-cool translated to English names. The Hideyoshi Namacho Honjozo, named after a badass Japanese feudal warlord from the 17th century. Clean and crisp, it’s the sake equivalent of an off-dry Riesling, balanced with just enough richness and acidity to pair perfectly with grilled fish dishes.

Bar Hayama
Sawtelle’s best known sake bar doesn’t disappoint on the sake front, obviously, but they also have a great selection of distilled Japanese shochu made from barley and sweet potato (that’s a whole other article entirely). Still, worth trying is the Hakkaisan “Eight Peaks” Junmai Ginjo, which resembles what most people think of when they imagine sake, except much, much better. It’s branding says it’s meant to evoke the sensation of fresh mountain snow (along with hints of chestnut and quince, of course) and it turns out that description is weirdly spot-on. What’s more soothing on a hot day than a mouthful of snow?