Feel the burn 

Sake is not for the faint of heart.

It smells like skanky, stale vodka when you sniff your first one. Then it singes your throat with its flaming jet-fuel flavor, making you beg for mercy. Sake. This is why I avoided it for so many years. But recently a sake enthusiast transformed me, and I learned that this drink, the quality stuff, is worth exploring -- at least once.

Sake is not a spirit, although the lower-quality ones certainly taste like a $1 shot in a college bar. It's often described as "rice wine," even though sake is actually a grain-fermented beverage like beer. But it tastes closer to wine and isn't carbonated.

Sake production begins by "polishing" the outer layer of specially selected short-grain rice to expose its inner starch. After the rice is cleaned, soaked, and steamed, sake brewers use a Japanese mold called koji to break down the starch into sugar for fermentation. Adding yeast and water starts the process of converting the sugar into alcohol; then it's filtered, pasteurized -- except for some specialty sakes -- and bottled.

After a six-month aging period, it's ready to drink. Unlike wine, sake doesn't improve with age and should be consumed within six months after bottling. The fresh ones should be transparent, so shy away from those taking on a darker hue.

Several different types of "premium" sake exist on our markets. To be labeled "premium," at least 40 percent of the rice grain must be polished away, and sometimes as much as 70 percent is polished away after this arduous process. This is one reason for the higher prices.

The best sakes I tried were the junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo varieties. Junmai sake is full-bodied, earthy, and smacks of wild mushrooms. Ginjo tastes pretty light-bodied and has a slightly fruity aroma. Daiginjo is one quality-step above the ginjo and is the cleanest and nuttiest. There's also unfiltered, cloudy sake with a milky appearance -- the lack of filtration leaves particles of rice floating in it.

In style, sakes range from sweet to dry. The sweetness profile in all of these "wines" varies, so it's best to ask your server before ordering. I found the best sake selections in sushi restaurants to be the ones hailing from Japan, California, and Oregon.

Premium sakes should be served chilled or at room temperature. The hot sakes you'll find in many places are heated to cover up their cheap, harsh flavors. Heating sake also gives it that kamikaze taste, leading many to believe sake is high in alcohol. In reality, sake is about 15 percent alcohol -- only slightly more than wine. Incidentally, sake contains no sulfites and is free from hangover-inducing congeners found in many wines and dark-colored spirits. A bonus.

I tend to think that sake is best before dinner, as an appetizer, rather than with food, although many disagree. Try a lighter, cleaner sake with spicy Asian foods or sushi. It's an acquired taste, but don't rule it out.

Recommended sakes

Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri Junmai "Mirror of Truth" Sake -- $23. A little like the Pinot Noir of sakes -- earthy, mushroomy but without cherry and raspberry. Hearty, bracing licorice.

Dewazakura Oka Ginjo "Cherry Bouquet" Sake -- $28. This sake smells like ripe red cherries, toasted almonds, and honeydew melon. Tastes like them too but very dry with only a slight sweetness.

Hoyo Kura No Hana Daiginjo Sake -- $35. Almonds and a very distinct flavor of steamed rice. (Imagine that?) Herby like ginseng or chamomile tea but refined and smooth -- no biting, harsh flavors.

Momokawa Pearl Nigori Genshu Sake -- $11. A fascinating unfiltered sake with coconut, banana, and almond aromas and taste. Creamy, with a tiny bit of sweetness in it.

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