Years ago I had my first taste of sake at KoFusion’s dollar sushi night. It was steaming hot and I was hooked. Prior to that experience I had never heard of it, so it’s okay if you haven’t either. Sake is a Japanese alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. It is more in line with beer and wine, as opposed to hard alcohol. Like wine, its flavors vary from dry to very sweet, and feature a range of floral undertones. Unlike other alcohols, sake can be enjoyed hot, warm, room temperature, chilled, and very cold, depending on the type. In the restaurants and bars that serve sake in Champaign-Urbana, you can sip one from a small porcelain cup, a pint glass if its on draft, or a stemmed wine glass.
I am an avid sake drinker. My corn allergy leaves me with few alcohol choices, but even if I could consume anything, I would still choose sake as my drink of choice. One reason is the unique flavors, and the others include the preparation and presentation. I am always on the lookout for where I can find it, which led me to my exploration of the sake scene in Champaign-Urbana. Whether or not you’re new to sake, let me confirm that Champaign-Urbana has you covered with flavorful options.
Ozeki hot sake
Tsukinowa Kinen “Blue Hue” Tokubetsu sake
I started this sake adventure where I first had it: KoFusion. I went on dollar sushi night, where I was able to get a small carafe of their Ozeki hot sake for $5. It was moderately dry, and the temperature was just shy of boiled. For hot tea lovers, this would be a great option because the flavor resembled jasmine, honey, and melon. I also ordered a glass of a $10 chilled sake, and requested the driest option offered. It was my first time trying the Tsukinowa Kinen “Blue Hue” Tokubetsu sake. It was served in a larger porcelain cup minus the carafe. I tasted hints of blended fruit, and received a surprise element that reminded me of a cinnamon sugared doughnut. KoFusion offers additional options that you can purchase as bottles or an individual pouring. I paired my sake choices with a vegetarian roll.
1 E Main ST
T-Th 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F-M 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Suigei “Drunken Whale” Junmai Tobeketsu
Himizin ume plum sake
The Downtown Champaign Japanese restaurant had the largest variety of sake. I decided to mix it up and try a couple types that were served chilled. My favorite in all of Champaign-Urbana was the $10 Suigei “Drunken Whale” Junmai Tobeketsu. It was the driest option I found in town, and anyone who loves a good chardonnay would benefit from trying this drink. Other words I sketched out in my notebook included, “light, airy, clean, bamboo.” My second glass at Miga was the Himizin ume plum sake that was just under $10. If the Drunken Whale compared to a dry chardonnay, then the plum sake was an equal match to a riesling. It was the sweetest sake I have ever consumed, and tasted of nectar. Some may enjoy this sake as a dessert wine, whereas I sipped mine with nigiri pieces of mackerel fish. I enjoyed drinking my glasses in stemware, alongside the evergreen vegetable roll I ordered.
301 N Neil St
M-Th 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
F + Sa 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
I stopped into Sakanaya over lunch to enjoy their lunch special, and dabbled in some day drinking. For $21 I consumed a carafe of their house hot sake, and two classic sushi rolls. The temperature of the beverage was perfectly hot for the autumn day that felt like a February evening. Sakyana’s hot sake had a sour twist to it. At first it reminded me of mulled apple cider with grilled lemon wedges, but by the time I was finished I compared it to drinking fermented, hot green tea with steamed grass and rose petal flowers. I paired it with the eel and cucumber roll, as well as a vegetarian roll.
403 E Green St
M-Th 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. + 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
F + Sat 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. + 5 p.m. to midnight
My final destination was the wine bar and restaurant, Sun Singer; I was surprised to learn that the restaurant offered sake. I enjoyed one of the two options offered on their menu. The Kikusui Funaguchi Shinmai Shinshu was served chilled and in a can. I was provided a carafe and tiny cup. The initial sip had me writing the words, “bright, tangy, and what I imagine a white daisy would taste like.” There was a richness to it, and had an aftertaste that reminded me of smooth, melted butter. I’d recommend this option to someone who enjoys a glass of sauvignon blanc. At $11, I was satisfied with the sake, and the ahi-tuna salad I ordered.
1115 Windsor Road
M-Th 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Sa 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Photos by Kate Aldridge