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Smooth Saké Sipping

What to do when your reliable cosmo or gin and tonic just aren't doing it for you anymore? Latch onto the latest trend- saké. Brewed like beer, but served like wine, saké has been a popular spirit in Japan for hundreds of years, but has only recently taken this culture-fusion-happy city by storm as the hip new drink. And restaurants featuring saké bars are popping up everywhere.

But before you go in search of a saké buzz, here's a little primer on this mysterious drink. It is a simple mixture of rice, water and koji-kin (fermentation-inducing enzymes combined with rice and yeast that allow the mixture to convert to alcohol). The types of rice, water, and yeast affect the flavor of the saké. Saké is also differentiated by how much of the outer layer of rice is polished or milled away. The more that is milled off, the higher the quality, the purer the flavor and more refined the saké becomes.

Premium sakés have noticeably more fragrance and complexity and are pricier. Junmai saké has 30% of the rice milled away. It is a bit heavier than other sakés but is a good complement to food. Honjozo saké has the same percentage milled off, except it has the addition of distilled alcohol to enhance flavor. Junmai Ginjo saké results from at least 40% of the rice ground off. Ginjo is the same, except again, with the addition of distilled alcohol. And finally, the most premium of sakés and typically the most refined and dearest in price are junmai daiginjo and daiginjo (added distilled alcohol), both with at least 50% of the rice grain polished off.

Variations like Namazaké (unpasteurized), can taste fresher. Nigorizaké (unfiltered) gives a sometimes sweeter taste and has a milky consistency from left-in rice solids. Though sakés can be ordered heated, most premium sakés are kept chilled or at room temperature so all the nuances and complexity can be tasted.

With the ABC's of saké under your belt, you can pore over a saké list like it's nothing. At Saké Lab in North Beach, expect a substantial selection by the glass from $5-10 per glass, $10-18 per carafe, and bottles ranging from $25-$85, not to mention three types of nigorizaké. One standout splurge is the sparkling saké, a daiginjo from Okunomatsu for a hefty $220 a bottle. However, the party backdrop of techno music to match the fluorescent-futura spot attracts the night owls and imparts a big dose of sensory overload before a single sip of your junmai. In a frou-frou cocktail kind of mood? Try the Geisha ($7) made from saké and lychee juice or the Sneaky Ninja ($7), a mix of raspberry saké and lemon juice. Barely two months old when we visited in September 2003, the bar will soon be offering a happy hour.

If mellow lounging is more your thing, check out Beetle Bar, an extension of Midori Mushi Restaurant in Hayes Valley, where there is no saké list. You're on your own here, or you can ask the bartender for a taste before you commit to a glass. The intimate DJ'd lounge has a laid-back cool vibe and is very low key in the saké department. The bar does offer a small range from junmai to daiginjo, $4-$25 per glass, $33-$105 per bottle.

Serious saké fans should definitely head for Ozumo, where the elegant, spacious lounge displays an army of large saké bottles above the redwood bar. The wood-bound menu features an impressive selection of over 35 different sakés ($5-$17 per glass, $35-$200 per bottle) and three tasting flights ($14-$20). Mixed saké drinks are aplenty, with the Yudachi "Summer Rain" - nigori saké and Mandarin liqueur, or the Komosubi - saké, midori, and pineapple juice (all cocktails are $7). Take advantage of the happy hour on a variety of cocktails from 4:30pm-6:30pm.

An alternative magnet for saké aficionados is Tsunami. A tempting sea of large format saké bottles stand behind the long cherrywood bar, all available for tasting. The extensive list rivals that of Ozumo but in a much smaller, cozier setting, with prices ranging from $4-$20 per glass and $24-$110 per bottle. Saké cocktails here include the Samurai Dance - nigorizaké with pineapple, and the Soju Tini - Japanese vodka with a lemon twist (all cocktails are $5). Get there early (5-7:30pm) or very late (11pm-2am) for happy hour specials on saké cocktails.

It's apparent that saké is becoming a spirit ever more popular- one to be reckoned with the next time you walk into a Japanese restaurant. It's not just plain old sushi-complementing saké anymore.