Cold Sake A Hot Drink

Woman pouring sake
From radios and televisions to cameras and cars, America's appetite for Japanese imports has no bounds.

It even extends to the more exotic tastes including karaoke, and the animated pantheon of Hello Kitty. Sushi has hit our shores like a tsunami, pleasing palates from coast to coast.

If you're thirsting for the latest trendy import from Japan, then have a seat and open a bottle of sake, reports CBS News' Serena Altschul on Sunday Morning.

The first thing to learn: it's pronounced sa-keh, not sa-kee. Everywhere from San Francisco to Columbia, Mo., the hip and the just plain curious are driving sake imports to new heights - more than 2 million liters last year alone.

The word sake literally translates into alcohol. Like beer it's brewed. It's made from little more than rice and water.

While the ingredients are simple, understanding sake is anything but. The labels on the bottles may be beautiful, but they're not much help to a novice.

Beau Timken, the owner of True Sake, billed as the first sake-only store anywhere on Earth, says he wanted to create an environment that disarms sake.

"One of my jobs with this store is to demystify sake. People continually think it's a hard alcohol, vodka, a gin, a distilled spirit. It's not. They've had those harsh sake moments where like, 'Oh this is fire water.' But it's not. It's really comparable to wine. It's got an alcohol percentage of about 15, 16 percent. Whereas wine' is 13, 14 percent," he says.

Just like wine, you should drink sake chilled or at room temperature - which is news to anyone who's only had it hot. But when it comes to enjoying sake, rules are meant to be broken.

"Well do whatever makes you happy. It's therapeutic. It's fun to drink hot sake," he says. "But if you're going to do it, drink good hot sake. Not crappy hot sake. And it makes the experience all more better."

Sake can be enjoyed like a fine wine. "There are 600 aroma components in sake, so the nose is huge," he says.

Enjoying sake is easy, but ordering it can be a little difficult unless you know a few sake secrets.

Sake is made with highly refined rice, with almost a third of each grain polished away.

Ginjo sake takes it to the next level, reducing the rice another ten percent.

And to make the finest sake - daiginjo - fifty percent or more of the rice is removed.

Before you take the sake plunge, beware! A taste for sake can be dangerous. A drink of sake and a snack in a trendy New York bar can cost almost as much as a plane ticket to Tokyo.

American author John Gauntner lives just north of Tokyo, where he owns a sake consulting business.

"There's just as much romance, just as much culture, just as much history in every drop of sake as there is in any other beverage," he says. "The number one rule is you don't want to pour for yourself, though even that breaks down as the night goes along."

For two thousand years, sake has played a central role in all sorts of Japanese rituals.

But despite its long history - or maybe because of it - sake's popularity is now on the decline in Japan, losing out to beer, wine and whiskey.

"Sake's been around in Japan for so long, they take it for granted - it's mundane. They don't realize it's something special," says Gauntner.

That's just about all you need to know to enjoy sake, except for one more word: the traditional Japanese toast: kanpai!