When Americans think of sake, they usually remember the Japanese rice spirit as an acidic thimbleful served hot with sushi or dropped into a beer—experiences that don't beg to be repeated.

Forest Grove's SakeOne is working hard to counter that unfortunate first impression. The company, which began as an importer of premium Japanese sakes in 1992, has a plan to transform sake from a specialty drink into one that is served and sold alongside beer, wine and cider. The only American-operated sake brewer when it began in 1997, SakeOne's latest move came in February, when it became the first kura, or sake brewery, to sell the spirit in kegs. It is distributing 19.5-liter kegs (that's 26 bottles of wine, or one-sixth of a barrel of beer) to restaurants like Zilla Sake on Northeast Alberta Street.

Located in the heart of pinot noir country 40 minutes from Portland, SakeOne's facilities seem humbly industrial at first. Stacked 1-ton bags of Calrose rice lack the sweeping romance of a vineyard at sunset, but SakeOne's beautiful, accommodating tasting room and sunlit patio have their quiet charms.

In fact, while sake is often referred to as rice wine, the process of making it more resembles beer brewing than it does winemaking. Rice is polished and washed, soaked and steamed before applying koji.

Aspergillus oryzae, or koji-kin (translated, easily enough, "koji-mold"), helps break down the rice's starches into sugars that are fermentable by yeast. Cultivating koji is an incredibly delicate process. It helps that between them, SakeOne's brewers and their partners in Japan have 1,200 years of sake brewing expertise. The koji room is cedar-lined, warm and humid for the best growth of koji.

After the sugar is loosed, the sweet and chewy koji rice is added to fermentation tanks with water, yeast and steamed rice. The batch ferments with yeast imported from Japan for a few weeks before it's pressed, pasteurized, aged and packaged.

SakeOne opted to fill its kegs with organic junmai ginjo from its Momokawa line. Each term in the name clarifies the sake's purity: Nothing is used in its production except rice, water and koji. The result is a lush, easy-drinking sake.

Serving sake on draft requires pressure (75 percent nitrogen, 25 percent carbon dioxide), but the sake isn't carbonated when served. "It's the same type of system that wineries are using for premium wines on tap," says SakeOne president Steve Vuylsteke. "The combination of nitrogen and carbon dioxide can push the sake without the liquid becoming carbonated."

Moreover, the sake will be served chilled. "By offering one of our products in that format, we can show people that the whole sake category has evolved tremendously over the past 10 years or so," Vuylsteke says. "Most of the sakes that are served hot are probably lower-quality sakes. When you buy a premium sake, chill it and serve it, the aroma and flavor would be more like wine."

The kegs are SakeOne's next move to edge into the beverage market, alongside their Moonstone line of fruit-infused sparkling sakes. But, for my money, it's best to skip the bubbles and go straight for the addictively earthy, umami flavors of traditional chilled sake—both in SakeOne's Momokawa and g lines, and in its imported Japanese sakes.

After all, if you're going to drink sake, it might as well taste like sake, right? On our visit to the tasting room, we sipped not only SakeOne's creations but also an herbal gokujo ginjo and a creamy Murai nigori genshu that did, as our server warned, knock us on our asses.

"It's a natural progression, no different than a wine drinker who might start off with a [white] zinfandel and then move toward a red wine," says Vuylsteke. “It’s all part of the learning curve.” 

GO: SakeOne, 820 Elm St., Forest Grove, 357-7056, sakeone.com