Let’s talk about sake!
In Japanese the word “sake” actually refers to any alcohol. The rice-based drink westerners call “sake” is known as “nihonshu” in Japan. However, for clarity of this article, we will continue to refer to the drink as sake. Though sake is usually compared and referred to as a “rice wine” it is actually closer to a beer because it is made from fermented grains, rather than fruits.
For almost 2,000 years, sake has been produced and refined in Japan. Premium sake styles, such as Ginjo, are much newer, appearing on the scene between 50-75 years ago.
Though sake can be consumed in any type of glass, many choose the tiny cups for two reasons. Firstly, sake’s flavor can change with temperature, and the smaller receptacle helps you to enjoy it before the temperature shifts the taste. It is also believed that the small cups elevate the experience of sharing the drink. You and whomever you are enjoying the sake with are supposed to constantly be refilling the cups for one another. It is a practice of giving and doing for the other person.
Sake: The Basics
Sake is mostly made up of rice and water. Alcohol content usually ranges between 13-17% ABV. Some sakes, like Ginjo, require around 70 different varieties of rice for their production. It contains about half of the acidity of wine, and though it lacks wine’s crisp finish, it makes up for it with a lot of texture and diversity of style. Sake is the perfect example of a subtle umami flavor. Upon consumption, the palate experiences a gentle earthiness mixed with a fresh, soothing melon taste.
One of the best parts about sake, is that there are so many different styles and varieties. Sake ranges from a clear consistency, to a sweet cloudy dessert style. Some sake is best served warm, some at room temperature, while others are perfect when chilled. So what makes one sake different from another? Let’s dive into sake making…
The first step in making sake is polishing the grain of rice. The outer layer of each kernel is polished, or milled, off to expose the starchy core. Most sake is polished to about 50-70%, this means that 30-50% of the rice has been removed. In general, the more the rice has been polished, the higher classification of sake. However, removing more doesn’t necessarily mean a premium sake will be the result. The quality of the rice is also very important. Just as local table wines on the countryside of Italy or France can be fun and different, many small breweries make fantastic sakes from rice that have not been polished as much.
In Japanese, the term Junmai means “pure rice.” This is an important term used in classifying the kind of sake. Sake that is deemed Junmai is brewed using only rice, water, yeast, and Koji*. If the bottle is labeled as “Junmai” this means there are no added sugar or alcohol. This does not mean that non-junmai sakes are inferior, far from it! Many skilled brewers will add distilled alcohol to change and enhance the flavors and aromas of the sake.
Types of Sake
As previously discussed, Junmai is a “pure rice” sake. This has been polished to as least 70%(30% removed). It tends to be have a full, rich body and a slightly acidic flavor. Best served warm or at room temperature.
Junmai sake pairs well with rich, tasty foods such as meat dishes, lasagna, and tempura.
Similar to Junmai, honjozo sake has been polished to at least 70%. Honjozo, however, has a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol added to it, to smooth out the flavor. This is light sake that is easy to drink and can be served warm or chilled.
Honjozo can be paired with a wide variety of foods, but is most commonly recommended for sushi and other fish dishes.
Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo
Ginjo is a premium sake that has been polished to at least 60%. It is brewed using a special yeast and fermentation technique. Ginjo has a light, fruity and complex flavor with a fragrant nose. It is known for being an easy drink that is usually served chilled.
Ginjo is perfect for pre-dinner aperitifs or as an after differ drink. Recommended for foods that are lighter such as beef carpaccio, vegetable tempura or other appetizers.
Other terms to know…
Daiginjo & Junmai Daiginjo
Daiginjo is a super premium sake and is regarded as the pinnacle of the brewer’s art. It uses rice that has been polished to at least 50% and requires precise brewing methods. Known for its light, yet complex flavors and aromas, and usually served chilled.
While sake isn’t generally aged like a wine, it is usually left to mature and mellow for about six months before it is consumed. Shiboritate, however, goes directly from from brewing to bottling. Shiboritate is known to be bold, wild and fruity, sometimes compared to a white wine, and it seems that people either love it or hate it.
Most sake is pasteurized twice: just after brewing and just before shipping. Nama-zake on the other hand, remains unpasteurized, and therefore must be refrigerated to stay fresh. It has a fresh, sweet and fruity flavor.
Nigori sake is the cloudy, white, milky sake that is coarsely filtered with very small bits of rice still in it. It is usually sweet and creamy, and can range from silky smooth to thick and chunky. This type of sakes is far more popular outside of Japan and is what many Americans think of as sake.
Jizake simply means “local sake.” This is a great sake to try while traveling around to different regions of Japan as it will often pair well with the local cuisine. Since its local, it’s also usually fresh and not too expensive.
Again, sake is best when shared and there is so much more to learn about this beverage. You’ve just taken the time to learn the basics, the next step is to head to the store and try some different sakes for yourself! Don’t be afraid to take a chance, the only way we grow is to dive right in and experiment!
*Koji is cooked rice and/or soya beans that have been inoculated with a fermentation culture, Aspergillus oryzae.
Fun Fact: Forget Jasmin or basmati, there are over 40,000 varieties of rice found around the world!
By Aisling Kerns, Gallery Manager