Sake is arguably one of the oldest fermented beverages of human history, with evidence of similar beverages being produced as early as 300 B.C. . Sake is made with water, rice, and koji mold (the enzyme used to convert the rice and allow it to ferment), and it is these basic ingredients that set up the flavors in the sake. Breweries, Kuras, use pure, unfiltered spring water or well water, giving flavor to the sake depending on the minerality or hardness of the water. There are subtle differences of how one kura will produce their sake compared to the next, and those differences also help develop the flavor profile. It is near impossible to generalize what a specific sake type will taste like, and so the best way to learn about sake, is to taste sake!
The first thing to understand sake is that the quality of the sake is dependent on how much the rice, sakamai, has been ground down. The polishing, Seimai Buai, will remove any imperfections in the rice, so a higher polished rice will produce a higher quality of the sake. Sake is classified by the percentage that the rice has been polished (50%, 60%, 70%), before being washed, steam cooked, and then mixed with the Koji yeast.
|1/ Brown rice 2/ Rice with 40% milled 3/ Rice with 50% milled 4/ Rice with a 60% seimai buai|
Sake typically has an alcohol content of 15%, and similar to wine, can have a wide range of flavor notes from rice, nuts, melon, flowers, herbs, apples, bananas, and even chocolate. Tasting a good sake is similar to tasting a good wine, so the better the sake, the more flavors you will be able to taste.
Like wine, there are many different types of sake. But whereas the type of wine is characterized by the type of grape used, the quality of sake is characterized by the percentage of polishing of the rice, and it is further characterized if distilled alcohol is added to bring out more flavors in the sake. Premium sake comes in two types, Junmai-shu, which is pure rice sake, and Aru-ten which has alcohol added during fermentation.
Junmai-shu - has a minimum Seimai Buai of at least 70%, and has nothing added. Pure (Jun) rice (Mai) sake (Shu). Different types of Junmai-shu include Junmai Daiginjo-shu (polished to 50%), Junmai Ginjo-shu (polished to 60%), Tokubetsu Junmai-shu (a special reserve).
Aru-ten - has a minimum Seimai Buai of at least 70%, and a maximum of 25% alcohol is added to the fermentation. Different types of Aru-ten include Daiginjo-shu (polished to 50%),Ginjo-shu (polished to 60%), and Honjozo-shu (polished to 70% remaining). Aru-ten sake can best be described as tasting clean with a faster finish.
Futsushu - Table Sake - does not have a requirement for Seimai Buai, and dominates 80% of the US sake market.
Tip: When you’re starting out looking for a good sake - look for the words Junmai, Ginjo, or Daiginjo - its an easy trick to picking a good sake.
Sake can then be further defined based on the more specific styles of sake, determined by how the sake is handled after fermentation. Listed below is a small selection of the different types of sake.
Tokubetsu - designates the sake as “special”, and is used as a modifier. For instance, Tokubetsu Junmai, means special pure rice sake, and probably explains why the bottle you’re investigating is $50 or higher.
Daiginjo-Shu - “Great Ginjo”, has a Seimai Buai of at least 50%, and is made in the Aru-ten style
Genshu - Undiluted sake, which has an alcohol content of 18-20% versus 14-16% of regular sake
Kimoto - Bacteria is added to the sake mash, making the sake sweeter
Namazake - Unpasteurized sake, must be refrigerated, and has a very short shelf life
Nigori - Unfiltered Sake that has a cloudy white color, and a unique texture
Muroka - This sake is not carbon filtered, but filtered from the mash. Carbon filtering removes some of the flavor, so Muroka is stronger in flavor than filtered sakes.
Koshu - is aged sake and has a honey flavor
Shiboritate - is freshly pressed sake, shipped before the six month aging period. It tastes younger and is often described as greener.
Fukurozuri or Shizukazake - Commonly known as drip sake because it is collected from the hanging mash bags and then bottled.
Jizake - locally brewed sake
Sparkling Sake - This sake goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, and has a lower alcohol content of 5-8%.
Tip: Join email lists for sake tastings so you can try different brands and start to develop a knowledge of what flavors you prefer in a sake.
How to Pick a Good Sake
It’s pretty fair to say that your corner liquor store will not have a decent selection of Sakes. That said, its best to venture out to a Japanese market, a notable Japanese restaurant, or a Sake specialty store to help select a good bottle. Some sake bottles and sake shops will have a chart listing the grade of the sake, the flavor profile, the region where the Brewery is located, and the type of rice.
When you’re looking at the back of the bottle, there are a few things you should look for; the Grade, the Flavor Profile, and where the sake is from.
Grade: The type of sake (Junmai Daiginjo or Tokubetsu Junmai for example)
Profile: Tasting notes of the Sake
Prefecture: Lists the region of Japan where the sake was brewed. As you become more familiar with sake you might prefer one region to the next, similar to wine.
Rice: The bottle will list the type of rice, or Sakamai. There are over 100 different kinds of rice used to make sake, which grow specific to particular Prefectures. For instance; “Yamada Nishiki” which will be more fruity and fragrant is grown in Okayama or Hiroshima, or “Gohyakuman Goku” which produces drier sake is best from Toyama or Ishikawa.
Sake Meter Value (SMV) - Nihonshu-do - The sweeter the sake, the lower the number. +3 is considered neutral, +10 is very dry, and -10 is very sweet.
How to Drink Sake
So you have selected your sake, and now it’s time to drink!
Sake can be served in many ways, hot, chilled, or at room temperature, depending on the type of sake and the time of year. Typically, premium sakes are served cold, and hot sake is of a lower grade because many flavors are lost when the sake is heated.
Sake is traditionally served in small ceramic cups choko, and poured from a tokkuri. The cups are small to keep the sake cold, as well as keep the ceremony of filling your comrades cup, as one must never fill their own cup when there are other empties on the table. Sake can also be served in wooden boxes known as masu. It is typical for a glass to be placed in the masu, and filled until both are overflowing, a sign of generosity.
When tasting sake, think of it as a wine - smell it first, swirl to see the body of the sake on the sides of the glass, and then taste. It is possible to taste a wide range of flavors from a sake - sweet fruits, mineral, earthiness, citrus, melon, green apple, leafy greens, coconut, anise, peach, nuts, flowers - to name a few. And of course, the more sake you drink, the better you’ll know what you prefer.
Sake and Food
Believe it or not, but drinking sake is not limited to sushi night! Sake blends very well with many other foods, just as wine does. Sake has a lower level of acidity when compared to wine, making it an easy match with cuisine. It is however more delicate in flavor than wine, so it is best to match with food on the lighter side, avoiding heavy or spicy dishes.
There are some situations where sake pairs better than wine, specifically, dishes that use a lot of vinegar or soy. In this instance, it is best to use a sweeter and more citrusy sake. Sake is fantastic served with fish, but also blends well with meats, grilled dishes, miso, pickled or fermented foods, oysters, and cheese.
When pairing sake with food there are two strategies - matching complementary flavors or contrasting different flavors. An example of matching flavors would be a fruity, aromatic sake with a flavorful dish with fruit flavors in it. Examples of contrasting flavors are salty food with sweet sake, or sweet foods with a dry sake.
Cooking with Sake
There are many recipes that call for sake as an ingredient in the cooking process. The best thing to keep in mind is that just like wine, you do not want to cook with a wine that you would not drink. Reserve the premium sakes for sipping, but don’t go for the cheap stuff either. Sake can keep for 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator after its been opened, so one trick is to use slightly older sake for cooking instead of reaching for the Futsushu.
Now you’re a pro, ready to take on the expansive world of sake one glass at a time. Kanpai!