Sake — rice wine, beer, spirit? Junmai, ginjo, daiginjo? While I have always been a sake lover, I have never actually known a thing about sake. The terms were unfamiliar to begin with, and then throw some Japanese characters into the mix and I was lost. It wasn’t until I recently booked a trip to Japan that I realized I needed to get my sake game in check. I wanted at least a basic knowledge so that upon arrival I would have a better understanding and appreciation of Japan’s native drink, so I set out to learn as much as I could. Fast.
Step one. Say sake correctly. As it turns out, I had been pronouncing sake wrong my entire life. It’s sah-kay or sa-keh, not sock-eey. Wahoo, progress!
Step two. Find out what sake is. I found a lot of confusion in this area out there, mainly because sake is a unique drink, but it has characteristics of both beer and wine in how it tastes and how it’s brewed. Sake is made with saka mai, or sake rice. This type of rice is used solely for making sake since it’s unpalatable for eating. Sake is brewed via a simultaneous fermentation process or multiple parallel fermentation.
But what’s with all the types of sake? Honestly, this part still confuses me. The higher quality is determined by how much of the rice is milled. The more milling involved, the smoother, lighter and more aromatic the flavors will be. Below are a few premium types in descending order where the % or seimaibuai represents what remains after milling.
- Daiginjo-Shu & Junmai Daiginjo, 50% or less
- Ginjo-shu & Junmai Ginjo, 60%
- Junmai-shu & Honjozo-shu, 70%
So a seimaibuai of 40% would mean that 60% of the rice kernel was milled away and you have premium sake on your hands — enjoy! After about 70% you have what is called Futsu-Shu or table sake. This is the bulk of the sake market and is made from lower grades of rice or even table rice. Confused? Hey, me too. The cool thing about this is most bottles have this number front and center. If not, it is printed somewhere on the label, usually in English even if the rest of the label is in Japanese characters. Another thing to consider is junmani. This simply means that distilled alcohol was added which may alter the taste.
So, Hot Sake or Cold Sake?
Sake is one of the only drinks that can be consumed warm or cold. I was previously pro cold sake but on a cold February day when you stumble into an izakaya, a warm cup of sake hits the spot. Additionally, warm sake is easier on the palate. If you purchase a bottle and it isn’t to your liking, there’s no need to toss it. Simply try heating it up!
How Do You Store Sake?
Obviously, I would be bringing bottles home with me from my trip, so I was interested in how to store sake. It’s recommended to keep sake in a cool, dark place until opening, just like wine. After a bottle is open, it should be refrigerated and consumed within the first 2-3 days for peak freshness.
What Do You Drink Sake In?
In Japan, it seemed like they pretty much put sake in any type of vessel. Seriously, even wooden boxes called masu. I particularly loved this as I have an odd obsession with stemware. It’s recommended that nigori or more rich sakes are consumed from ceramic cups while light, fruity sakes are best enjoyed from glass. During one of my favorite nights during my trip, I was even served sake from a posh wine glass. Since then I have been coveting these glasses for those times when I am feeling ohsofancy.
So how did what I learned in Japan compare to my pre-departure homework? It more or less all went out the window. You mean multiple parallel fermentation isn’t a talking point in Japan? People I encountered rarely discussed the milling of the rice, but they did discuss the region it was from. Water plays a HUGE role in the sake-brewing process and particular areas of Japan claim to have better water than others, resulting in better sake.
I also found out there’s far more focus on the category of sake: whether it’s flavorful, light and smooth, rich, sweet, or aged. Whenever we propped ourselves up at a restaurant or izakaya, we were never asked what type of sake we wanted; instead, we were asked what type of flavor we wanted. Additionally, I discovered that it was only recently that women have started producing sake. Whenever we came across an establishment that offered sake produced by women, we were always encouraged to try it for that reason alone.
With over 2,000 sake breweries in Japan and a dozen or so in the US, there are plenty of sake varieties and flavor profiles to fit everyone’s palate. So what are your preferences? Hot, cold, aged, sweet, Daiginjo, ginjo? Whatever it is, kanpai!