Written by Tom Flanagan | 19th February 2021
Japan’s reputation for food and drink has global appeal and its national drink sake is starting to make waves abroad too. A rice-based alcohol that has been held in almost mythic regard, it’s often surrounded by ceremony when served and yet can be completely unceremonious at other times. For the Japanophiles, the drinkers and the curious, we asked sake seller Sayaka Hashida of sakenomism to demystify this alcoholic beverage.
The basic profile of sake by SSI (The Sake Service Institute) International is "a fermented beverage produced from rice, rice koji (mould), and water". Sake originated in Japan about 2000 years ago and while it's still the main producer, there are now 10 countries making sake. It's often called rice wine but that can be a bit misleading. Its distinctive characteristics are sweetness and umami, while the ones of wine are bitterness and acidity.
Sake is made via alcoholic fermentation, which is the process of converting sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide by the anaerobic metabolism of yeast. The important thing to know is that when you make alcohol you need sugar. It’s easy to imagine how wine is made because grapes contain sugar.
Sake is known as rice wine but it's really its own wonderful concoction.
But how about rice though? Rice needs to be sweetened first in order for alcoholic fermentation to happen. Komekoji, meaning rice mould, can make rice sweet! Rice contains starch and komekoji converts it into sugar. After that, yeast can finally start the alcoholic fermentation. Fermenting sake is a bit more expensive than wine in general because sake brewers need to be really careful to make the fermentation process occur perfectly.
Sake is categorised based on the kind of tokutei meisho-shu it is, to mean ‘premium sake’. This is determined by the ingredients used–rice, water and koji only or rice, water, koji and brewer's alcohol–and the rice-polishing ratio. In addition, ginjo or daiginjo (types of premium sake) need to follow the ginjo method, known as ginjo zukuri. This is the process of using low seimai-buai rice and fermenting at a low temperature to create a specific fragrance.
There are four categories in sake based on flavour and aroma. These are:
Kunshu (薫酒): 薫 means 'aromatic' and 酒 means sake in Japanese. Kun-shu has a rich fruity or herb aroma and light, fresh flavour. This type can be sweet or dry and is similar to white wine.
So-shu (爽酒):爽 means 'refreshing' and this type of sake has a fresh aroma with a smooth flavour. So-shu is the lightest and simplest of the four types of sake and it's most suitable chilled.
Junshu (醇酒):醇 means ‘strong taste’ and this type of sake has a rich flavour with umami and the aroma of steamed rice. Its strong taste lasts in your mouth and it's similar to full-bodied red wine.
Jukushu (熟酒):熟 means 'ripe' and this type of sake is rich and powerful overall with an aged aroma of dry fruit, nuts and spices, which is quite unique among these four categories. It has a creamy texture with sweetness and umami which make this type complicated and deep.
Many people outside of Japan think they have to follow a certain method to drink sake. But as our brewers say, you should drink sake as you want! Although there are traditional sake cups, recently many people have begun to enjoy sake with a wine glass and there are even sake competitions judging which glass is best to drink sake in. For example, if the sake is koshu (old sake), the taste is more similar to brandy, so people prefer to enjoy it with a brandy glass.
There’s been a rise in sake cocktails and Highball which is a mixture of sake, lemon juice and sparkling water, which always amazes attendees when I’ve conducted a tasting. Temperature is important depending on the type of sake but most can be enjoyed both warm and chilled. If it's chilled, you can enjoy its freshness and sharpness, but if it's warmed the aroma becomes rich and the taste becomes mild.
Yes! Store a bottle of sake upright. It should be placed in a cool and dark place, out of direct sunlight. Though how cold the temperature needs to be will depend on the type of sake.
I would recommend junmai if it’s your first time trying it, which has less than a 70% rice-polishing ratio. Many people here think sake is very strong and smells very alcoholic, but when I’ve conducted tastings, people are often surprised with sake's fruity and umami aroma, balanced sweetness, acidity and smooth taste. Junmai tends to have rich aroma and a mild taste so it’s easy to drink. If you want to try a more aromatic and fruity sake, try junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo. If you like sharper sake, try ginjo or daiginjo.
I didn't drink sake much when I lived in Japan but I’ve wanted to learn about it as a part of my culture. I’ve since found out that sake is deeply related to our history and society, and even now there are special types of sake for every occasion, such as sake for new year's, marriage, etc.
Making sake takes a lot of time and effort, which fits the Japanese character quite well, something that makes me feel even more proud of my country. You may think sake is always transparent and has a sharp taste, but as I’ve said, sake has subtle differences like wine and the more you learn about sake the more you would love it – just like I do.
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