Sake is one of the most misunderstood, disrespected adult beverages on the market. How many of you swore off sake after your first experience? Years later, do you still think of it as a warm and tasteless “rice wine” to be served only with sushi? It’s time you got serious about sake!
I was first introduced to sake in 1998 when I worked as a salesperson for a wine distributor. Sake was not a focus for our company. I presented our offerings to the few sake restaurants in my territory. One of the bonuses of this job was keeping remaining wine samples from customer meetings and trade shows. I believed then that discarding premium alcohol was foolishness; having good sense, I intermittently consumed a glass or three of sake, depending on how much was leftover.
Back then, I drank sake by default; today it’s at the top of my list of beverages to enjoy. The change came when I had a one on one sake class with Tona Palomino, Sake Specialist for Tenzing Wine and Spirits. To truly appreciate sake, you must educate yourself and be open to tasting.
There are four key ingredients to making sake:
Rice, Water, Koji Kin (mold culture) and Yeast
There are over 100 different strains of sake rice. The best rice for producing sake is Yamata Niche Ki from Kansai. Sake rice is different from the table rice you have at home. Sake rice kernels are 20-30% larger than those of table rice. Both sake and table rice are composed of fat, protein and starch. In table rice, fat, protein and starch are integrated. In sake rice, the starch is concentrated in the center. The Japanese term for this is “Shintaku” which translates into “white heart.” This composition is critical to understanding sake production and what makes a premium sake. We will get to that later.
Fun Fact: Premium Sake is graded by the size of the rice kernel. The smaller the kernel, the higher the grade.
There is no great sake without great WATER.” This is logical given that 85% of the beverage is water. If you’re doing the math, this makes the average sake about 15% alcohol, which debunks the myth that sake is hard alcohol.
There are over 3,500 sake breweries in Japan, and all are positioned around a water source. While most of the water in Japan is soft in comparison to the rest of the world, a producer may choose to use hard or soft water to create their sake. Palomino invited me to think of water as a blank canvas for making sake. Sake brewers seek to create a creamy texture with a salty tang to give their sake some backbone. Those who use hard water as their canvas tend to have a more significant production since hard water speeds up fermentation. Furthermore, using hard water produces a “masculine” style of sake with fewer aromatics. Using soft water provides the opposite result, a sake with more aromatics. The reason for the increase in aromatics with soft water is that the yeast must work harder and release esters that cause the aromas. We will talk more about yeast later.
Fun Facts: Minerals feed yeast during fermentation. Water high in sodium and calcium is excellent for sake while water high in iron and magnesium spoils sake.
Koji Kin Mold:
Yeast plus sugar equals alcohol. Remember, rice is made up of protein, starch, and fats. So how is sake fermented? Koji Kin is a mold discovered in China that can convert starch into sugar. It is used to make soy sauce, miso paste, and other fermented products. Koji Kin is sprinkled on sake rice after the rice is steamed. Only about 25% of the rice mash needs to be sprinkled to convert starch to sugar.
You may have heard sake referred to as “rice wine.” Now you know this is WRONG. Sake is not considered a wine because ”there isn’t the same process of yeast converting sugar to alcohol—instead, starch is what must be converted via fermentation. Sake is really it’s own category, and if anything, it’s closer to beer,” says Andrew Richardson of World Sake Imports.” VinePair
Fun fact: There are 3 types of mold: Black (the original), White (this is a mutation — less funky, softer, and cleaner) Yellow (used for sake. It has less acidity).
Koji kin = the name of the mold
Koji = the name of the moldy rice
Yeast has two main tasks in sake production. First, for fermentation occur and to provide an aromatic quality to sake. Secondly, a brewery will use various yeast strains to create a certain flavor.
Milling and Premium Sake:
Sake begins with milling away or polishing of the rice kernels. As the polish ratio decreases, the quality increases. To be considered premium, sake rice must be milled to at least 70%. Most of the sake in the US are premium sake. There are three categories of sake — Junmai/ Honjozo 30% milled away, Junmai Ginjo/ Ginjo 40% milled away and Junmai Daignjo/ Daiginjo 50%.
Two Families of Sake:
There are two families of sake, Junmai and Aru-Ten. Aru-Ten is sake with alcohol added during fermentation. The goal of adding alcohol is not to increase the alcohol level, but instead to introduce more aromatics. If a label reads Junmai, you know that alcohol has NOT been added.
Junmai– Currently, there is no polish ratio minimum; it used to be 70%, and this is still the standard. Flavor profile: brown rice, brand-cereal, cream, unsweetened rice pudding, earthy. Pairs with pork belly, ramen, heavy sauces and broths.
Honjozo- is the alcohol added category of Junmai. Polished at 70% with alcohol added. These sake are cleaner, dry, and crisp. Try them with fried shrimp (and other fried foods) and maki.
Junmai Ginjo/ Ginjo – 60% polish ratio (takes two weeks to achieve) These sake will be fruity and aromatic. The polishing away of fats and protein cause this style to have less of a grainy rice flavor. Look for stoned fruits, melon and pear. These also have a rich texture. Pair with rich sauces and foods with a little spice.
Junmai Daiginjo/ Daiginjo– 50% minimum polish ratio. Fruity aromatics and silky mouthfeel. Suggest pairing these with lighter dishes or as an aperitif.
Nama Sake: These sake are pasteurized twice. Bold flavor, deeper and sweeter, pairs with meats and heavy sauces. Try coconut crusted shrimp, fish in a hearty sauce, Indian curry dishes.
Nigori: Cloudy sake. Sake that has not been strained as finely as the others and bottled with some rice solids. This style is the number one selling sake style in the US. These are sweeter, with tropical aromas of coconut and banana. Pair with slightly sweet desserts.
Sasaichi Junmai- “A crisp and dry sake brewed with the natural water of Mt. Fuji. It is refreshing with a subtle mineral undertone.“
Yuki Otoko Yeti Honjozo- Fresh clean, bold and rich with flavors
Jokigen Rice Label Junmai Ginjo -“ remarkable amount of flavor and aroma in a medium-full body. Classic Yamagata style with its subtle layers of fruit and light sweetness. Stewed black cherries, orange zest, and a savory finish make a great sake to enjoy on its own or with dishes like grilled duck breast or miso-marinated black cod.
Dassai Goju 50 Junmai Daiginjo– “Dassai 50 has a collection of sweet aromas including grape juice, cotton candy, and a hint of lemonade. Talk about a sake with body! This uber daiginjo has a full-figured flavor that rushes chewy fruit tones to all corners of your mouth. It is wide and heavy with lots of expansive elements that talk to those who like a mouthful. Pay attention for a hint of anise and sneaky mild veggie aftertaste. The subtle sweetness of grape and berries becomes more pronounced when the fluid warms in the mouth. WORD: Chunky WINE: Pinot Noir / Chewy Whites BEER: Ales FOODS: Mushroom risotto, tempura, fried chicken, caviar, smoked salmon pate.”
Narutotai Ginjo Nama Genshu “Drunken Snapper” rich, complex styles, maki rolls with heavy sauce, simmered and grilled seafood.
Miyashita Sacred Mist Nigori- rich, creamy with pleasant sweetness.