A Beginners Guide to Sake
What Is Sake?
Sake is also known as “rice wine” and can be sipped hot or cold. Although it is referred to as wine, the way in which sake is brewed makes it more of a beer-like substance. It is a concoction of rice, water and koji, which is a fungus that breaks down the starch into fermentable glucose. This in turn, influences the aroma and flavour of sake. The water in Japan is the very reason why sake is so unique, high in minerals this affects the taste, giving it a masculine or feminine touch.
A quick note on terminology, in English we refer to ‘sake’ as the rice wine, however in Japanese ‘sake’ refers to alcohol in general. Wine, beer, liquor… all sake! In Japanese the correct term for rice wine is nihonshu. Though this may cause some confusion when ordering, most establishments recognise that you may be referring to rice wine over alcohol in general.
What Are The Different Types Of Sake?
First, let us understand how we grade sake. Whilst wine refers to the grape type, sake looks to how the grain is processed, the outer layer of the rice must be polished or milled away, this indicates how refined the sake is. Polishing takes away undesirable fats so that there is only pure starch remaining, the more the outer layer is polished away, the better the quality! Here are some of the basic sake’s you may encounter:
– Futsu: Considered low-grade sake, there is no rice polishing requirement, below 30% of the outer layer is taken away. Often referred to as a table sake, this is the least refined and doesn’t have the best flavours.
– Junmai: Considered a premium rice wine, over 30% of the outer layer is polished away. Junmai tends to have a rich, full body flavour with an intense or slightly acidic taste. This sake tends to be drunken at room temperature or warm.
– Junmai Ginjo: Considered a super premium sake, around 40% of the outer layer is polished away. Contains a light and fruity fragrance, as it is a high-quality people tend to drink this when chilled. Ginjo sake is choice at dinner time as they pair the best with most foods.
– Junmai Daiginjo: An ultra-premium sake. This rice wine has 50% of its outer layer removed. The best of the best, this sake is considered top tier. Served chilled so you can fully experience the complex aromas and flavour.
Is Sake Expensive?
It all depends! Many favoured sakes are affordable, whilst other can be on the pricey side. The price is all dependant on the refinement of the rice, the more expensive the less outer shell of the rice is retained. This doesn’t mean that cheaper sakes are not worth buying, it is entirely dependant on your tastes. Branding can also play into the factor of pricing.
How Should You Drink Sake?
Premium sake should be enjoyed chilled, once opened it should be refrigerated and drunken within a week. For high-end sake’s – drink it from a wine stemmed glass to truly enjoy all the aromas. Lower grade sakes are to be heated, this masks any impurities in the flavour. However, experiment how you like, a good rule of them is to test how you like your sake best.
Either way, sake is to be sipped and savoured, this is why sake tends to be served in small ceramic cups. When ordering sake in a restaurant, traditionally they bring out a set of different sake cups for you to choose from. Remember to pour for your friends, but not for yourself. It is seen as rude to pour your own glass, as sake is a time for bonding and celebration, wait to be served.
What Should It Be Paired With?
With its clean and natural flavours, sake is extremely versatile. You can pair it with almost any and all foods, including meals outside of Japanese cuisine. If you’re unsure, ask for recommendations when buying or being served at a restaurant. It is only suggested to be enjoyed with friends and family, sake is a social beverage through and through. Remember to cheers when drinking – Kanpai!
Should Sake Be Aged?
Unlike wine, sake shouldn’t be aged. You’ll find the best flavours when it is fresh, so do look at the freshness date on the bottle when buying. There are some exceptions to this rule, but in most cases, you want to enjoy your sake close to the manufacturing date. Generally, two years is maximum for sake to be on the shelf and once you open your sake, be quick to finish it as it will lose its quality. When storing keep it in a dark, cool place. It will only last a week after opening.