When we was talking about article ideas for the site, Mantic mentioned that there was more to being a Sharpologist than just shaving…indeed, a pretty common topic of interest among readers here is the occasional tipple. And me being surrounded by great Sake breweries as I am, I thought I might muse a bit about this quintessential Japanese drink.
What Is Sake?
The first thing, perhaps, to say is that the word “Sake” (pronounced Sah-Keh, not Sacky) is simply the Japanese word for alcohol, meaning Whisk(e)y is just as much Sake as anything else. The Japanese word for what most of us are talking about when we use the word, is actually “Nihonshu,” literally “Japanese Alcohol.” Among all the things Japan is known for, it is perhaps the most essentially “Japanese”–one of the few things that has no known link to Chinese culture. The history of Sake goes back easily 1000 years, probably closer to 1,500, and is linked deeply to the native Japanese Shinto religion; even today, Sake plays an important role in Shinto ceremonies surrounding Marriage, the New Year, and of course the numberless festivals in every village and town you can find.
In order to understand what makes a good Sake, and how to find it, a little knowledge about the production process is helpful. Sake is produced through a unique fermentation process that defines it as much as its ingredients do. First, a special kind of “Sake rice” is polished to remove the bran, which contains proteins and oils that can lead to harsh, unpleasant flavors. Then the polished rice is allowed to rest for a while, as it absorbs moisture from the atmosphere. The rice is steamed to soften it, then a special fungus (called “koji” in Japanese) is applied. This fungus is the root of Sake’s unique production: it simultaneously releases sugars from the starch of the rice, and begins to ferment those sugars into alcohol. Then, more traditional yeast is added to the mix to increase the rate of fermentation, which usually ends with an ABV of 18-20%. This process makes Sake neither “Rice Wine” nor “Rice Beer,” it simply is what it is. Sake. (For a detailed look at the inside of a Sake brewery, see my blog post here: A Sake is Born.) After fermentation is finished, the Sake is filtered and pasteurized, and allowed to age for a short time (unlike wine or distilled liquors, Sake is best drunk fresh–usually within a year of brewing.) Sometimes, different types of Sake will have a very small amount of distilled grain alcohol added before filtering, to release some of the rice flavor from the lees (cheaper Sake often has a lot of this additive, to increase production volume).
The key point in the process above, the one that really sets different grades of Sake apart, is the polishing of the rice. The degree to which this is done fundamentally influences the flavor of the finished sake. The koji fungus that releases the sugars really loves starch, and the heart of Sake rice is pure starch. However, the outer hull has a high amount of other stuff like proteins and oils that interfere in the fermentation process and translate into harsher flavors. So the more you polish that layer away, the cleaner, sweeter and fuitier the final Sake will be. However, this polishing process is very very slow, and the more you polish a grain of rice the smaller it gets–and the more fragile. Broken rice grains are no good for Sake making, so as polishing continues it must get even slower, and gentler, and all of this translates into more work and less product. The magic of capitalism means, then, that the higher the polish and the better the flavor, the higher the price. Sake is one thing where price almost always translates into quality.
Now we get to the fun stuff, understanding how all of this translates into what you see at the store. As I mentioned, the amount of polishing that goes into the Sake helps determine the flavor, and the price. It also goes into helping to identify what kind you’re buying. There are a number of different grades of Sake, known by a set of names that can help you figure out what you’re buying. But let’s be clear: the following is a very simplified, scratching-the-surface breakdown. There are hundreds of different combinations of flavors and factors that can influence the flavor of your drink, and every brewer has his own take on things. But let’s see what we’ve got.
The most common grade, the “table wine” of Sake, is graded “Futsuu” 普通, which literally means “normal, average.” This grade is made from rice that is polished very little, perhaps to 80% or larger of the original size, and it may include additives such as grain alcohol, glucose, and more. This is the kind of stuff that you find at convenience stores and the like all over Japan, sold in “One-Cup” single serving glasses. These can be fairly harsh on the palate, and on the head the day after, but every once in a while you can get a really nice one at a crazy good price.
Once you get beyond Futsuu grade Sake, there is a group of Sakes collectively known as “Special Designations,” Tokutei-meishou, 特定名称. All of these are made from Sake rice polished down to somewhere between 70% and 50% of its original size. In addition, most of them contain no additives apart from a small amount of distilled alcohol used to release flavors from the brewing lees. These are all designated with variations on the words Junmai 純米 (Pure rice), (Dai)ginjo 大吟醸 (“Very” Special Brew) and Honjozo 本醸造(Genuine brew). The absolute top grade of these is known as “Junmai Daiginjoshuu”, made from rice polished to less than 50% of its original size, pure water, and nothing else. It commands a very high price, as you would expect from the peak of the Sake Brewer’s art. Any of these names, though, will designate a top-shelf sake and are a very good place to start with your tasting.
In addition to the grading above, there are some other special variations on the theme of sake that can really make for a special drink. For example, there is Nigori-zake, or “cloudy sake.” This is Sake that has only been slightly filtered, leaving a bit of the rice lees in the bottle (Pictured above). When served, the bottle is shaken to mix the lees through the Sake, and the flavor is full and very smooth, a really surprising drink indeed. Another is Genshuu 原酒.
Sake finishes brewing at 18-20% ABV, as I said above. However, when it is bottled, almost all Sake is diluted with water to about 14%, because for most daily or meal drinking, 20% is a bit much. However, some brewers sell “Genshuu,” which is undiluted “raw” sake. The non-dilution allows a lot of the true flavor of the liquor to come through, with a real punch. The very best Sake I ever tasted was a Junmai Daiginjou Genshuu, straight from the tanks at Yamagata Sakagura, a local brewery. Sake is a drink best served fresh, and this was amazing. It had a high, sweet flavor with a hint of carbonation. The brewer tells me that he doesn’t sell this particular Sake as genshuu, but the finished product sells for $100 a bottle at restaurants in New York. I can honestly see why, it’s a truly premium product.
One thing that is becoming more common recently is a label guide to the Sake’s flavor. In the past, the best you could hope for was a Sweet/Dry scaling, but now labels include acidity levels (the higher, the drier), Amino Acid levels (why??) and more, so perhaps the best bet when first buying is to pay attention to these labels and see what they taste like. If this kind of label isn’t present, then look for the Junmai 純米, as this denotes a Sake with no additives, and go from there.
You know that scene in Kill Bill, when Kiddo goes to the sushi bar in Okinawa and orders hot Sake? And Hattori Hanzo and the bald guy react in surprise? They weren’t surprised because of Kiddo’s amazing knowledge of Japanese culture, but because of her ability to drink hot alcohol in Okinawa’s subtropical heat. Drinking Sake hot is not some secret Japanese tradition that only the initiated know, it’s something most people usually see in movies.
Sake is sometimes drunk hot, especially in winter and especially poor Sake. It is also very often drunk cold, especially in summer, and especially very good Sake. It is sometimes drunk at room temperature, especially if you are in a hurry. Some Sakes, like Nigorizake, are only drunk cold, but basically it’s a matter of taste, so don’t worry about offending the ancient alcohol spirits if you like cold Sake. Most people do. I personally like my Sake from these amazing little pitchers with incorporated ice wells to keep it nice and cold.
So that is a bit about a very, very deep subject. If you want to learn more, then Wikipedia is a good place to start, but your local well-stocked liquor store is even better.