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Sake, native to Japan, is an alcoholic, fermented beverage made from rice, water, koji and yeast. Although sake is known as “Japanese rice wine,” it really is quite different from wine. “Sake is brewed like beer, however, sake is not quite like beer either, since the majority of sake is non-carbonated, and the alcohol content is much higher than beer. Flavor-wise it is closer to wine than beer,” says Sushi Roku’s resident Sake Sommelier Eiji Mori.
Sake is made by polishing rice to remove the bran. The more the outer layers are polished off, the more pure the final product will be. Wine is created by fermenting the natural sugars of grapes. Sake, on the other hand, is made by a brewing process that is more similar to beer than wine. It involves starch being converted into sugar, prior to its conversion to alcohol.
Rice is milled to achieve a certain grade of sake. It should be noted that the rice used in sake productions isn’t the same rice that we eat. “It is washed and steam-Cooked,” says Mori. Then it’s mixed with yeast and koji (rice cultivated with a mold known technically as aspergillus oryzae). “The whole mix is then allowed to ferment, with more rice, koji, and water added in three batches.” Then, fermentation begins and occurs in a large tank. “This mash is allowed to sit from 18 to 32 days, after which it is pressed, filtered, blended and bottled.”
There is a big reason sake ends up resembling wine more than beer. Although the beer brewing process from starch to sugar to alcohol is only two steps, the process to make sake only takes one step. Another major difference is the alcohol content. Wines are usually around 13% ABV, Beer is between 4-7% and sakes is a bold 18-20%. In Japan, sake is often served warm in porcelain bottle called a tokkuri. It is then poured into a small cup called an aguinomi before being sipped casually.
The History of Sake
There are multiple theories on the history of sake in Japan. “I believe sake has been around about 1,000 years in the form it is today, but in other forms, it has been around about 2,000 years,” says Mori. “Sake was used in traditional Japanese ceremonies as a sacred life water when performing rituals and festivities. Even today, traditional ceremonies do not begin without a sake toast!”
The Different Varieties of Sake
There are two major sake categories: Junmai (which means pure rice) and Aruten (which means distilled alcohol added). “Junmai styles are sake made from rice, water, koji and yeast only. Aruten styles are sake made from rice, water, koji, yeast and distilled alcohol. From here, the sake is broken down into few different types depending upon how much rice has been milled.”
The Three Levels of Sake
The three levels of sake are daiginjo (the most premium), ginjo, and junmai. “Futu-shu which is table sake just like table wine would share 80% of the market. The other 20% of the market is shared with Honjozo and Junmai and the premium category which includes Daiginjo and Ginjo.”
Mori says there are various ways to enjoy sake and none are better than the rest. “You can drink it hot or cold depending on your preference.” There is a major misconception about sake in that it shouldn’t be imbibed hot or warm. The thought is that there is a disrespect with drinking sake hot. Mori says that this just isn’t true. “The misconception of hot sake in the US is that hot sake has a low quality about it.” He believes that it’s all about picking the right sake for the right temperatures. “The best way to drink sake is based on preference. For example, usually premium sake is served chilled.”
Sake, although delicious on its own, is also great in cocktails. “There are so many great sake cocktail recipes out there, but the alcohol level of sake (14%-17%) is a lot lower than spirits (40%).” He recommends the light flavored cocktails because they emphasize the flavor of sake. “Unfiltered sake has a rich flavor which creates a unique cocktail as well.”
Pairing Sake With Food
When many Americans think of sake, their thoughts go to hot “sake bombs”. However, Mori believes that cold sake is actually better for pairing with food, especially sashimi and sushi. Heating sake will change the taste and quality of the sake while impacting the final flavor on your taste buds.
Sake is a versatile beverage which pairs quite well with many cuisines, not only Japanese or Asian food. “Sake can be paired with any type of food. For example, it can be paired with western cuisine, fusion and other light or heavy dishes.” Mori personally likes to pair a lighter more refreshing sake with a lighter dish such as sashimi. “Most importantly, premium sake, such as Daiginjo, should not be overpowered by food.” Junmai tends to go well with cooked food. “There are so many ways to pair sake with food depending about taste and preference.
Daiginjo pairs well with sushi or sashimi because the pure, light sake is very complimentary to delicate fish dishes. Ginjo pairs well acidic dishes, like salmon carpaccio, because of its crisp, fruit-filled flavor. Junmai is best paired with cooked or fried dishes because it has the most body and has the ability to stand up even when mixed with hearty dishes.
Mori is delighted that, in recent years, sake has gained more attention and become more popular to drink outside of Japan. “Sake is one of the purest types of alcohol. Pure like water.” He says that anyone can be a sake sommelier. “You would be surprised how many amazing non-Japanese sake sommeliers there are. I feel that sake is respected in the world today just as much as it is in Japan in the past.”