Living in Japan was likely the best 3 years of my life, hands down! It is one of the most beautiful countries EVER and I'd be willing to make that argument a thousand times over. The food, oh my sweet Lord, the food was to die for. I'd participate in a proper samurai-inspired showdown just to ensure I could have a lifetime supply of food from my favorite restaurants in the country.
Even before I made the choice to major in culinary arts, food was always a focal point for me & my family during any traveling excursion. So, experiencing all we could of Japan's cuisine while living in the country was at the top of our TO-DO list (really, a MUST DO). Yes, I'm basically exposing the ungodly amounts of ramen, sushi, gyoza and more that I consumed. It was during all the culinary excursions that I discovered the beverage of Saké. Being so young at the time of me living overseas, I had only really been aware of beer & wine when it came to fermented beverages. It was fascinating how saké, the most important alcoholic beverage in Japan, played a role of significance in religious practices and acted as a symbol of national pride. I remember one of my first omakase dining experiences included saké pairings that, obviously due to me being a minor, I couldn't partake in. The allure of something I couldn't have but so deeply wanted to become more intimate with was maddening. Fast forward to me getting deeper into my wine studies and trying to come to the terms with the fact that I had been classifying saké as something it is not.
Saké is NOT rice wine! Though similar to fermented beverages like beer and wine, saké is in a class of its own with unique production methods & the resulting beverage styles. Its origins can be traced back to an early fermented rice beverage from China called "kuchikami no saké" (mouth-chewed saké). Villagers would literally chew on rice & grains, and then spit them into a communal vat where fermentation would occur......Disgusted? Yes. Intrigued? Absolutely. The enzymes within saliva were what converted the rice into sugar, and through the fermentation, eventually it would turn into alcohol. The production of the beverage was originally under the control of the government & then the monks of the Shinto church before opening up to everyone in the 1800s.
There are four main ingredients needed to produce saké: yeast, water, saké rice and koji. Modern day production relies on the use of "koji", a species of mold that will naturally break down those starches in the rice into sugar. Whew, cue the sigh of relief! That old school method would have had me squirming even if the fear of COVD didn't exist. The ingredients of yeast & water have a huge impact on the final style & characteristics of the saké, just as they do with beer. What aids in the differentiation of saké is the use of a unique type of rice where the sugar is found closer to the center of the grain, and its surface is composed of proteins. The rice is milled, soaked & cooked into a mash (familiar term to my beer folks) prior to undergoing fermentation. An additional ingredient of distilled alcohol can be added to provide additional strength in the final abv (alcohol by volume) and increase the yield. 80% of saké production is dedicated to "futsuu-shu" or normal saké, which is mass produced with large amounts of distilled alcohol to stretch out the yield. A smaller percentage of production is dedicated to "special designation saké", which is the stuff you want to look out for if you are shopping retail shelves or a beverage list at a restaurant.
Classifications of Tokutei Meishoshu (Special Designation Saké)
DAIGINJO - this the highest quality classification of saké produced. The rice MUST be milled by half (50%) or more to expose its purity, and there is no distilled alcohol added to the final product. The saké in this category tend to come across elegant & complex----a favorite of yours truly!
GINJO - a close second to the Daiginjo, the rice for this category must be milled by 40%. If it is made without the addition of a distilled alcohol, it can be labeled as Junmai-gingjo.
JUNMAI - NO distilled alcohol can be added to the saké in this category! The rice is milled at least 30%, which aids in the creation of a wide range of styles & flavors within this classification. This is the category I would suggest drinking from if you are experiencing saké for the first time due to, at least in my limited experience, the more overtly fruit forward nature of them and clean finish on the palate. -------> check out SŌTŌ SAKE for some great ones!
HONJOZO - even though it's only a step above the lower grade of normal saké, there is a world of difference in terms of quality in this category. A small amount of distilled alcohol is added just before the mash is pressed to extract more flavor from the rice solids.
FUN FACT: saké can be enjoyed hot or cold, with the suggestion being to chill your higher grade/premium saké. Hot saké is really ideal & comforting post-meal or before the start of the meal to get your palate going. Definitely crush your bottle of saké within 24hrs though as it is a lot more prone to oxidizing than something like wine.
Styles of Saké
Namazake - an unpasteurized saké that requires refrigeration.
Nigori - Unfiltered, cloudy, and often sweet. Small particles from the mash are bottled with the saké, and when shaken/moved, cause the saké to turn a beautiful milky white. (MY FAVORITE!!!)
Genshu - An undiluted saké that usually clocks in at about 18% abv!
Koshu - Most saké is immediately bottled, but some will experience bulk aging for extended periods. This will cause the saké to deepen in color & come across richer on the palate.
OTHER - sparkling sake is becoming increasingly popular & produced the same way sparkling wines are where it is bottled before the fermentation has completely ended. Amakaze (sweet saké) is not truly saké, but it is a thick, viscous variation that you see often at festivals in the wintertime.
There is a whole lotta information to digest when it comes to saké, just like there is with the more popular beverages of wine & beer. BUT if you're trying to step up your take-out game this weekend, it's worth the additional leg work to understand what exactly you are looking for. I enjoy pairing my chillable saké with everything from pork gyoza & western inspired dishes like hamburger steak to classic yakisoba dishes & spicy sushi. I take full advantage when I'm at a Japanese inspired restaurant concept to experience new saké styles and experiment with pairing the cuisine with it, and so should you! Although wine will always be my go-to beverage, saké will always hold a special place in my heart due to my first-hand experience in the country of Japan. The beverage is seeing a steady surge in popularity here in the states with several Japanese companies beginning to produce saké in the U.S. & a few of the best breweries can be found in the state of Oregon. If you're looking to try it out, there is no better time to become a fan than there is now!
Gibson, M. (2010). Sake, Mead, and Cider. In The sommelier prep course: An introduction to the wines, beers, and spirits of the world (pp. 371–374). essay, John Wiley & Sons.
Sake. (Japanese Rice Wine). (n.d.). Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2037_sake.html