The MR PORTER Guide To Sake
To the uninformed, sake is just a form of Japanese moonshine consumed piping hot at a sushi bar and resulting in a hangover so fierce it will make you want to book the entire next day off work. In fact sake – the national tipple of Japan – is a refined drink with roots so deeply embedded in the country’s culture and history that the Japanese word for it, nihonshu, literally means “the alcohol of Japan”.
The first thing that you need to remember is that it’s not a spirit (although the Japanese do have an indigenous distilled liquor, called shochu). The alcohol content of sake is 15-16% on average. Nor is it a wine. Its closest cousin is beer, but the sake-making process is far more complex and labour-intensive. First, the rice is polished in a computer-controlled mill for several hours to remove the outer layers – which contain lipids and proteins that can contribute to off-flavours – exposing the starchy heart at the centre of the grain. After washing, soaking and steaming the rice, sake brewers make a batch of koji (rice inoculated with the mould Aspergillus oryzae) to break down the rice’s starches into sugars. The koji is then mixed with rice, water and yeast to create a yeast starter. Once the yeast starter is finished, brewers transfer it to a larger tank; three more additions of rice, water, koji and yeast are made. After a few days, the magic of fermentation begins. Three to five weeks later, sake happens.
In recent times, sake has become trendy around the world, served at Michelin-starred restaurants from New York to Stockholm, but even those with a working knowledge of fine wine and Western spirits are often confused when handed a sake menu. So here’s what you really need to know to stop fearing it and start enjoying it.
Sake-pedia: grades at a glance
The grades of premium sake are determined by the seimaibuai (polishing rate) of the rice that has been used. The number listed indicates the percentage of the rice grain that remains after milling. Non-premium sake is classified as futsuu-shu, akin to table wine.
HONJOZO is made from rice that has been milled to at least 70%, to which a small amount of distilled alcohol has been added to enhance the aroma and flavour. This style tends to be light and dry.
JUNMAI-SHU is made with no added distilled alcohol (the name, _junmai-shu, _translates literally as “pure-rice sake”). The flavour profiles of sake in this category vary, but higher acidity and a fuller body are characteristic.
GINJO is made with rice polished to at least 60%. If the rice has been polished to 50% or below, the sake qualifies as daiginjo – the highest classification. These styles are frequently aromatic, with fruity bouquets and flavours, and some sweetness. Added alcohol is permitted for ginjo and daiginjo sake, but not for their junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo counterparts, which tend to have more heft and acidity.
Naturally, the super-premium ginjo and daiginjo grades command higher prices, but keep an open mind and experiment: you may discover that the lower grades better suit your palate. The Urakasumi brand from Miyagi Prefecture’s Saura Company provides an excellent introduction to the different grades.
Rice wine riddlers
Should sake be drunk warm or cold?
The short answer is that it depends. Highly aromatic, fruity and floral ginjo and daiginjo styles are usually served chilled – between 10 and 15 degrees – similar to lighter white wines. Although the image of hot sake as hangover-inducing hooch is still a common stereotype among sake neophytes around the world, a little heat can actually bring out the best in heavier brews with higher acidity – such as junmai-shu, or earthy kimoto and yamahai styles. Just take care not to overheat it: the optimal temperature for warm sake is around 40 degrees. To heat it, stick a thermometer into a small container of sake and place it in a shallow bath of hot (but not boiling) water.
Do rice varieties matter?
Roughly 100 different kinds of rice are used to make sake. Although it influences the texture and overall character, the variety of rice has an impact on the flavour profile of sake to a lesser extent than grape varietals do wine. Yeast strains impart many of the brew’s aromas, but the style of the brewer is what affects the sake’s flavour the most. Brands with highly distinctive styles include Kamoizumi (Hiroshima Prefecture), Suigei (Kochi Prefecture) and Tamagawa (Kyoto) – which is made by the world’s most famous non-Japanese brewer, Mr Philip Harper. Find a brand that you like and then try the different styles in their product line to compare. A great place to start is with Nanbu Bijin (Iwate Prefecture), which makes brews using several rice varieties.
How do you pair sake and food?
Sake has higher levels of the amino acid glutamate – the substance most closely associated with umami, the elusive fifth taste – than other kinds of alcohol, making it the perfect pairing partner for a variety of foods. Don’t limit yourself to Japanese cuisine (but go easy on the garlic, as too much garlic tends to accentuate bitterness). Try it with cheese, fermented foods such as pickles or miso dips, mushrooms and seafood of all sorts. Sake is especially delicious with umami-rich shellfish such as prawns, scallops and oysters.
What are the new trends in the sake world?
Sparkling sake is one of the biggest trends to hit the sake world in the past few years. Several producers such as Asahi Shuzo, from Yamaguchi, are making fizzy brews by inducing secondary fermentation in the bottle or adding carbon dioxide to the finished product. While most of the sparkling varieties are slightly cloudy with varying degrees of sweetness, some are dry and elegant – such as Masumi Sparkling from Nagano Prefecture, which is made with champagne yeast and aged for a year, according to the brewery.
Also growing in popularity are brews infused with fruits such as ume (sour plum) or yuzu citrus. These drinks make great digestifs – Japan’s answer to limoncello.
Ms Melinda Joe's recommendations
Certified sake and wine professional Ms Joe writes the Kanpai Culture column about sake and other Japanese drinks for The Japan Times. Since 2012, she has judged sake at London’s International Wine Challenge and was a panel chairperson in 2014.
Jikon Tokubetsu Junmai (Mie Prefecture): This full-bodied sake from Kiyashou Shuzo is rich and round, with ricey sweetness balanced by solid acidic structure. The finish is clean, without a trace of stickiness.
Kagatobi Gokkan Karakuchi (Ishikawa Prefecture): Fukumitsuya Sake Brewing Company makes only junmai-style brews, and the Kagatobi Gokkan Karakuchi offers fantastic value. This sake is overall light and dry – but not so light that it flies off the palate – with ample umami to make it a versatile pairing partner.
Odayaka Junmai-Ginjo (Fukushima Prefecture): All of the sake at Niida Honke is made with 100% organic rice. This restrained junmai-ginjo displays a wonderful balance of sweetness, acidity and astringency, and can be drunk cold or slightly warmed.
Hakkaisan Sparkling Nigori (Niigata Prefecture): Lightly cloudy and vigorously effervescent, this sparkling sake is a party pleaser with an elegant nose, refreshing acidity and just a touch of sweetness.
Kudoki Jozu Dewasansan Daiginjo (Yamagata Prefecture): This beguilingly sweet, aromatic sake from Kamenoi Shuzo is a classic example of daiginjo. Made with Dewasansan rice, the sake wins you over with its fruity flavours of melon and peach, smooth texture and soft finish.
Illustrations by Cozy Tomato