SAKE 101: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO SAKE
SAKE 101: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO SAKE
A trip to Japan would not be complete without a little sake tasting! But unless you are an avid sake drinker, it can be hard to know where to begin.
To help you navigate the world of sake, we’ve done plenty of research in Japan: from consulting with sake connoisseurs, to sake tastings and sampling sake throughout Japan. But before we dive in, let's start with a few basics.
First up, in Japan “sake” refers to all alcoholic drinks, including beer, wine, liquor, and the beverage we call “sake” in English. So what do the Japanese call “sake”？ In Japanese, the word for what we refer to as sake is nihonshu, which translates as “Japanese alcohol".
Next up, it'll be helpful to know what "polishing" and "Junmai" - two key sake words - mean.
Prior to the actual sake making process the rice kernel has to be “polished” – or milled – to remove the outer layer of each grain, exposing its starchy core.
To produce good sake the rice has to be polished to between about 50%-70%. So if you read that a sake has been polished to 60%, it means 40% of the original rice kernel has been polished away, leaving it just 60% of its original size.
The other key term to understand is, "Junmai". In Japanese, Junmai means “pure rice” and it's an important word in the world of sake, as it separates the pure rice sakes from the non-pure rice sakes.
Junmai is brewed using only rice, water, yeast, and koji. Unless a bottle of sake says “Junmai” (written in Japanese as 純米), it will have added brewers alcohol and/or other additives. However, just because a sake is not Junmai does not mean it is inferior. Additives such as distilled brewers alcohol are used by skilled brewers to change and enhance flavor profiles and aromas, and can make for some very smooth and easy-to-drink sakes.
Now that you’ve learned what polishing and junmai mean, let’s talk about the different types of sake!
TYPES OF SAKE
There are so many different types of sake that – to keep things simple – we’re only going to focus on some major types and classifications.
*Junmai: As mentioned above, junmai refers to pure rice （純米） (non-additive) sake. Additionally, the junmai classification means that the rice used has been polished to at least 70%. Generally speaking, Junmai sake tends to have a rich full body with an intense, slightly acidic flavor. This type of sake can be particularly nice when served warm or at room temperature.
*Honjozo （本醸造） also uses rice that has been polished to at least 70%, but contains a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol, which is added to smooth out the flavor and aroma of the sake. Honjozo sakes are often light and easy to drink, and can be enjoyed both warm or chilled.
*Ginjo （吟醸） is premium sake that uses rice that has been polished to at least 60% and is brewed using special yeast and fermenting techniques. The result is often a light, fruity and complex flavor that is usually quite fragrant. It’s easy to drink and often (though certainly not as a rule) served chilled.
*Daiginjo （大吟醸） is super premium sake and is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the brewers art. It requires precise brewing methods and uses rice that has been polished all the way down to at least 50%. Daiginjo sakes are often relatively pricey and are usually served chilled to bring out their nice light, complex flavors and aromas.
*Nama-zake （生酒） is unpasteurized sake, and as such it has to be refrigerated to be kept fresh. While it of course also depends on other factors, it often has a fresh, fruity flavor with a sweet aroma.
*Nigori （濁り） sake is cloudy white and coarsely filtered with very small bits of rice floating around in it. It’s usually sweet and creamy, and can range from silky smooth to thick and chunky.
*Ji-zake （地酒） means “local sake” and usually goes extremely well with each region’s local cuisine – and since it’s local, it’s also usually fresh and often nicely priced.
*Shiboritate （しぼりたて） is un-aged sake (sake is typically allowed to mature for about 6 months to mellow out the flavors), which goes directly from the presses into the bottles and out to market. Shiboritate sake tends to be wild and fruity, some even liken it to white wine.
HOW TO DRINK SAKE
The most common questions we hear from sake beginners are:
- Should you drink sake cold, warm – or at room temperature?
- What kind of cup or glass should you drink it out of?
There is no hard-and-fast rule, and the most important considerations are: the particular sake in question, and your own preferences.
That being said, here are some general guidelines to help you in cooling or warming your sake:
*Ask the shop or restaurant staff for their recommendation: they will know whether it is best cold, warm – or either way.
*Avoid extremes: whether chilling or warming, be careful not to overdo it, since over-heating and over-chilling can disrupt a sake’s particular flavors and aromas.
*How to warm: don’t heat the sake directly. Rather, pour the sake into a receptacle (like a sake carafe, ideally!) that can handle some heat, and then heat it very gradually in a water bath. Avoid heating it too quickly or too intensely, and hopefully it goes without saying that you should not do it in a microwave!
At the risk of over-generalizing, many sake experts say that Ginjo and Daiginjo sakes are usually best not warmed (since being served chilled enhances their flavors and aromas), while many Junmai and Honjozo sakes do well either way (since warming these types of sakes tends to draw out their complex flavors and smooth them out a bit).
We wish we could tell you that all sake experts agree – but of course this is never the case. The best way to really gain an appreciation for and understanding of sake is to drink it! So get out there and taste some sake – you may be surprised to find you have particular type, style, and temperature you like best.
For more information on sake and Japan travel visit us at boutiquejapan.com - Kanpai! (Cheers!)
Andres Zuleta, Boutique Japan