My niece, Corina Seligman, knows her sake! I call her my secret Sake goddess! So I asked her to do a blog on Sake 101. I sure learned a lot! –Lucy
Sake (酒,さけ, or Nihonshu), one of my favorite drinks in the world, is very misunderstood by most consumers. I worked in the industry for many years as a bartender and beverage manager in California and as the first and only sake specialist for the largest liquor distributor in New York City. In almost every encounter I had with sake novices and drinkers alike, I found myself demystifying the same myths over and over again. I take great pride in being able to clear up any misconceptions about this thousand-year-old Japanese beverage tradition. Here are a few of them:
Many American drinkers have only tried hot sake. However, unlike any other alcoholic beverages, sake can be served at any temperature from chilled to warm depending on its style (If you are served piping hot sake, this is a good indication it is poor quality and the hot temperature is masking the flavor of a poor quality sake).
Oh and *psst* – You do not have to be eating Japanese food to enjoy a sake food pairing!
What is Sake?
Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from rice. Oftentimes, there are never any other grains or additives added to the sake-making fermentation process other than mold (called koji), yeast, and water. Junmai “pure rice” is sake made of only these ingredients, while any sake that is not a Junmai has a tiny bit of distilled alcohol added to it to modify the flavor and texture. Sake is not made through a simple fermentation process like wine is, nor is it distilled like a spirit such as vodka. It is much closer to beer than anything else due to its multiple-step fermentation process, but sake is best understood when it is enjoyed for what it is, not how it compares to other beverages.
Like most wine and spirits, there is high and low-quality sake depending on factors such as the quality of rice used, the milling, or the polishing process and whether it is created by hand or machine. I have drunk from a $3,000 bottle of reserve sake and I have also seen other types sold in the supermarket for $3.99. While I am not saying we need to spend thousands of dollars for a good glass of sake, there is a recognizable difference in quality and a little discernment can do some good.
Some Factors That Affect the Quality of Sake
Rice– Since this is the primary ingredient in sake, it is important that it is high-quality. There are many different types of sake rice (sakamai). Sake rice is different than the rice we eat – it has a much higher starch content that is concentrated into the middle of the grain in order to be converted into sugars and ultimately, alcohol. Some of the best quality and well-known sake kinds of rice are Yamada-Nishiki, Omachi, Gohyakuman-Goku and Miyama-Nishiki, although there are many more.
Rice Polishing- The part of the rice that ferments is the starch located in the middle of the grain. The starch is the most important part of the rice. It is surrounded by less desirable fats and proteins. The more of the outer part of the rice that can be “polished” off, the higher quality of sake it creates. Of course, the more the rice is milled, the greater the labor costs and less yield it will produce, therefore, the more polished, the more expensive it will be. The polishing ratio, or percentage it has been milled, is referred to as the seimai-buai. The percentage ratio number always refers to what is left after polishing. For example, if the seimai-buai is listed as 60%, that means that 40% has been polished off the rice grain and 60% is left over for sake brewing.
Regular table sake (Futsushu) is what is most commonly drunk throughout the world. The law only requires this type of sake to be polished somewhere between 70 and 93 percent and often has additives. A sake drinker with any discernment will usually stay away from this style.
Premium Sake Grades
As mentioned earlier, a Junmai sake is made from pure rice and must have a polishing ratio of at least 70% unless specified otherwise such as a Junmai Ginjo or Junmai Daiginjo, which refers more specifically to the seimai-buai of the rice used. Junmai sake is very versatile and can be served at any temperature.
Like junmai, honjozo also uses rice that has been polished to at least 70 percent. However, unlike junmai, honjozo contains a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol. This is often done to modify, smooth out, or enhance the flavor of the sake. Honjozos are often lighter in body than their pure rice counterparts and can also be enjoyed at any temperature.
The bottle of Wakatake Junami Daiginjo pictured here is a great example of a premium sake. Wakatake, from Shizuoka prefecture in Japan is one of the largest selling brands in the world. As we know, junmai implies that it is pure rice sake, meaning no additional alcohol has been added, and daiginjo means that it has a seimai-buai, or polishing ratio of at least 50 percent. This velvety sake should be served chilled alongside simply seasoned foods or on its own.
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Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo
All grades of premium sake falling under the names ginjo or daiginjo are legally defined by their seimai-buai and should always be served chilled.
Ginjo is premium sake that uses rice that has been polished to at least 60 percent, again meaning that is what is left of the rice. Ginjo sake is known for being aromatic, light, and having notes of stone fruit. Daiginjo is the most premium sake. By law, the seimai-buai must be polished to at least 50 percent. This sake is the most delicate and elegant in flavor.
One can easily go down the rabbit hole and become very confused by all the different terminology and styles of sake. Please keep in mind that sake is for pleasure, it is a delightful and versatile drink with a beautifully rich history. I hope this will serve as a simple guide for getting started, now it’s time to enjoy.
Do you love Sake?
If you drink and or cook with Sake, snap a pic and hashtag it #thanksforthemeal — I would love to see a photo of your favorite Sake and or sake creations on Instagram and or Facebook, or leave a note in the comments section (see below) and let me know!
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Arigatou Gozaimasu / ありがとうございますいます –Lucy