Guide to Sake Basics

sake bottles

Sake is gaining popularity in America, but for many Americans, Sake is still exotic and something they have yet to try or still have questions about. Let’s demystify sake a bit…

 milling_machine

Sake is a Japanese beverage brewed from rice. The grains of rice are milled, removing a percentage of the outer layers of the rice to get to the starchy heart of the rice. The percentage of the rice that is milled away will determine the quality grade of the sake, with larger amounts being polished away resulting in fancier sake.

 making_sake

The sake is made from the milled rice, water, little bit of Koji mold to break down the starch, and yeast and brewed in a process somewhat similar to the beer making process.  While you sometimes may hear it referred to or labeled as “rice wine”, it is really has more in common with beer than it does wine.  Also, many people are under the mistaken impression that sake is a distilled alcohol like vodka, however, no distilling ever takes place.  Contrary to the impression some movies have given by showing people getting extremely drunk on sake, sake isn’t typically a high proof drink.  Though alcohol content varies, it is generally around the 15 percent range.

shochikubai tozai living jewelshochikubaiginjogekkeikan haikuhorin

Now let’s decode some of the words you’re likely to see frequently on sake labels…

Shu, either by itself or as a suffix on the end of another sake related word, just means “sake”.  Nihonshu means “Japanese Sake”.

Junmai means the sake is pure sake made only from rice, water, koji mold, and yeast, with no other additives. Historically, to label the sake Junmai, it also had to have at least 30 % of the rice milled away. However, labeling laws have changed and while it is still the common practice to have that much milled away, it is no longer a legal requirement to use the term Junmai on the label.

Ginjo means that at least 40 percent of the rice grain was milled away. Ginjo sakes are premium quality sakes.

Daiginjo means that at least 50 percent of the rice was milled away. Daiginjo sakes are super-premium quality sakes.

ozeki karambata

A few makers use a bit of distiller’s alcohol in the brewing process to make the sake a bit lighter and more fragrant. Those will have the word honjozo on the label. Adding the alcohol is not a cost cutting or modern corner cutting measure.  It is a centuries old method to add the specific character the brewer is looking for.

 zipangsawa sawahana awaka

The word sparkling on a sake label means the sake is bubbly, like champagne.

  nigori

Nigori means that the sake is unfiltered.  Nigori sakes will be a bit cloudy and may still have some rice bits in them.  You’ll want to shake nigori sake before pouring and serving it to mix it up.

 rihaku wandering

Namazake means the sake is unpasteurized.  It is perishable.  It needs to be consumed very young and kept refrigerated both before and after opening.

 The Nihonshudo, or Sake Meter Value, is a scale that indicates how sweet or dry the sake is.  Neutral (pure water) would be 0 on the scale. Dry sakes are rated with positive numbers.  The higher the number is on the positive side, the dryer it is.  Sweet sakes have negative numbers. The further the number is negative, the sweeter it is.

Now let’s discuss serving sake…

sake set red

Premium sakes should be served lightly chilled.  Heating sake will cause the delicate aromas and flavors to be lost.  Heating sake is often a way to disguise or improve low-grade sake.

sake setmasuflat sake cups

Sake is traditionally served from a little flask or pot called a tokkuri and poured in little sake glasses or a wooden box called a masu.  In Japanese culture, there some special customs associated with serving sake (holding the tokkuri with both hands, pouring for all your guests, not pouring for yourself, how to lift and hold your glass, refilling etiquette, etc), but in modern America, those Japanese formal customs are not widely observed. In America, in most circumstances, basic table etiquette is going to be just fine.  You can serve and drink sake just as you would wine.

empty wine glassempty stemless

If you don’t have a sake set, you can use white wine glasses. Either the regular stemmed style or the stemless style will work great.  You will want to keep your pour size small, though, not more than a couple of ounces in the glass at a time.   Sparkling sake can be served in a champagne flute.

The traditional Japanese sake toast is “Kampai!” (pronounced like “Com Pie”).  It is the Japanese equivalent of “Cheers!”.

 sake bombsaketini

Two popular, but far less traditional methods of drinking sake are in sake bombs and saketinis.  A sake bomb, a rowdy American invention, is made by suspending a shot glass of sake on top of two chopsticks that are resting on top of a glass of beer.  Then you bang both of your fists on the table and drop the shot into the beer and drink it quickly. It works a bit like a boiler maker or an Irish car bomb. For a bit less raucous alternative use of sake, saketinis can be elegant and fun. Mixologists and home bartenders have devised lots of modern drink recipes using sake in cocktails.  Many of them use sake in the way that you would use vodka.

sushi japanese food

Sake is great for drinking on its own, but also makes a great complement for meals and can be paired in much the same way as wine.  Sake, being so light, pairs best with light dishes.  It doesn’t work as well with intensely flavored or spicy dishes. It is terrific with light and simple seafood dishes. It works well with white meats like chicken or light pork dishes, but not too well with beef or hearty pork dishes.   If you could serve a Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc with it, you could probably use a dry or barely off-dry sake with it.   Many Nigori sakes can be used as you would a dessert wine. You can pair sparkling sake like you would a sparkling wine.

Like the way that Italian wines are a natural fit with Italian food and Spanish wines are a natural fit with Spanish food, sake is a natural fit with Japanese food.  Dry and semi-dry sakes work fantastically with most sushi and sashimi. Sakes with a crisp acidity work well with tempura dishes.

Lastly, let’s discuss storing sake properly…

 

 sake in glass

 Like beer, the vast majority of sakes are not made to be aged.  Fresher is better.  You’ll want to drink sakes while they’re young, like as soon as possible after you’ve purchased them.  If you have a bottle of sake that’s been unopened on your bar for more than a year or so, it’s probably not any good.    It should be clear, unless it’s a nigori, then it should be a clearish cloudy white.   If any sake has developed a yellowy or darker golden color, it’s not good anymore.  Sake should be stored out of heat and bright light.  The cooler and the darker the better if you aren’t going to be able to drink your sake very soon after you purchase it.

 

Storing opened bottles of sake is almost the same situation as storing open bottles of wine and subject to almost exactly the same time-frame guidelines. Like wine, once a bottle of sake is opened, it’s exposed to air and will begin to go bad from the oxidation.  You want to drink sake as soon as you can after you open it.  If you reseal it very tightly so that as little air as possible can get in, you can keep it the fridge for a couple of days, after than it will start to drop below its peak quality. After a week or so, you’ll likely to want to drink it soon or throw it out.