Tasha Brandstatter on February 21, 2017 1 Comment Sake is to Japan what wine is to France and scotch is to Scotland: it’s considered the country’s national drink. Yet there’s so much more to sake than the hot, clear liquor most Americans only drink at Japanese restaurants. Sake can be refined, savory, and complex. With just a few terms and facts under your belt, you can get started exploring this unique and surprisingly affordable beverage. What Exactly is Sake? Sake is an alcoholic drink made out three basic ingredients: rice, water, and the mold Aspergillus oryzae, sometimes called koji. Of these three ingredients, water is the most important to the taste and quality of the final product. This is why, even though there are sake breweries all over Japan, Nada, near the port town of Kobe in the Kansai region, is considered the heart of sake country and has the highest concentration of breweries. The natural spring there, Miyamizu, is thought to have the best water for brewing sake. The second most important ingredient is rice. There are over 80 different varieties of rice that are only used for making sake (the regular white rice that people eat isn’t tough enough to survive the pre-brewing polishing process). A few of the most popular sake rice varieties are Yamadanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Miyamanishiki, and Omachi. Different Types of Sake In Japanese, sake simply means an alcoholic drink. The Japanese word for what Americans call sake is actually nihonshu, and just as with wine there are many different styles and grades. A few of the most common terms to get you started are: Dai-Ginjoshu: Considered the highest grade of sake because the rice kernels are polished until only 50% of the grain remains before rinsing. The polishing of the grain leaves only the most glutinous, low-protein core of the rice for brewing, which produces a very complex, light, and crisp tasting sake. Ginjoshu: The second grade of sake is made with rice that’s polished until 60% of the grain remains. Like its higher-grade cousin, these sakes are light and crisp, but they also have a subtle fruity aroma. Honjozoshu: These sakes are an excellent combination of quality and affordability. With the rice polished until 70% of the grain remains, honjozoshu sakes are less complex than dai-ginjoshu or ginjoshu sakes. They’re still light and aromatic, and cost significantly less than the highest-grade sakes. Futsushu: Literally translated to “normal sake,” this is the sake most Americans are familiar with and is the sake equivalent to everyday table wine. And just like cheap wine, some brands are good and others not so good. Namazake: An unpasteurized sake released early in the spring that needs to be kept refrigerated and consumed within a few weeks, namazake is known for its refreshing crispness. Nigorizake: Sake that’s only slightly filtered, so that it retains its cloudy white appearance. These are usually on the sweeter side. Junmaishu: This isn’t really a grade or type of sake, but a term used to indicate sake made in the traditional method with just rice, water, and mold. Sakes without this designation are “beefed up” after fermentation with small amounts of distilled industrial alcohol, a practice that started in WWII. Sakes made in the junmai, or “pure rice” method are usually more mellow and smoother than those made with added alcohol. You can find junmai sakes in all grades and types. Ji-zake: AKA local sake. One of the fun things to do if you’re ever in Japan is to try some of the hundreds of local sakes you probably won’t be able to find anywhere else. You can find these ji-zakes at breweries, restaurants, or even in regular souvenir shops. Flavor Profile Just as you pay attention to the color, aroma, sweetness, acidity, and tannins of wine, sake has its own elements that you should take of note of while tasting. Some are similar wine, while others are unique to sake. Aromatics: Like wine, some sakes are very aromatic and fruity, while others are more mild, with pronounced rice or baked tart aromas. The latter are usually the best to pair with fish. Sweet vs. Dry: The spectrum between sweet and dry in sake is fairly limited, especially when compared to wine, but there are still sweeter sakes out there. In Japanese, this sweetness level is called nihonshudo, and you can find out how sweet or dry the sake you’re buying is by looking at the numbers on the label. A dry sake will have a positive number and a sweet sake will have a negative number. The bigger the number, the more dry/sweet. Most people prefer sakes in the +/- 5 range. Acidity: Like wine, sake has acidity, although it won’t be as pronounced as in wine. The acidity level also varies greatly depending on the temperature at which the sake is served. Texture: Crisp versus soft (this depends on whether the brewers use hard or soft water to make the sake). Koku: This is a Japanese term with no direct English meaning, but loosely translates to a sense of settled earthiness. While sake with a light, fresh sensibility can be delightful, sake with koku is generally considered more refined. Umami: Sake can have umami flavor, loosely translated as a savory richness. It’s umami that makes foods like steak taste delicious. Complexity: Similar to the “finesse” people look for in fine wine, complexity in sake is not easily definable, but you know it when you drink it. It includes koku, umami, and a balance of all the other tasting elements. That said, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a solid and straight-forward bottle of sake, either! Serving Sake Now that you’ve gone out and bought some sake, stop! Before you heat it up, figure out what grade and type of sake you purchased. Unless it’s an old bottle, anything higher than the futsushu grade should be served chilled instead of heated, to preserve the crisp texture and aromatics. Heating sake is usually only reserved for low-grade sakes and sakes more than a year old, as it serves to hide the imperfections. How can you tell how old your sake is? There should be a date on the bottle, but keep in mind Japanese years aren’t numbered like European years. For example, 28.1.1 would be January 1st, 2016 (year 1 would be 1989, the first year of the Heisei Era). Try to buy sake bottled within the past year, as it’s meant to be consumed quickly. Finally, consider what you’re going to serve the sake in. Traditionally sake is served in small ceramic vessels and cups, which do a good job of keeping the sake warm if it’s been heated. But you can also serve it in regular glasses, saucer-like cups called sakazuki (usually used for ceremonial purposes in Japan), or wood boxes called masu, which hold exactly 180ml, the usual serving size for sake. If a Japanese person puts a masu in a saucer and fills it so it overflows, say thank you; this is a gesture of generosity. Masu are especially fun to drink from when you’re serving nigorizake! Now you’re ready to not only try alllll the sake, but serve it to its best advantage and talk knowledgeably about what you’re tasting. Kampai!