Erin Doman on September 16, 2015 1 Comment Sake is sometimes referred to as a rice wine, which is intended as more of a descriptive approximation than an exact comparison. Technically, wine is alcohol made from the fermentation of fruit, so the rice used for sake doesn’t precisely qualify. However, sake does share some distinct qualities with European and American styles of wine, which means that the appellation, while not entirely accurate, is a good way of describing what to expect from a glass of sake to the unfamiliar. Those who are new to the world of this exciting and subtle beverage may want to first familiarize themselves with our tips for choosing, preparing and tasting sake. 1. The Versatility of Japanese Rice Wine Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermenting rice. Compared to wine and even beer, it’s quite versatile. It can be enjoyed heated or chilled, with food or without and as a mixer or straight. Though it is unclear how long Japanese people have brewed the drink, the recipe seems to date back to at least the third century AD. This means that there has been a lot of time to perfect the recipe, and a lot of time for regional variations to develop. Unlike wine, which is generally classed by the type of grape used in its production or the location the wine comes from, sake varies along brewing styles. However, similar to wine, nearly every region of Japan has a unique sake variant. 2. How Sake is Made Sake is made from a special type of rice with a grain that is longer and stronger than most other types of rice. It also contains less protein than rice that is grown for eating. Rice used for sake also has to be very strong, since the rice must be polished to remove the bran before brewing. Polishing ensures that the rice is made entirely of starch before brewing. After polishing, the rice is soaked in water and a mold or other microorganism is added to facilitate fermentation. This rice wine must sit for about 12 months to properly ferment. 3. Common Myths A number of myths surround this beverage, particularly in the Western world where drinkers may not be totally familiar with its qualities. For example, a lot of people think there are strict rules surrounding the consumption of sake, including that the beverage must be drunk out of small ceramic cups. In fact, many types of glassware are acceptable for drinking sake, as are a number of different drinking styles, including pairing it with a meal. There are also few hard and fast rules about when to drink sake hot or cold. Warming sake helps release some of the flavors, so it is useful when drinking more robust varieties of sake, but is largely up to personal taste. 4. Sake as a Wine Sake shares many qualities in common with wine, not the least of which is the ability to pair it with food to enhance the flavors of both meal and beverage. Much like wine, sake is also strongly regional, with different areas of Japan producing very distinct types of sake and taking a distinct local pride in their own spin on the beverage. One area where rice wine differs from regular wine is in its overall flavor pallet. This Japanese beverage is much less robust than wine and needs to be prepared and drunk more carefully to preserve its delicate flavors. 5. Hot vs Cold Sake There is a misconception that only cheap or poor quality sake is served hot, while higher quality drinks are served chilled. While heating sake does help hide the bitterness and enhance the sweetness of the beverage, this is not a technique reserved just for the dregs of the rice wine world. Any full-bodied sake can actually be served warm, including some high-quality ones, such as junmai. However, more delicate types of sake, such as ginjo and its many variants, should be served cold to preserve essential flavors and aromas. 6. Pairing With Food Sake is similar to wine in that it is often paired with food. The art of sake and food pairings is often the domain of a sake sommelier. However, much like wine, it is easy to master some of the basics of pairing sake and food. For example, delicate rice wines, such as the kind brewed in Dewazakura, Yamagata prefecture, taste best with white fish and other light foods. The fruity notes in Dewazakura sake are especially good for bringing out the flavors in seafood. Pair sweeter types of rice wine, such as the ones made in Hiroshima, with creamy foods or ones served with rich, buttery sauces. It is important to note that it is possible to pair sake with many different kinds of foods, not just those from Japan or even all of Asia. However, be aware that dishes with very strong flavors, such as heavy spices, often do not pair as well with sake as milder meals do. 7. Tasting Guide Before you even touch the sake to your lips, take the time to notice the color. Good quality sake should be clear, though it may have a slight yellow or green tint. Your rice wine should never be cloudy or murky. Next, note the aroma of the drink. Many refined brands have fruity or flower notes, while more rustic sake are earthy or have the faint odor of rice. The initial flavor of the sake should match the scent, though slightly bitter or umami notes may follow. Heating sake can subtly change the flavors, usually making the resulting sake sweeter and lighter. 8. Mixes and Blends This beverage does not necessarily need to be tasted and enjoyed on its own. Sake can also be used as a mixer for cocktails, or even the iconic sake bomb in which a shot of warm sake is dropped into a cold beer. While higher quality sake should be enjoyed on its own, if you have a lower quality bottle or a sake that you have sampled and simply don’t like, mix it with some fresh fruit juice and some simple syrup or seltzer water to make a tasty cocktail. Though most stores don’t have as large of a selection of sake as they do of wine, any decent liquor store should have a good selection of both expensive and more affordable sake vintages for you to sample and purchase. You can also special order bottles online, or try your luck at a local Japanese restaurant. Japanese rice wine is a unique way to branch off and enhance your wine knowledge.