Make Mine a Sake
Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, I have an announcement to make. I have fallen in love. With a beverage. It comes from a land far far away, and it goes by the name of Sake (pronounced ‘sah-keh‘). Up until recently my very limited experience with Japan’s national drink consisted of knocking back a few gulps of the equivalent of liquid bathroom cleaner over a pile of raw fish at my local Japanese restaurant’s 2-for-1 sushi night. However, after two separate tastings of some of Japan’s best Sakes, my taste buds have changed their tune. Sake, in its best form, is complex, diverse, and just plain delicious. And NOT like bathroom cleaner at all.
The well stocked Sake fridge at London’s top Japanese restaurant, UMU
Like with any new love, I can’t get enough of Sake. So I have taken it upon myself to educate whomever will listen (and read) about the glories of the drink. Goodness knows that the people of Japan have had a hard time lately. But they are a country of strong, proud people who are ever so slowly picking themselves back up. I figure by sharing all the fascinating facts I’ve been learning about Sake with you lovely people, hopefully more of you will buy and drink it. Therefore, I’m helping in some small part to support Japan’s economy and to keep its rich history and traditions alive. Or maybe it’s just because I really like Sake. Whichever.
Sake and sushi: a match made in heaven
Sake has been an integral part of Japanese culture for 2000 years, and currently there are around 2,087 Sake breweries spread all across Japan. The first thing you should know about it is that it’s made from rice. So it’s rice wine?, I hear you ask. Kind of. It’s made a little bit like wine, but not really. And it’s made a little bit like beer, but not really. The importance of the quality of the water that’s used in Sake is a bit like Whisky, but not really. Sake is original, made in its own unique way, with its own rice varieties, brewing process, and classifications. Which is why, particularly if you’re like me and haven’t gotten ’round to learning Japanese yet, it can be a lot to wrap your mind around. But with the scattering of terminology and handful of fun facts I’m about to empower you with, you’ll be on your way to sounding like a Sake sommelier in no time.
Sake can be made from around 83 different kinds of rice, mainly larger grained than the kind we eat. Like with grape varieties, each type of rice imparts different flavours to the finished Sake. The rice must be milled down to rid it of its husk which contains of layers unwanted of fats, minerals, and proteins. The more each kernel is milled down, the more delicate, complex flavours it will impart on the Sake. Like with European wines, Sake has its own hierarchical system of classification.
Here are the main ones:
Daiginjo-shu: The ‘Grand Cru’ of Sake, it receives the most tender loving care. 50% of the kernel is milled away.
Ginjo-shu: Up to 40% of the kernel is milled away. Ginjo and Daiginjo are often delicate, fruity, and refreshing.
Junmai-shu: Junmai basically means that the Sake does NOT have any added brewing alcohol. Like with Port, which is fortified with grape spirit (think Brandy), a lot of Sake has added sugar cane spirit (think Rum). But unlike Port, the added alcohol actually makes the Sake more light, clean, and fragrant. Junmai, the more traditional way of making Sake, has a more oily texture and smells and tastes more like rice. There are Junmai-Daiginjo-shu and Junmai-Ginjo-shu classifications as well. These top grades are known collectively as Ginjo.
Honjozo-shu: Up to 30% of the kernel is milled away.
Most other Sakes fall under the Futsu-shu category (think ‘table wine’).
There are also different styles of Sake:
Namazake: Sake that is unpasteurized (like many of Europe’s best cheeses).
Genshu: The strong stuff. Sake with a higher alcohol content because it’s no been diluted with added water. It’s alcohol content is around 17-20% (Sake is normally around 13-16%).
Koshu: Aged Sake. A fairly unusual style as Sake is mostly drunk young. But I tried some as old as 10 years and much of it was lovely and sherry-like with notes of honey, caramel, and dried raisins. Some of it was also funky, mushroomy, and earthy, so it depends on whether that’s your thing.
Taruzake: Sake that is aged in casks and therefore takes on woody notes.
Nigorizake: Sake that is a milky white colour from receiving only light filtering. I tried some with lunch and loved it with a creamy lobster bisque (see above photo).
Sparkling Sake: Need I say more. I still have yet to try this style, but it sounds AMAZING!
Deliciously creamy Nigorizake
Have I totally confused you with all these Japanese words? They are however, fun to say. Try rolling them around in your mouth while sipping on Sake…you’ll feel very cultured indeed.
Just a few more things you should know about Sake, like how it’s made. Sake’s primary ingredient after rice and water is Komekoji, aka mouldy rice. Basically the rice is left to mould with specific spores called koji-kin (also used in miso and soy sauce). Through a slightly fantastical process, the mould converts the starch in the rice into sugar and at the same time yeast is added to start the fermentation process. Because it’s all happening in the same container, this is called ‘multiple parallel fermentation’. Too science-y? Ya, I know.
Here’s an unintentionally amusing yet informative video on Sake-making:
The cool thing about Sake is that you can drink it at all different temperatures, and there’s a Sake for every season. There are also A LOT of claims over the health and beauty benefits of Sake. Here are a few of my favourites taken from an old Japanese play:
‘Sake will create the atmosphere where everyone can express their opinions frankly even to their bosses and seniors’. –sure, getting a bit tipsy will make anyone loose lipped, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing in this economic climate…
‘Sake will be a good friend for people who live alone’. –I find this one kind of sad
‘Sake can turn as a handy but nourishing meal during a trip’. —forget sandwiches and crisps, just pack a flask of Sake…makes those long road trips a little more entertaining
It’s been claimed that Sake does everything for the body from ‘removing tiredness’, to preventing cancer, lowering cholesterol, aiding in blood circulation, strengthening bones, and preventing amnesia. For beauty and well-being, it apparently lowers stress, hydrates skin, and deters the ageing of cells. It’s recommended to use as a facial mask by rubbing Sake over the face and covering it with cling film to let it soak into the skin (perhaps try this when your house mate isn’t at home). Taking a bath in Sake is also recommended as aroma therapy. Personally, I think it’s a shameful waste to do anything but drink the stuff.
I don’t know how much truth is in any of these claims, but I’d love to think there was. I do know that the Japanese people as a whole look a heck of a lot healthier than many of us Westerners, and if Sake has any part to play in that, I think I’ll do what the health pamphlet advises and, ‘start a health-conscious diet accompanied by a moderate amount of Sake as early as this evening’. Now doesn’t that sound like a fantastic idea?!
If you’d like to join in the fun, you can get your hands on some Sake online at Slurp, The Drink Shop, or the Japan Centre (or if you’re London based, head to the store itself at 16 Regent St. in Piccadilly Circus). In the USA, check out Sake Social. Amazon also sells some lovely Sake cups and jugs so you’ll be properly kitted out.
Also, I highly recommend the astounding food, service, and Sake selection at UMU restaurant in Mayfair, London!
And finally my kind, patient readers, I leave you with one last golden nugget of information–a Japanese toast to go along with your Sake: Kampai!