What is sake?
When you think of alcohol in the West, you usually think of beer, grape-based wine, and other typical drinks you can find at a local bar. In Japan, however, one particular alcoholic drink which stands out from your usual drinks is known as sake, pronounced as “sah-keh.”
Sake is in a nutshell an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. Because the Japanese often use the word sake to describe alcohol in general, this sake is also often referred to as “nihonshu.” Today, sake is a widely popular drink that is served at various types of restaurants and establishments in Japan. Over time, sake has even reached international prominence, becoming trendy and recognizable worldwide.
What makes for good sake? The essential ingredients of excellent sake are high-quality rice, clean water, koji mold, and yeast. These basic ingredients are combined and fermented in finely tuned processes which were developed from traditions that are centuries old in Japan.
Sake is usually filtered, with the resulting drink usually having a clear to slightly yellowish color, alongside an alcohol content typically around 15 percent. Its flavor ranges from mild and light flavors, up to strong and rich flavors, sometimes with a subtle fruity taste.
Today, sake is a drink that can be paired with almost any kind of food due to its versatile flavor. But it’s undeniable that the best kind of food to pair with this traditional Japanese rice wine is none other than authentic, traditional Japanese dishes.
What differentiates the various types of sake?
Though the essential ingredients remain the same, there are miles of difference between cheap sake and premium sake. Premium sake, which has steadily grown in popularity, differentiates itself primarily on the quality of its ingredients, and the extensiveness of its production process.
Polishing of rice grain
The first factor in making truly premium sake is the degree with which the rice is polished. Before rice grains are used in producing sake, the process of polishing is utilized to shed the rice’s outer layers which tend to create undesirable flavors for sake. It is a general rule that the more polished the rice is, the better the taste, and the higher the price tag for the resulting sake.
For premium sake, it is typical for at least 30 percent of the rice grain to be polished. For more high-end premium sake, it may even be polished more. For instance, ginjo, a type of high-end sake polishes at least 40 percent of its grain to make the end product. Meanwhile, daiginjo, at least 50 percent of the grain is polished away!
These premium types of sake are usually enjoyed as is, precisely because of the strength of the flavor. Its richness is best enjoyed as is, rather than paired with dishes which may dilute its flavor.
Making sake with strong alcohol content is not easy. It involves a fermentation process which is usually time-consuming and costly. Because of the costly production process, sake producers have recently been adding distilled alcohol to give their sake a certain kick.
However, premium sake is most valued when it lacks this artificially added alcohol in its mixture. If ever there is distilled alcohol added into premium sake, it usually involves only small amounts for the sole purpose of adding subtle flavor. As such, there are two additional categories of premium sake.
Junmai is a type of sake where no distilled alcohol has been added in the production process. Meanwhile, honjozo is a type of sake where only a small amount of alcohol is added for the sake of enhancing its flavor.
It is worth noting as well that sake can be a mix of these two variables of alcohol content and rice polishing. For example, a “Honjozo Daiginjo” sake has only a little bit of additional alcohol and is made with grain that has been polished by at least 50 percent.
How do the Japanese enjoy their sake?
Sake, just like your typical beer or wine in the West, can be served in a variety of ways, for a variety of different individual tastes.
For instance, some sake are described as “ama-kuchi,” which means sweet, while some are categorized as “kara-kuchi,” or dry. The sweetness of sake is described with a number value called the “nihonshudo,” or the sake meter value. The nihonshudo of sake ranges from -15, or very sweet, up to +15, or very dry.
In addition to the level of sweetness or dryness, sake is also served according to temperature, depending on the season, as well as individual tastes. Most premium sake are generally enjoyed at chilled or room temperatures, such as with the likes of ginjo and daiginjo. Meanwhile, cheaper and less flavorful sake are usually served hot as “atsukan” which is best for winter seasons.
Restaurants also serve sake according to the amount with a traditional unit called “go.” One “go” corresponds to 180 ml, and a typical serving of sake can come in the following amounts: ichi-go (one “go”), ni-go (two “go”), and so on. Sake is also enjoyed in bottle form, where they have small varieties which contain roughly 300 ml worth of sake, and larger bottles which contain 720 ml.
Sake however is usually served in small special sake cups that are placed in a wooden box. This typical serving is called a “masu.”
In Japanese culture, it is a custom to serve sake to one another when drinking groups. It is considered good manners to check friends’ sake glasses, replenishing them before they go empty. Similarly, if a person serves you some sake, it is customary to hold up one’s glass towards them and take one sip before putting it down.
Where to find quality sake in Japan?
Across Japan, sake can be found even in typical bars. However, if you’re looking for the best sake, this can be found in any of Japan’s 1800 breweries. The most notable ones, in particular, are the ones in regions such as Niigata, Kobe, and Kyoto.
These breweries had become so renowned for their sake, that people across the country traveled there to experience tours of these facilities. One caveat however to note for foreigners is that these tours are typically Japanese only, and sometimes require advance reservations due to their popularity.
Some of these breweries maintain museums or on-site shops where they sell their products. Sometimes they even offer free samples! Note, however, those breweries are restricted during peak months for sake production.
Enjoy “sake” for its own sake
Regardless of whether you’re a sake connoisseur, or just an ordinary tourist looking for a different buzz from your typical beer, sake is sure to be a joy worth experiencing for its own sake. Next time you take a trip to Japan, consider appreciating the depth of its flavors which go as deep as its own centuries-long tradition. Authentic premium Japanese sake, needless to say, is something you must absolutely try!