For The Sake Of Sake: A Primer With Tasting Notes
by Ken Gargett
Sake. To most Westerners, it is a drink shrouded in mystery. Rice wine? Japanese spirits? All the same thing? Must be drunk warm? Myths abound.
If you were like me, your first exposure to sake was possibly in the 007 thriller You Only Live Twice, when Bond (played by Sean Connery) first meets his Japanese counterpart, Tiger Tanaka. Offered a martini (I still maintain a martini must be made with gin, not vodka), he opts for sake. “Especially when it’s served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, like this is,” he suavely imparts, impressing his host.
A more practical exposure soon came as a student trying a local Japanese restaurant. Sake was compulsory, even if we knew nothing about it. But it was warm and alcoholic – what more did a student need?
Despite Bond’s high precision palate — he can tell temperature down to the decimal point — and preference, it was not long before we were being told that drinking sake warm was very poor form. Can 007 have got it wrong? I am still not certain many of us had a clue.
What exactly is sake?
Sake is made from rice. Fermented rice, although the process that sees the conversion of starch to sugar has more in common with beer than wine or spirits.
It has been part of Japanese life for more than 2,000 years. Some believe it dates back to China around 4,000 BCE. Its importance to Japan goes back to the early part of last century, to the Russo-Japanese War.
Homebrewing of sake was banned as homebrewing meant tax free, and the taxes on sake at the time made for an extraordinary 30 percent of all revenue the government was collecting. It is still forbidden, although sake only makes up 2 percent of government revenue these days.
Simple the process might be, there are all manner of versions, levels of quality, and brewers (they are referred to as brewers, not distillers). There are some 2,000 sake breweries littered throughout Japan, so it takes little imagination to see that there must be an incredible number of very different sakes on offer.
Basically, sake is rice, water, and the fermenting agent called koji. The result is an alcoholic level that usually sits between 13 and 16 percent. The rice used is different from the standard table rice so popular with Japanese food. Rather, it is the soft, low-protein, large-grain varieties; more than 80 kinds are suitable for sake.
The water is also important. Different brewers will claim their particular water is superior – similarities to the production of whisky are common.
Koji is not strictly a yeast, but rather cooked rice/soya beans inoculated with a fermentation culture. It is also used for mirin, miso, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. For the production of sake, it reduces the carbohydrates in the rice into sugars, which subsequently ferment (as per wine) resulting in alcohol and carbon dioxide. Koji is also vital in that it contributes the umami character, crucial to good sake. Few drinks anywhere in the world are as rich in the umami character as sake, thanks to a much higher percentage of the relevant amino acids. Worth noting that the more polished the rice, the less of the umami character that gets through.
Good sake should be consumed within a week of opening the bottle – and kept refrigerated – although a day or two is far better. Sake should usually be consumed within a year of production. For serious appreciation, the tiny glasses often used are best avoided. The theory was that very small glasses led to the host continuously refilling his guests’ glasses, promoting hospitality. A guest should never be left to fill his own glass.
A key figure in sake appreciation is 180. The standard bottle is 720 mls, which is four times 180. Big bottles are 1.8 liters, which is 180 by ten.
Although sake is very often used for toasts in Japan – kampai is Japanese for “cheers” – to appreciate good sake it should be sipped, not treated as a shooter and slammed down. Sake is gluten-free and contains no preservatives. It is an ideal drink for many foods – that umami character makes it a perfect match for foods similarly blessed. Think seafoods, meats, mushrooms, aged cheeses, and more. Lots of fun to experiment.
The 5 main types of sake
This leads nicely to the types of sake that are available. The five main types are Junmai-shu, Ginjo-shu, Daiginjo-shu, Honjozo-shu, and Namazake. But there are more. The polishing/milling of the rice is key – the degree of the polishing is referred to as Seimai Buai. The milling removes the bran, and hence the protein and oil, contained in the grain.
Let’s go through the main types.
Junmai-shu is an “unadulterated” sake with no alcohol added. The Seimai Buai is a minimum of 70 percent, meaning that no more than 70 percent of the rice maintains its original size – hence, 30 percent of the grains have their outer layers removed – so a sake with a rating of, say, 60 percent will have had 40 percent of the grain removed. Rice for consumption will be polished to 90 percent or more, meaning only 10 percent or less of the grain is removed.
These are not actual legal specifications but must be mentioned on the label. These sakes range from mellow to fuller and richer styles. The acid levels tend to the higher end of the spectrum, and brewer’s alcohol is not added. This is a style often served hot. Sake with a higher percentage of the rice grain removed will naturally be more expensive, though not always better.
Ginjo-shu is 40 percent milled, hence 60 percent at original size. This is an aromatic style of sake and tends to the more elegant, delicate, and lighter. Usually served cold. Alcohol may be included. Fermentation takes place at a lower temperature.
Daiginjo-shu is a type of Ginjo-shu sake, where the milling is just 35 to 50 percent. Again, the aroma is key. These are fuller styles, while retaining a delicacy.
Honjozo-shu sake also has 70 percent milling but includes the addition of brewer’s alcohol. This is considered to give a lighter body and smooth taste. Often served warm.
Any type of sake can be Namazake. It is where the sake is not heated for pasteurization after the final mash is pressed. Should be kept chilled.
Jizake is sake produced by small brewers.
Unfiltered (or lightly filtered) sake is called Nigori-zake. The process (or lack of it) results in a cloudy product and often has some koji rice left in the bottle. Usually sweet. Kijoshu, which uses less water and more sake during the fermentation process, is also considered to be “dessert” sake.
Koshu is sake that has been aged for a longer period than the usual 9 to 12 months, giving it a more powerful texture and flavor.
Sake aged in wooden casks is Taruzake.
Sake is usually diluted by the addition of water before bottling, giving an alcohol level around 13 or 17 percent. If it is not, and has a level around 17 to 20 percent, then it is referred to as Genshu.
Akai sake will have a reddish hue, resulting from a specific type of koji.
Sake can be infused by various fruit flavors, making it ideal for cocktails. There are also sparkling versions created by a secondary fermentation that usually have a lower level of alcohol. You can even find sake with gold flakes in it called Kinapaku-iri. Needless to say, it is not cheap.
Arabashiri is sake that has not been matured, produced from the first sake out of the press of the rice mash.
Until a couple of decades ago, there was an official ranking system for sake but this is no longer in existence.
The water used for brewing sake is called Shikomimizu. Needless to say, it varies greatly from hard to soft depending on the brewer.
Hard water, that with a high mineral content, gives a powerful profile to the sake while the softer waters produce a gentler result and give a sweeter impression. The aromatic profile is usually considered to be as a result of the different yeasts used. Originally, the local yeasts were used but, as in the case of wine, with the development of various commercial cultures it is possible for a brewer to source a yeast to provide the desired result.
Why drink sake warm?
The conventional wisdom that had everyone drinking their sake warm is said to have come from a time after World War II when rice shortages forced brewers to fortify their sake with distilled alcohol. Warming it helped knock the edges off any imbalance or sharpness.
By the late 1960s, breweries moved to “pure rice” sake with no distilled alcohol involved. The higher quality allowed consumers to drink their sake chilled. Heating sake now is done where the flavor profile benefits. Similarly, the addition of alcohol during production is now a stylistic choice.
The term for warm sake is Kanzake. It can range from room temperature, around 20°C, to very hot at nearly 60°C.
Ochiai works as both a sake educator and, with her husband Andrew Cameron, runs Déjà Vu Sake Co, an Australian importer of the finest sakes. She has also judged at the prestigious International Wine Challenge Sake Competition held in Japan.
Sake tasting notes
I asked Ochiai and Cameron for a small selection of their finest for this piece (in truth, looking at just three sakes is pretty much the same as trying to explain wine in three bottles). I came away beyond impressed and I heartily encourage everyone to either locate these sakes in your own markets or to try other top examples. If you are having trouble, ask at a local Japanese restaurant for some recommendations.
Déjà Vu also specializes in Japanese whiskies and beers, and you can expect a look at some top Japanese whiskies in the coming weeks.
First up from the trio is the Fukuju Junmai Ginjo (AUD$72) from Kobe in the Hyogo Prefecture. Fukuju was established in 1751. Kobe was originally known as Nada and still is in the sake world. This is the most important sake region in Japan, producing around 25 percent.
Fukuju, a small brewery producing craft sake, derives its name from the mythology of the Seven Lucky Gods and is currently in the hands of the thirteenth generation. The brewery uses hard water known as Miyamizu and is known for its dry, elegant style. The Junmai Ginjo (15 percent with 60 percent milling) is bottled in a blue UV bottle, which helps retain freshness. So successful have they been that this is regularly served at the Nobel Prize dinner in Sweden.
For anyone who thinks sake is a bland or neutral drink, this sake will come as a shock. It is packed with fruit flavors – red berries, tropical notes, mangoes, apricots/peaches, rock melons, and more. They explode across the palate and linger with intent. A soft, cushiony texture with a vibrant, bright clean finish. Noticeable umami and a hint of underlying sweetness. A joy to drink.
The Shichida Junmai Daiginjo (AUD$113) is from the Saga Prefecture in the Kyushu region. The brewery, known as the Tenzen Brewery, dates back to 1875 when the Shichida family bought some equipment to assist a local who had gone bankrupt and remained involved. This sake (16 percent, 45 percent milling) is made from Yamadanishiki rice. The family is currently sixth generation. The water is medium hard, and the region’s warmer temperatures help to make a clean, delicate style, yet full-flavored and well-structured with noticeable umami character.
What is immediately apparent here is the floral aromas that fill the glass. Enticingly fragrant with stone fruit flavors. If you want to know just what the character of umami is, try this sake. Underlying power and impressive length. Gorgeous, supple texture. This would be ideal for lighter dishes and yet has the intensity to carry something spicier. There is a certain hedonistic note to this sake. Delicious.
Finally, Tsukinokatsura Yanagi Junmai Ginjo (AUD$98) from the Kyoto Prefecture. Tsukinokatsura was established in 1675 in the highly regarded Fushimi region of Kyoto, the second largest region after Nada. Tsukinokatsura is the oldest brewery here (it is so old that it needs specialists called Miyadaiku for any repairs as no nails are in use). It is a small but respected producer and famous for reintroducing the Nigori style of cloudy sake half a century ago. The water here is soft. The current owner is fourteenth generation.
This brewery’s Yanagi Junmai Ginjo (16 percent, milling 50 percent, although some references refer to 30 percent) uses only use Iwai rice, Kyoto’s original rice, only grown here. The style is light and dry, very much at the delicate end of the spectrum.
There is a character here not dissimilar to what one might find with a crisp Pinot Grigio, a delicious Nashi pear note, and hints of green apple. A focused and lingering style. Some underlying spicy notes, that umami touch, a hint of vanilla, and a supple texture. Some red fruits. Terrific length. Has a real elegance to it.
If you are not familiar with top sake, now is the time.
For more information, please visit www.dejavusake.com.au.
* This article was first published October 1, 2020 at For The Sake Of Sake: A Primer With Tasting Notes