The first introduction that many have to saké is not usually the best: a bottle of hot saké forced upon them in a Japanese restaurant. I know because I used to work in one and served bottles of that stuff all day. The smell of it still haunts me.
What most people do not know is that only low-quality and old saké is served hot to mask the pungent flavors and aromas. Unfortunately, too many become victims of being served cheap heated saké, don’t like it in the least, and dismiss it as a bitter-tasting beverage with too much bite.
I had the same experience and never had any interest in having saké after that. That is, until I was re-introduced to higher-grade sakés served in the traditional manner by a local kura.
What is Saké?
Saké is an alcoholic beverage of Japanese origin made of fermented rice. In many cases, it is referred to as a “rice wine” even though it is put through a brewing process much more like that of beer. Saké is best served chilled or at room temperature; to drink high-grade saké any other way would be to lose its sophisticated and delicate essence, as well as its unique bouquet.
Saké is carefully handcrafted in kuras (saké breweries) using ancient techniques taught by the saké teachers of Japan. It starts as rice grains that are put into a mill to polish, leaving the cleaner starches to be cooled, washed, and soaked in a tank of water. Once the rice has been steamed, Koji mold spores are applied to it. The Koji grows, digests the starch, and converts it to sugar. Yeast is then added to the rice, along with water, and it is left to ferment and brew for many weeks.
Saké service is a tradition of, “I pour yours and you pour mine.” In other words, you make sure that your friend’s glass is never empty; in return, your glass will never be empty. Traditionally, saké is drunk from small ceramic cups, or choko. The saké is poured into the choko from a flask of the same material called tokkuri. Today, the beverage is also served like wine out of the bottle in fluted wine glasses made specifically for premium saké. Aside from being served straight, it can also be mixed with other ingredients to make a delightful cocktail.
Not all saké is created equal. It is valuable to know the categories in order to classify higher quality alcohol. It will also help you determine what saké will be a better fit for your palette. Of course, don’t be scared to taste outside of the box; sometimes extraordinary tasting saké can be found in a lower grade.
Types of Saké
There are many types of saké. Futsu-shu, a basic saké, is not required to be made from premium grade rice with additional alcohol added. Honjozo, on the other hand, is a premium level saké brewed with varied amounts of added alcohol, which is used to enhance flavor and aroma.
Junmai, a pure premium level saké, is made from only rice, water, yeast, and Koji. In order to carry the Junmai name, the saké cannot have any other ingredients added to it. That means no alcohol, fruit, or flavoring. Absolutely nothing. Any labels that do not directly state that they are Junmai can be assumed to be Honjozo.
Ginjo is a super premium level saké made with a higher quality of polished rice and various levels of added alcohol. Junmai Ginjo, pure super premium level saké, is made with higher polished rice with nothing added. Daiginjo is an ultra-premium level saké made with an even higher quality of polished rice with various levels of added alcohol. Junmai Daiginjo, pure ultra-premium level saké, is made with an even higher quality of polished rice with nothing added.
Junmai Ginjo sakés, hands down, are some of my favorites. The fruit-infused Moonstone craft sakés are perfect on a warm summer night. I can’t get enough of both the Plum and Coconut Lemongrass flavors. Yoshinogawa’s Winter Warrior is another favorite coming from the Niigata area of Japan, with layered tropical aromas that always leave you wanting more.
Styles of Saké
Along with many types of saké, there are also many styles. Amakuchi is sweet, while Genshu is an undiluted, full-strength saké. Karakuchi is dry, and Koshu is aged. Taru is also aged, but in a cedar barrel. Nama is an unpasteurized saké that you must consume rather quickly after coming out of the tap before it turns. Nigori, one of my favorites, is a cloudy saké. Shibori-tate saké comes freshly brewed and pressed. New saké from this year’s rice harvest, Shinshu, is intended to drink fresh.
As you can see, there many types and styles of saké available. Depending on where you are, others may be available to you.
Within the United States, there are now six saké brewing facilities. Check in your area to find out which ones are open to the public for tours of their kura, saké tastings, and to learn more about the art of saké.
If you are in the Pacific Northwest or plan on visiting soon, I can’t recommend Saké One enough. They will provide you with full saké tastings, food pairings, tours of their kura, and a list of on-going monthly festivities. It’s an experience you won’t want to miss and a great one to bring a friend or two along!
In fact, it’s always better to drink saké with friends. Re-introducing friends to this wonderful beverage has become one of my new favorite pastimes.
All images courtesy of the author.