|The wold of sake is vast, exotic, and often very confusing to most Westerners. However, the
truth is that once the initial plunge is made in earnest, you may be surprised just how
quickly the shroud of mystery that surrounds this sublime beverage falls away. There are a
number of misconceptions that most foreigners hold about sake which unfortunately often
lead to an innate disinterest or even a dislike of sake without anything but a fleeting
exposure to it.
In my own experience I have found that the most common misconception for the uninitiated
is that sake is a distilled "spirit." IT IS NOT! Without getting bogged down in the details of
the brewing process, it is important to know that while sake brewing is related to both the
brewing process of beer, as well as the fermentation processes of wine making, the result is
unique. I would call the characteristics of fine sake as refined, refreshing, fragrant, flavorful,
and often very subtle. This is no spirit!
I've also found that many foreigners have made judgements about sake based on having had
only imbibed the cheapest, lowest quality sake on the market, usually the widely available
Sho Chiku Bai or Geikeikan (which I use almost exclusively for cooking!). I hate it when this
happens, because it's often hard to convince these folks that indeed they haven't really
tried "sake." Although, it is also my experience that if I'm able to then provide such a person
with a sample of quality sake, the old experiences they may have had with the low-grade
stuff disappears quickly, and conversion is then relatively easy.
The fact that the world of sake is veiled within the use of the exotic words and writing of the
Japanese language also keeps people from engaging it. But, in fact, the nomenclature with
which one needs to be familiar when understanding sake is quite limited, and can be
conquered quickly by those who have a sincere interest in knowing more about it. Also, the
fact that sake continues to become increasingly popular outside of Japan has led to better
labeling, which often now includes the placement of a label in English on imported bottles in
order to help the foreign consumer's understanding of the sake better, and to enable them
to better discriminate amongst the many varieties now available.
As with the world of wine, there are indeed a good number of different types and styles of
sake, and it is immensely helpful to understand the basic divisions of classes and
variations. Below is some basic information to help you make these distinctions and become
familiar with some of the general nomenclature you will come across as you begin to pursue
the wonderful world of sake.
As a personal note I would like to invite any and all of you reading this to make the effort to
find out more about "real" sake. It is a very worthwhile endeavor! That being said, those of
you who find yourselves living in Utah are up against a barrier others may not face; that
being the fact that sake sales (as with wine, most beer, and spirits) are controlled entirely
by the State, and sadly, those in control of inventory are terribly ignorant about sake and
generally disinterested. Being at their mercy, we in Utah are limited as to what sake is
available for legal purchase, and those selections often leave much to be desired. Therefore,
I will not only include my general sake recommendations on the My Sake Journal page, but
also those which are specifically available in Utah at the end of this section.
I should also mention that fine sake should almost always be consumed slightly chilled. Hot
sake (o-kan) can certainly has it's place, but normally you don't want to waste quality sake
by heating it! Enjoy!
|General Sake Classifications
(Thanks in part to John Gauntner's "The Sake Handbook")
Futsushu means "ordinary sake," and is used to refer to cheap, run-of-the-mill "table
sake." Most of this type of sake is somewhat harsh, particularly to the novice, and
should generally be avoided but for cooking purposes or as o-kan (heated sake). If you
order sake at a typical Japanese restaurant without specifying what you want, this is
inevitably what you will get. Futsushu makes for about 75% of what is on the market,
and many people will recognize the most famous brands, Gekeikan and Sho Chiku Bai.
Junmaishu refers to sake to which nothing is added to the basic ingredients of water,
rice, and koji-kin (the mold added to start fermentation). If your bottle does not say
"Junmaishu" somewhere, your sake has added alcohol, as well as maybe sugar or
organic acids. These additives increase yields, but at times can decrease quality. It is
also required that a sake labeled "Junmaishu" use rice in it's brewing process which
has been milled so that no more than 70% of the original grain size remains. This
process of polishing down the size of the rice grains eliminates much of the material
that contributes to harshness and bitterness. Junmaishu is generally a hearty,
full-flavored sake which is often easier to match with foods than more delicate sake.
Honjozo is sake into which a very small amount of pure, distilled alcohol is added
during the brewing process. The amount of alcohol added is strictly regulated and is
usually supplied by companies specializing in it's production. Although the adding of
alcohol to cheaper types of sake is done almost entirely to increase yields, the addition
of very small amounts of alcohol to "premium" classes of sake is often done in order to
enhance flavor and lighten taste. Take note that adding alcohol in this way is NOT to
create a fortified beverage, because enough water is added later in production to bring
total alcohol content in line with most other sake. Like junmaishu, a further
requirement for honjozo is a milling requirement (seimaibuai) of 70%, which means
that the rice used has been polished so that no more than 70% of the original size of
the grain remains.
Ginjoshu (or merely ginjo) is not only a classification, but an entire category of sake. In
order to qualify as ginjoshu, the rice used in it's production has a milling requirement
(seimaibuai) of 60%. However, this is merely a minimum requirement, and often much
more goes into the brewing of most ginjo. The most notable subclass of ginjo is that of
"daiginjo", where the milling requirement is a minimum of 50%, and can often be as
much as 35%. Occasionally one will find sake labeled as "chuginjo", which simply refers
to sake that is somewhere between a ginjo and a daiginjo, but there are no specific
milling requirements for this class.
The addition of alcohol to the brewing process also applies here. Ginjo and daiginjo to
which no alcohol has been added is referred to as Junmai ginjo and Junmai daiginjo
respectively. When small amounts of alcohol have been added, the word junmai will not
appear on the bottle, and such sake will be labeled simply ginjoshu or daiginjo.
and Tokubetsu Honjozo:
The word tokubetsu means "special" in Japanese. Therefore, when a
sake label contains the word tokubetsu, it designates the sake as
somehow "special," although what is special about a given sake is
sometimes a bit hard to define. Sometimes it is in reference to it's rice
having been milled more than the required 60%. It also may refer to
the fact that some of the rice used is specially grown "sake rice." Then
again, it may also refer to a particularly unique process of brewing that
has been used, and this will generally be noted on the bottle. However,
there is really no hard-fast rule that determines whether as sake
should be designated as tokubetsu. In general, what is important to
note is that tokubetsu honjozo and tokubetsu junmaishu are a bit
higher grade than regular honjozo and junmaishu.
Namazake is unpasteurized sake. Though the character and taste of
namazake varies considerably from sake to sake, it generally has a
somewhat fresher and livelier taste than the pasteurized varieties. The
unique taste of the "rawness" can often overpower the more subtle
characteristics, but can be controlled somewhat through variations in the
brewing and storage process. Namazake can go bad due to it's containing
still active enzymes and bacteria, and therefore must be refrigerated.
Namazake which has gone bad becomes cloudy and overly sweet, with tart,
yeasty flavors and smells. While most sake is pasteurized twice (once just
after brewing and once again at bottling), there is a sake known as
namachozo which is pasteurized once, thus finding a middle ground
between namazake and the twice pasteurized versions.
When the mash (moromi) is ready to be pressed into sake, the white rice
solids that did not ferment, the lees of the process, are separated from the
clear or slightly amber fresh sake. Nigorizake is sake in which some of this
white stuff - called sake kasu - is left in the sake by filtering with a very
coarse mesh or large-holed filter. Nigorizake can be found in all
consistencies, from only slightly murky, to chunky enough to eat with a
fork. while nigorizake may lack the subtle aspects of a pristine ginjoshu, it
has its own charms and legions of fans. the flavors of nigorizake can be all
over the map: some are sweet, many are quite tart. But nigorizake is fun,
and can have a myriad of hidden flavors as well.
|Other Useful Tips
(from The Sake Handbook by John Gauntner)
Above all, sake drinking should be an enjoyable experience. As such, the
main thing to pay attention to when tasting sake is simply whether or not
it appeals to you. There are several general aspects of a sake to look for in
making this assessment. The first is balance. Pay attention to the
fragrance, and notice whether it feels balanced with the flavor, both in
terms of aromatic and flavor components, as well as in intensity. Next try to
assess what specific flavors you perceive, related to aromas and flavors
occurring in your everyday realm of smells and tastes. Finally, consider the
more corporeal aspects of the sake: viscosity, weight, texture. Taking all of
this in and appraising it within the context of your personal preferences is
all there really is to tasting sake.
In spite of previous admonitions that fine sake be served slightly chilled,
warm sake definitely has it's appeal, especially in the colder months. There
are various terms used for heated sake which usually refer to just how hot
the sake is, although the terms o-kan or kanzake will generally suffice.
When heating sake, perhaps the one thing to avoid is overheating. Balance
and character are usually destroyed, and the texture will end up syrupy
and cloying. The easiest way to warm sake is to place a vessel in a small
pan of water, then heat the water and sake in the flask together. A proper
flask (tokkuri) is a good vessel to use, although it is by no means absolutely
necessary. Pick the tokkuri up by the neck and swirl the sake in it every so
often to keep the temperature distribution even. Sip the sake from time to
time until it is just right for your taste. It is widely believed that warmed
sake tends to hit you harder, so be careful!
Properly storing and caring for sake, both before and after opening a bottle,
greatly affects it's quality and freshness. The enemies are the same as those
for other fine beverages: excessive oxygen, light, and high temperatures.
Sake should be stored at cool temperatures, and kept out of strong direct
light. Most sake does not need to be refrigerated, but refrigeration certainly
cannot hurt. Namazake is the exception to this rule, and must always be
refrigerated. Sake is not generally aged, but rather consumed within a year
of brewing. This does not mean that it will go bad that quickly, only that it
will slowly begin to change into something different. As sake sits on a shelf,
it becomes a bit more well-rounded, but it can also become heavier and more
concentrated in flavor. This is not always entirely unpleasant, and many
people enjoy sake like this. However, the rule of thumb is that you want to
taste the sake the way the brewer wanted you to taste it. So drink it soon
(within six months to a year) and keep it cool in the meantime. Finally, after
a bottle of sake is opened, it should be consumed as soon as possible. After
opening, sake, like wine, will begin to oxidize. The flavor and fragrance will
begin to fade, and the sake will start to lose its finer edges. The more delicate
and subtle the flavor is, the more susceptible the sake is to deterioration.
Available in Utah
|Mukune (Root of Innocence)
|Rihaku (Wandering Poet)
*Often difficult to find in Utah