After relocating to the Land of the Rising Sun, you might develop a whole new love for Japanese culture. And with that comes saké. An entire world of saké.
You may have seen a small section of saké at your local wine shop or tucked behind the bar at your nearest sushi joint. Heck, maybe you’ve tried it and decided it just wasn’t for you. You’re not alone. But learn from our mistakes and explore the world of saké. Give it a try.
What is Saké?
So let’s back up. What is saké? First, I’ll tell you what it isn’t. It ain’t rice wine. Nope. It’s actually a beverage all its own, although we appreciate the sentiment, making any sort of wine out of rice in the actual winemaking sense would be nearly impossible. Can we get an amen?
Saké is no longer being made by rice chewing virgin villagers like back in the day. True story. The enzymes in their saliva served to convert starch from the rice into sugar and the large vat of chewed rice and spit would ferment and eventually become kuchikami no saké which means “mouth chewed saké.” We dodged a bullet there, huh folks? Whew!
Today, saké is made from only a few ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and mold (sans saliva). Depending on the saké, it could even be finished with distilled alcohol. And the rice? It isn’t your run of the mill instant white rice. No sir! Saké rice or sakamai is larger, more absorbent, and less sticky than table rice. This makes for an easier fermentation process!
What sets saké apart from other fermented beverages is most certainly the handling of the rice. The first step in the brewing process is milling. The quality of saké directly correlates to how much of the rice has been milled. Rice with 50% or more of its original weight milled away produces a higher tier saké. Think like the rock tumbler you got for your seventh birthday. In goes yucky rock, out comes polished jewel. It’s just like that!
After the rice is milled, it’s washed, soaked, and steamed. Once the rice cools, rice infected with a fungus called koji — the same fungus used in soy to make miso or soy sauce — is introduced. The koji spreads and begins to convert starch into sugar. Finally, yeast is added to initiate the fermentation process by converting the sugars into alcohol! Fast forward a few weeks and the mixture is pressed and the remaining liquid is bottled for consumer enjoyment!
How to Enjoy Saké
Now that the science part is over, let’s talk about serving and taste! Saké can be served hot or cold. The powers that be recommend chilling higher quality sakés prior to serving and I agree. In fact, for what it’s worth, chilled saké because is easier to identify certain tasting notes and well, it’s just so doggone refreshing!
Also, serving sizes are very small. Saké cups, affectionately called by some to be thimbles, are slightly smaller than shot glasses and typically made of stoneware. Flavor profiles are endless too! From candied banana to lactic marshmallow, saké can be semi-sweet to dry and even, wait for it…bubbly. Yes, you read that correctly! Bubbly saké! You’re welcome.
If you’ve tried saké before and it wasn’t for you, don’t throw in the towel just yet! We recommend you find yourself a nice, clean saké, preferably daiginjo or ginjo. These are the two highest quality sakés and not to worry! We are not talking Dom Pérignon prices. You can usually get your hands on small bottles of quality saké for less than you’d pay for your go-to bottle of wine.
A Saké Suggestion
A personal favorite is Shirataki Jozen White Junmai Ginjo. Ginjo is the second highest quality grade of saké meaning at least 40% of the rice has been milled away. The added term junmai simply means that the saké has no added alcohol. It has white peach and apple notes, a soft nose, and a clean finish without any of the chest hair inducing heat you get when you, say, take a shot of whiskey.
If you’re still on the fence, consider an infused saké. One of my favorites is from an Oregon (yes, Oregon!) based producer called SakéOne. Their Moonstone line starts with junmai ginjo saké and is then infused with natural flavors. It can be used the base of a cocktail or sipped solo.
Onward ye saké drinkers, old and new! Grab a few tiny bottles and do a tasting at home with your gal pals or as a date night in. Out and about? Opt for saké while at sushi or a Japanese steakhouse. Take notes. Get nerdy. Report back. Whatever you do, be sure to clank your thimbles together and utter a healthy kanpai!
WANT TO READ MORE?
Check out this article on Crash Course on Japanese Culture