A category that has over one thousand years of history in Japan, Sake or Nihonshu has sparked interest all over the the world in the the last decades. Due to its versatility and range of styles Sake is enjoyed everyday in a variety of settings in the United States. From classic Japanese food like sushi or Izakaya dishes all the way to Italian, French and Mexican dishes are tremendously compatible.
But what is Sake? What is it made of? Its ingredients include Rice, the varieties are quite diverse, strains like Yamadanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Myamanishiki and Omachi are most popular in certain regions of Japan. Rice provides the base for this iconic beverage giving it flavor and depth.
The second ingredient, just as important is water. Depending on its source, water can be either soft or heavy on minerals giving weight and texture to the final product. Generally prefectures like Niigata are championed for its soft water where areas like Hiroshima provide complexity and structure with heavy water.
The third ingredient is yeast, necessary for the conversion of sugar to alcohol in all beverages. Yeast strains provide a variety of aromas to Sake and are also responsible for the alcohol levels.
The fourth ingredient is very important throughout Japan in the production of soy sauce, miso and Shochu. This ingredient is Koji, a form of fungi. Koji’s sole purpose is to convert starches into sugars in order for the yeast to do their part to convert into alcohol.
A fifth ingredient that is sometimes used to make Sake is brewers alcohol. This style of sake is known as Honjozo, the process is simple, after fermentation is completed alcohol is added to the batch later to be diluted by water. The result, an expressive sake with a sharp and brighter focus in the palate. Do not be scared of Honjozo as this doesn’t mean the final alcohol percentage is higher, simply a stylistic choice.
So how is Sake classified? In essence rice is dried after harvest and polished(milled) away of the outer layers creating different classifications. If 30% or less if taken away the style known as Junmai or Honjozo(with alcohol) will retain more flavor and complexity. 40% or less is known as Junmai Ginjo or simply Ginjo(with alcohol added) this level is versatile and elegant. The ultimate category when the rice is at least 50% milled is called Junmai Daiginjo or Daiginjo. At this level you can expect a floral, feminine and expressive style showcasing the purity of the rice. This category demands higher prices for several reasons including lower yields and more precision. Aside from this main categories there are terms to know when choosing sake, for instance Nigori(unfiltered) offers a creamy and textured beverage, Genshu(undiluted) is richer and bolder and Koshu(aged) which requires minimum 3 years of aging giving caramel like color and richness.
Sake can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, cold, room temperature or hot. As a basic guideline richer styles like Honjozo and Junmai benefit from heat brining another dimension of flavors and aromas where higher styles are best served chilled to showcase their potential. Don’t be afraid to experiment with pairings, from pizza to tacos, sake makes a great beverage choice.
Eduardo Dingler [sakedrinker.com]