If a contest were held to crown the unsung hero of beverages, sake would no doubt land on top. It’s an alcoholic beverage that is widely misunderstood but yet it possesses a sophistication and elegance that far too few have yet to discover. Sake suffers from a handful of myths and misunderstandings.
If you have tried the warm, rough sake that is readily available at sushi bars you have not experienced fine sake which is actually best served chilled. Like wine, the range of quality and flavor of sake is vast and paired with the right dish, it is the perfect addition to your next dinner party. If you’ve never had a top shelf sake wine experience, here’s your perfect opportunity to learn what all the fuss is about.
Sake is derived from rice, and although China first developed it as early as 4,000 BC, it’s Japan’s history and culture that this magnificent wine has most dramatically impacted. For well over 2,000 years, sake has been a mainstay in Japanese society and is by far their most famous alcoholic export. One misunderstanding that exists is that sake is rice wine. Wine is fermented from fruit whereas sake is made from a grain using a process similar to brewing beer.
Initially heralded as the true “drink of the Gods,” sake has a distinctive and meticulous method of production. First and foremost, it’s all about the rice. Top brewers search the world over for the highest quality grains, and the resulting product directly reflects that quality. The other trick to creating a truly superior brew lies in the act of “polishing,” or milling, the fermented rice kernels. Once the rice is sufficiently polished, the batch is then cooked in ultra-pure water and melded into a mush.
In the present day, sake breweries dot the Japanese landscape in the hundreds, possessing highly sophisticated production methods. Thankfully, the chew and spit approach is gone and these days high-powered presses polish the grains. This process removes the oils and proteins present in the rice that can cause off flavors, leaving just the pure starches behind.
Next up, the starch is converted to sugar via the introduction of enzymes. If this sounds deceptively like the process by which beer is produced, you’re spot-on. What makes sake’s brewing process unique are the enzymes used during the conversion. Instead of malting the grains to create these enzymes as is done with beer, sake needs a special mold called koji in order to transform the starch to fermentable sugars. Who knew a mold could be so efficient! Yeast is then added to ferment the sugars into a vibrant alcoholic drink.
Sake is organized into three main categories, yet each one is comprised of just four ingredients: rice, water, koji and yeast. Junmai sake must be polished to at least 70% (meaning a minimum of 30% of the grain is polished away). It is characterized by a full, clean and solid flavor. The second category is jumai ginjo , a style that is brewed using highly labor-intensive steps. Traditional handmade techniques are used with rice where at least 40% is polished away. Junmai ginjo is also fermented at lower temperatures and for longer periods of time. The result is a lighter, fruitier and more refined brew. Finally, junmai dai ginjo represents the crème de la crème in sake. This sake is brewed with ultra-polished rice (at least 50%) and even more precise production techniques – virtually nothing is left to machinery. Junmai dai ginjo is the pinnacle of the art form, enhanced with a complex, incredibly fragrant and elegant flavor.
During the final stage of production, almost all sakes are filtered and purified, thereby revealing a crystal clear creation. Nigori, the one exception to this rule, is the only unfiltered sake style and it boasts a distinctive cloudy appearance. Lovers of a luscious glass of bubbly will be delighted to learn sake has an effervescent side as well – sparkling varietals feature a natural carbonation created by a secondary fermentation process. Sparkling sakes are lighter, sweeter, and every bit as festive as their grapey cousins.
Whether you’re pairing a bottle with a magnificent feast, infusing a shot into a trendy new cocktail or sipping a top shelf selection, sake is a deliciously sophisticated choice. Although the beverage once faced a fair amount of skepticism here in the west, sake has persevered to form a sizable and devoted following all over the world. If you’re not already a fan, seek out a perfectly chilled junmai dai ginjo, pair it with your favorite subtle delicacy, and prepare to be reformed!
Column by Laurie Forster, The Wine Coach – a certified sommelier, award-winning author and media personality. Forster is the host of her radio show The Sipping Point and her mobile application “The Wine Coach” was listed as one of the Top 8 Wine Apps in Wine Enthusiast. To find out more visit: www.TheWineCoachSpeaks.com | @thewinecoach | facebook.com/winecoach