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Saké – The Essence of Rice

By Harriet Lembeck 

How much do you know about Saké? To say that Saké is a beverage made from rice is as simplistic as saying that wine is a beverage made from grapes.  Saké can be very complex, so here’s a rundown on the different types, together with some tips on vocabulary that will help you understand a Saké label.

Many producers refer to Saké as a ‘rice wine’, but since it is brewed from rice, which is a grain, it is technically a beer.  Much of the process is the same as with beer. An enzyme breaks down the starches into sugars, so that the same yeast that makes beer can also make Saké.  Where it differs from a beer, however, is that Saké is colorless, clear, has no CO2 and no head, and also has a higher percentage of alcohol (12% to 20%).  It certainly looks like a wine.

As with any product that can range from ordinary to premium, much depends on the amount that is discarded, versus the amount used.  With Saké, this is determined by the amount of polishing the long grain brown rice gets – sometimes all the way down to the kernel.  Premium Sakés include Junmai Sakés, made solely from soft water, rice, mold (the enzyme) and yeast, and Honjozo Sakés, which may have 10% of the weight of the rice of alcoholic distillate added to increase the alcohol content.  Within those two premium qualities, Daiginjo has at least 50% of the grain polished away.  Ginjo has 40% of the rice grain polished away.  When the milling rate gets down to 30% or less removed, the Saké is simply called either Honjozo, or Junmai.  The difference is that with Junmai, there is no minimum milling rate required, but whatever has been milled away must be printed on the label.  These are all in the top tier.

Another word to learn is Tokubetsu, which is a sub-category, and denotes ‘special’. It can mean special attention to the brew, or the use of a special, or more highly milled, rice.  Most Sakés are clean and slightly fruity, with a range of sweetness from rice.

Three other words in this Japanese ‘vocabulary primer’ are:  Taruzake, or ‘barrel’ in which Saké spends a brief time resulting in a cedar flavor; Koshu, or ‘aged’ (can be up to 5 years or more), which can have a more pronounced and pungent flavor; and Nigori, or ‘cloudy’ which contains rice solids in suspension.  The common misperception is that these Sakés are unfiltered.  Actually, they are filtered, but then the ‘clouds’ of rice get through the screen of the press.  Occasionally, 15% of unpressed liquid is added to Saké that has been pressed. These Sakés have become very popular in the US.  ‘Silk’ is another word that turns up on the labels of premium Sakés to describe those with an elegant mouthfeel.

Saké’s shelf life is at least six months, and can go to a year if stored in cool conditions.  Open bottles of Saké can keep six months more in the refrigerator.  Speaking of the refrigerator, most people are now drinking Saké chilled, which may account for its newfound popularity.  A serving temperature of 60º F is suggested for premium bottles.  Fruity flavors (green apple or quince) are retained this way.  Screw caps also contribute to their popularity.

Aside from the more than 1,000 breweries in Japan today, of which Gekkeikan is the largest, there are five in the U.S. that are produced by brewers from Japan, mostly in California.  There is a large source of short grain rice in the Sacramento Valley.  The biggest seller in the US is Sho Chiku Bai, which is well-priced, fresh, and also kosher,  The #1 Japanese brand is Kurosawa Kimoto.  Miyanoyuki Junmai Daiginjo is a consistent medal winner.  Snow Beauty is a popular Nigori, with hints of anise and fennel.

A good way to introduce yourself to Saké would be with Sichi Hon Yari’s artisanal ‘Junmai’, with its notes of citrus and melon,  A personal favorite of mine is the woody and slightly peppery Kiku Masamune Junmai Taruzake – perfect for smoked fish and light meats.  For an aged (Koshu) Saké, try Ichishima, which has a slight tinge of color, a slightly nutty taste, and would be fine with rack of lamb or pungent cheeses.  Ty-Ku, whose liqueur has a Saké base, offers a pair of super-premiun Sakés:  Ty-Ku Junmai Ginjo, in a dramatic black bottle, and Junmai Daiginjo in a companion white bottle.  Its Junmai Ginjo has notes of peach and spice, and is a good companion for grilled white meats. The Junmai Daiginjo, a big step up in price, is delicate and creamy, with hints of truffle and spice,   Their web site offers food pairings proving that Saké isn’t just for sushi anymore.

Be aware that Japanese Saké bottle sizes do not match those of U.S. wine bottles, and are usually a few ml smaller.  Further, do not disdain Saké that comes in a can – it is handy, and protected from light.

Altogether now, “kanpai!”

Ms Lembeck, CWE, CSS is a prominent wine and spirits educator.