The name "sake," which means "rice wine" in Japanese, is somewhat of a misnomer, since the beverage is made from a grain rather than grapes, and its fermentation process is closer to that of beer than wine. As with wine, however, there are many distinct varieties of sake that differ in quality and value.
Sake's key ingredients are white rice, water, yeast, and an enzyme called "koji-kin." High-quality rice and pure water are the first requirements for good sake. After that, the processing and treatment of the rice determine the quality. Rice grains are ground and polished to a fraction of their original size; the more polishing, the purer, and better, the sake. The polished rice is then steamed, and a special mold called "koji kabi" (Aspergillus oryzae), is added. The mixture ferments, and the brew is refined; the entire brewing process takes forty-five to sixty days.
Bon Yagi, owner of New York City's Decibel and Sakagura Sake Bar, explains that sake, which can be enjoyed either warm or chilled, should be kept cool and should not be exposed to too much direct light. Bon also recommends buying sake that is no more than a year and no less than six months old; check the bottling date on the label. Also, avoid discolored sake: A light-amber tint may be a sign of a fine, rich sake, but a lusterless brown may indicate that the sake is old.
If you're thinking of serving sake to your guests, remember that premium sake should be slightly chilled and lower grades warmed (do not warm to a temperature higher than 105 degrees). The often heady brew goes well with lightly prepared dishes, including fish, chicken, and pork, not to mention most Asian fare.
The following are different types of sake. If you're interested in a fragrant, flavorful aroma and refreshing taste, try one of the varieties listed under Kunshu.
Kunshu (fragrant sake)
Soushu (light and smooth sake)
Junshu (rich sake)
Jukushu (aged sake)
Koshu (aged 19 years)
Koshu (aged 7 years)