This food-friendly drink is so much more than the cheap, hot sake you might have had before.

By Marie Viljoen
January 29, 2020

Sake, the Japanese "drink of the gods" is making its presence felt. Mere mortals have discovered this food-friendly elixir: in cocktails, at pop-up izakayas, on wine lists, and—at last!—at local liquor emporiums. It is easier than ever to order a chilled ginjo to accompany half a dozen oysters, a crisp honjozo to wash down spicy roasted shrimp, or a savory junmai ginjo to sip between mouthfuls of grass-fed beef napped with soy. A foggy glass of nigori is heavenly with a steamed bun stuffed with fermented pickles.

Choosing the appropriate sake for sipping, mixology, or for serious meal-enhancing properties can be intimidating. Understanding how it is made and graded will help guide you.

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The Basics

Sake is a fermented alcoholic drink made from rice, water, koji, and yeast. Sake is gluten-free, and premium sake is vegan: the filtration stage uses persimmon tannin or charcoal. Bulk varieties, or so-called table sake, may include gelatine. Higher in alcohol by volume than beer and wine, sake ranges between about 14.5 percent and 21 percent. Unlike many wines, sake should be drunk fresh (an exception is koshu, a sherry-like sake that is aged.)

How Is Sake Made?

There are four main elements to any sake: rice, water, koji, and yeast. The rice portion breaks down into two important factors. Sakamai—the short-grained japonica rice varieties used for sake-brewing—is polished to expose the starchy core. Seimaibuai is the ratio that refers to how much a grain of rice is polished, and it is key to how sake is graded. Water plays a key role, too. After all, sake is mostly water, and its quality is significant. Different prefectures' water is credited with creating regional nuances in their sake.

Next up is the koji. Steamed rice is inoculated with the spores of koji (a mold that grows on grains). Its enzymes must break starch down into sugar before yeast can convert the sugar to alcohol. (For beer-making, malt is used.) For the first fermentation stage koji-rice, steamed rice, and water are mixed. Later, yeast is added. This is the seed mash, or shubo, the mother of sake. For bulk fermentation, the main mash, or moromi, is created by adding the shubo to more koji, steamed rice, and water. When fermentation is complete, the mash is pressed and filtered. (The leftover sake cake—compressed lees—is called sakekasu and can be eaten or used for making shochu, a distilled liquor.) After a second, clarifying filtration the sake is pasteurized. It is then tank-aged for up to a year prior to bottling, when it is pasteurized again. (Nama sake, available in spring, is "raw" or unpasteurized; it is a rougher style intended to be drunk immediately—think Beaujolais Nouveau, in wine terms).

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Understanding Sake Grades

Grades of sake are determined mainly by seimaibuai, and whether distilled alcohol is added. Generally, a sake made from a highly polished grain will be more nuanced.

  • Junmai: High in acidity and umami, Junmai has no minimum degree of polishing and no added alcohol.
  • Honjozo: Best known for its robust flavour, honjozo has seimaibuai of 70 percent (Thirty percent has been removed). A small amount of alcohol is added.
  • Junmai Ginjo: Fragrant and less acidic than junmai, junmai ginjo has a seimaibuai of at least 60 percent. No alcohol is added.
  • Ginjo: High in aroma, light, and not acidic, ginjo has a seimaibuai of 60 percent. A small amount of alcohol is added.
  • Junmai Daiginjo: Considered the highest grade sake, it has seimaibuai of 50 percent and no added alcohol.
  • Daiginjo: Has a refined taste and stronger aroma than ginjo, with a seimaibuai of 50 percent. A small amount of alcohol can be added.

How Should Sake Be Served?

Should it be served hot? Well, no. The serving temperature for sake is determined by its grade. Monica Samuels, director of sake and spirits at wine importer and distributor Vine Connections, recommends lightly chilling sake that is fruity and floral (like Ginjo and finer) and serving it in a wine glass: "The bigger the better," she says, "to bring out the more delicate aromas." Ginjo sake is also a wonderful mixer—think citrus and gin.

More acidic, rustic, and umami sake (like Honjozo and Junmai) are adaptable and can be served at room temperature or gently warmed, and served in earthenware or ceramic cups, "or even tin" says Monica, "to match the texture of the vessel with the flavor profile."

After opening, sake keeps well in the refrigerator. Unlike wine, that oxidises soon after opening, Monica says, "sake will just get quieter" the longer it is left. Honjozo and Junmai sake are both sturdy enough to keep "for six to twelve months, and they are very drinkable still." she says. More delicate sake like Ginjo will start to fade after seven to ten days.

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