Widely known as Japan’s national drink, Sake has gained significant popularity worldwide. In English, sake refers to an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. But in Japan, sake actually means all alcoholic drinks in general including wine, beers, shochu, and the drink we call “sake” in English. The actual name of “sake” in Japan is nihonsu (日本酒) which literally means “Japanese alcohol.”
Sake tasting is a must-try when visiting Japan. The taste, quality, and aroma of sake depending on the fermentation process. The key to making good sake is high-quality rice, clear water, koji mold, and yeast.
- The first step of making sake is polishing the rice. Yamada Nishiki is the variety of rice most widely used to make sake. Polishing the rice removes the impurities to give sake a smoother taste. The rice is usually polished down to 50 to 70 percent, but some variety polished the rice down to 23 percent. Premium sake usually polishes 30 percent of the rice. It is said that the more the rice has been polished, the more delicate and richer the flavor of the drink.
- The next step after the rice has been polished is koji, a mold that converts the rice to fermentable sugars. The koji is mixed with water and freshly steamed rice then kneaded into a smooth paste and placed in a vat. This mixture will go through the processes of fermentation twice; the first fermentation process took about four weeks and the second fermentation lasts about seven days. After resting for five weeks, the sake is filtered, pasteurized, and bottled. Alcohol may be added.
Premium sake usually does not add any addition of alcohol or using only a small amount of alcohol with the purpose of enhancing the flavor. This leads to the term “Junmai” which means no alcohol has been added to the sake and “Honjozo” which means a small amount of alcohol has been added. If a bottle of sake does not say “Junmai” on it, it means that the sake has added alcohol.
The famous rice wine is available in so many different variations that it could be pretty overwhelming for first-timers. Understanding the polishing and the addition of alcohol will make it easier to see the differences between the many types of sake. The following are some of the more common types of sake:
- Ginjo is premium sake with at least 60 percent of the rice has been polished away. The taste is often fruity and light. It is often served chilled. Junmai Ginjo means that the sake does not add any alcohol.
- Daiginjo is known as super premium sake that requires precise brewing methods. The rice used for this type has been polished to at least 50 percent, resulting in complex flavors and aroma.
- Nigorizake or cloudy sake is only roughly filtered, unlike other types of sake, resulting in cloudy sake that contains some of the rice solids left over. This sake has a creamy texture with yogurt-like aroma.
- Koshu (old sake) has been aged in bottles for longer periods to develop new flavor. This type of sake can be aged for five, ten, or even to forty years. Depending on how the sake was aged, the color can change to gold, yellow, or even red.
Sake can easily be found in many places throughout Japan, especially in restaurants, bars, and izakaya. Most premium sake is best enjoyed chilled, while cheaper sake tastes nice at room temperature or even when served hot. One last tip: sip and savor sake the way you would enjoy tea, don’t gulp it.