For many of us, the term sake conjures up images of those tiny cups filled with a warm, slightly sweet beverage served at Japanese restaurants. But there’s a whole world of interesting tasting sakes out there, including those that are dry, sweet, savory, redolent of cherries or mushrooms, and even sparkling.
Sake is almost always made from four ingredients: rice (usually a special type called sakami), water, a mold called kojikin, and yeast. Some are also fortified with a distilled alcohol (see below). Though often called “rice wine,” it’s brewed from a grain, similar to beer.
There are many variables that affect sake’s flavor, body, and quality. The quality or grade of the brew depends on not only what variety of rice is used, but how much the grains are polished before brewing. The more polished, the less protein and fat are present, which leads to a cleaner fermentation. Therefore, sake made with rice polished to 50 percent of its original grain is considered of higher quality than one with only 30 percent removed. The minerals found in the water used also play a role in the flavor of sake; for example, too much iron can adversely affect the flavor. And there are many different methods for brewing and fermenting, with some techniques dating back centuries, all of which can impact the final product.
The best way to learn about sake is trying different kinds to see what you like best (see below for more information on the various styles). While it will always go well with Japanese flavors, it’s delicious with other kinds of foods, too (think ceviche, pulled pork, and grilled kebabs).
Pair lighter-bodied sakes with simply cooked vegetables and fish, and save the drier, slightly more acidic styles for creamy or rich meaty dishes. And like wine, it can be used in cooking, adding its own distinct flavors and enhancing others. Try a splash of sake in a marinade for beef or fish, a teriyaki sauce, or as a broth for steaming seafood. Whatever you do, don’t limit sake to just when sushi night rolls around.
Sakes with bold, savory, or dry flavors can be served warm, at room temperature, or chilled. Complex, fruity versions are best served cold to accentuate their crisp flavors. Serve cold sake in white wine glasses, and serve warm sake in the traditional small ceramic cups called choko after warming a carafe of it in a pan partially filled with simmering water.
Most sake bottles include the type or grade, ingredients, rice polishing ratio (indicating how much of the grain remains after polishing), production date, and maybe even the city and prefecture where it was brewed. Some labels also have a Sake Meter Value, which is an indicator for gauging dry versus sweet. The higher the value, the drier the sake. Here is a guide to the major types and classifications of sake.
- Junmai: The word means “pure rice,” and this type of sake has no added alcohol. The polishing rate is usually 70%, and they tend to have a rich full body with a slightly acidic flavor.
- Honjozo: A type of sake that also has been polished to a minimum rate of 70%, with a small amount of distilled brewer’s alcohol added. Honjozo sakes are often light and easy to drink.
- Ginjo: Sake that uses rice that has been polished to at least 60% and brewed using special yeast and fermenting techniques. The result is often a light, fruity, and complex flavor that is usually quite fragrant.
- Daiginjo: This is a super-premium sake and requires precise brewing methods. Look for a 50% polishing rate on the label. Daiginjo sakes are light, complex, and fragrant tasting, and best served chilled.
- Futsushu: This is considered a basic or table sake and is almost always served warm. The rice has barely been polished (93% to 70% polishing rate).
- Namazke: This type of sake is unpasteurized and needs to be kept refrigerated. It usually has a more vibrant, livelier taste than pasteurized sake. (Most sakes are pasteurized twice.)
- Nigori: A cloudy, white, coarsely filtered sake that may contain very small bits of unfermented rice. It’s usually sweet and creamy, and best shaken before using.
- Koshu: Sake that has been aged at least three years. It may taste rich, nutty, or slightly sherrylike.
- Sparkling: This style of sake is gaining in popularity in Japan, as it offers a lighter, sweeter flavor than most other styles, and the bubbles make it easy to drink.