After learning how sake is made, it is now time to see which of the thousands of varieties you may wish to try. What separates one from the other?
Measuring The Quality Of Sake
If you are not sure of your tastes yet in sake, start with quality. You’ll need to work with a reputable store, as not every bottle is labeled in English and, though everyone will have an opinion, generally, from the best downward, here are the quality rankings (shu is a generic word ending that means liquor):
Image Source: Takashimizu
Pure sake. Nothing is used in its production except rice, water, and koji. Junmai-shu is made with rice that has been milled so that at least 30 percent of the outer portion of each rice grain has been ground away. People tend to describe the taste of junmai-shu as heavier and fuller than other types, and the acidity is often a touch higher as well. Anything with the word junmai in the name is the real deal.
Really a variant of Junmai-shu, Daiginjo-shu is made with the rice further milled. It tends to be less sweet and less acidic than its richer brother.
This is sake made with rice that has been milled to remove more of the rice’s natural fats and proteins. This speeds up fermentation and gives the sake a more complex and delicate flavor most feel is fruity and flowery.
Honjozo is sake with a small amount of distilled ethyl alcohol added, but don’t hold that against it. This, plus special milling, makes the sake lighter, sometimes a bit drier, and in the opinion of many, easier to drink, with a prominent fragrance. Honjozo-shu warms up well, releasing that fragrance. This may be a nice balance of drinkability and cost for beginning sake samplers.
If all else fails, ask the sake seller for something that matches your preferences in wine along the sweet-to-dry spectrum. Many people do speak of sake that way, and it will offer you a decent path into the more complex tastes of sake to come.
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Some Other Important Things About Sake
Seishu is a term over-used or misused on sake labels. It means nothing really, just another name for sake, though it has been seen translated as “something something natural” to take advantage of people who prefer organics. Just disregard it.
There are over 100 types of rice approved for sake making. But the best is held to be Yamada Nishiki, “the king of sake rice.” If you see that mentioned on the label, go for it.
Price is not the worst way to decide what to buy, but be careful you are not paying for a brand name, or a fancy bottle, instead of quality sake. Generally high quality sake comes in a standard bottle, clear or colored glass. A screw top does not say anything good or bad about the contents.
It should not be a problem with any decent sake, but check the alcohol content. Below 12 percent suggests adulteration, and above 20 percent means too much distilled ethyl alcohol was added and will negatively affect the taste.
Namasake: Raw Sake
There is one variation to keep in mind, namazake, or “raw sake.” Namazake is sake that has not been pasteurized, and must be stored and drunk cold. As you can imagine, the taste can be earthier and, like a tough single malt scotch, may not be the best entry point into the game. Keep in mind that all types of sake (junmai-shu, daiginjo-shu, ginjo-shu, and honjozo-shu) can be made as namazake. So if you acquire a taste for one and want to take things to the next level, look for the namazake variety.
Nigori-Zake: Table Sake
Nigori-zake, which is unfiltered, comes with the same cautions as namazake. Save this for your second or third set of tastings.
And something to avoid — Futsu-shu, or “table sake.” This category constitutes more than 68 percent of the market, and is what your local supermarket stocks if it has sake at all. Pure, distilled alcohol is added to increase yields, there are no milling requirements, and the rice used is typically of lower grades. Seriously, this is not really the sake experience you are looking for if you have read this far. Go buy some generic boxed wine instead at the Quik-i-Mart instead.
Watch out also for shochu, Japan’s other indigenous alcoholic beverage. Unlike sake, shochu is distilled from all sorts of things, including sometimes rice, turning it into into something closer to vodka (though not as smooth.) Shochu can also crank up the alcohol level, as high as 84 proof. Sake is for sipping; shochu is for shots.
Can’t Make Up Your Mind?: Try The Spirits Of Japan Tour
Image Source: Mosaik
Why not try the new Spirits of Japan Tour and get a first hand look at some of the country’s top producers. The 12-day itinerary includes tours of sake breweries that date as far back as the 1600s in Kyoto and Takayama; visits to two of Osaka’s leading beer breweries and a visit to Suntory Yamazaki Distillery on the outskirts of Kyoto, famous for its single malt whiskey. Prices from $6,990, so perhaps not for everyone.
How to Drink Sake
Any way you like!
Some prefer sake chilled, some at room temperature, though the classic way to enjoy sake is warmed. The warmth releases the drink’s fragrance, and allows the taste to purr all the way down your throat.
The best way to warm your sake is to immerse the bottle, or a ceramic transfer vessel, into water just off the boil. The goal is warm, not hot, so a little effort on the stove goes a long way. Too much heat and you risk cooking off the alcohol and spoiling the flavor, as well as the soft buzz sake is famous for. Smaller cups are used, and, with friends, often tossed back in one swallow, accompanied by the Japanese word kanpai (literally, “dry glass” but for practical purposes, “cheers”)!
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