Sake 101: The beginner's guide to Japanese rice wine
Here in Malaysia where wines and whiskies are the more popular choice of drink, not a lot is known about sake other than the fact that it is made of rice and is native to Japan. A staple in Japan to this very day, sake is a drink that is as strong and potent as it is steeped in history.
“Sake is a very new drink to Malaysians,” says Chef Taketoshi Minami of Kogetsu Japanese Restaurant at The Saujana Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. “But for those who would like to start drinking and appreciating sake, it’s not difficult now with so many varieties offered at most Japanese restaurants."
Chef Taketoshi Minami
For those who would like to venture into the field of sake, we find out a little more about the humble Japanese rice wine and its true capabilities. Like grape wines, there are certain ways to best savour and bring out its flavours too.
1. Sake is graded based on how thoroughly polished the rice used to make it is
There are 5 grades of sake. The order increases from non-premium to super-premium as below:
Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo
Ginjo and Daiginjo
Futsu 'Table' Sake
“The more polished the rice, the better the quality of sake,” says Chef Minami.
Sake is wine that results from the fermentation of the starch in rice. The cleaner the rice is polished of its bran, the sweeter and fruity the resultant alcohol that you get. Non-premium sake (or in other words, the cheap stuff) is polished to only less than 40%. The middle grade, Hanjozo and Junmai, are polished to about 40%. Next on the tier is the Ginjo and Daiginjo grade, that is polished up to 50%. The super-premium grade sake are the Junmai Daiginjo and Junmai Ginjo which rice is at least 70% polished.
2. Sake has an alcohol content of about 14-17%
Premium sake has about 14-17% of alcohol. This refers to the naturally occurring alcohol from the fermentation process. Anything higher would hint that distilled alcohol has been added which might ruin the taste of the sake. The cleaner the rice is polished, the easier it is for the starch to release alcohol as well. More natural alcohol means less distilled alcohol needs to be added.
“Natural alcohol in sake tastes sweet,” says Chef Minami. “Added alcohol makes it bitter and dry.”
(From left to right): The square matsu for drinking room temperature sake, ochokor for drinking cold sake and tokkuri for drinking hot sake
3. Sake can be drunk cold or hot
Sake can be drunk either hot, at room temperature or cold, with respective cups to drink it based on the temperature. Hot sake is drunk with a tokkuri, whereas room temperature sake is drunk with a square box-like matsu. Cold sake is drunk with the ochokor.
According to Chef Minami, lower grade sake is the one usually drunk hot to mask its dryness and strong alcohol smell. Heated, its full-bodiedness wanes and goes down the throat smoother.
Premium sake that is well matured will have a delicate, blooming fruity and round flavour. To fully savour this, it is served cold so you can taste all of its different notes.
4. Like wines and whiskies, sake needs to mature
“Young sake is very difficult to drink,” says Chef Minami. “The smell is very strong.” Mature sake, on the other hand, starts to take on a floral and sometimes fruity taste, depending on the barrel it is stored in.
One way to roughly gauge the age of a sake is by its colour. A 6-month-old sake is almost clear, the colour of vodka. A 10-year-old sake takes after the fiery amber of whisky. Often – although not always the case – the older the sake, the darker it is in colour.
5. Sake goes with everything
When it comes to matching sake with food, almost everything goes with sake from tempura and teppanyaki to the more delicate sushi and sashimi. However, only the middle tier Hanjozo and Junmai sake are paired with food. The super-premium Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo are usually reserved for drinking on its own, deserving of your whole palate to itself.
6. Sake is made from a special grain of rice
Not all rice can be made into sake, especially not the ones we eat. "Sake rice is called the ‘sakemai’ which is rounder and bigger than the rice we eat," shares Chef Minami. The bigger the grain, the better it is to ferment and make into sake because smaller grains might break during the polishing process, losing the starch component called ‘shinpaku’ in its centre that gives sake its taste.
7. Sake is a drink of the Gods
Literally. The Japanese first created sake to offer it as thanks to their Gods after a good year of harvest. “God gave rice farmers good harvest of rice, so we say thank you with sake,” says Chef Minami.
It is heavily used to this day in many religious rituals and ceremonies or during prayers. It is also part and parcel why most sake breweries are temples or religious grounds in Japan.
8. Experiment with sake
There is no right or wrong when it comes to drinking sake. While the older generation would drink it on its own, today’s generation is known to mix it as cocktails or water it down with other mixers.
“You can make all kinds of cocktails with it if you like,” says Chef Minami, drilling home the fact that sake has a universal taste that complements just about any palate.
Kyoto-born Chef Taketoshi Minami is the Japanese chef at Kogetsu Japanese Restaurant at The Saujana Hotel. He brings with him more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry and now helms Kogetsu's kitchen as well as the new sake bar that serves a highly extensive range of sake, sochu and Japanese whiskies.
Kogetsu, The Saujana Hotel Kuala Lumpur, Saujana Resort, Jalan Lapangan Terbang SAAS, Shah Alam, Selangor; 03-7843 1234