The drink of the gods is appearing on wine lists more and more frequently, but how much do we really know about sake?
Lucy Rennick

22 Jun 2017 - 10:15 AM  UPDATED 1 Oct 2021 - 10:33 AM

If you’ve been paying attention, you would’ve noticed sake popping up more frequently on drinks lists in bars and restaurants. No longer confined to the realms of sashimi bars and karaoke haunts, the drink made from fermented rice is attracting mainstream appeal as a fine accompaniment to cuisines from the world over – or as a highly ‘sessional (read: dangerously easy on the palate) drink in its own right, no meal required.

Like many of Japan’s finest exports, sake is detail-oriented, with a high degree of technicality involved in both production and consumption. The Japanese have been brewing sake since around 300 BC so it’s safe to say they’ve refined the art form, but if you’re new to the brew it’s not uncommon to feel a little overwhelmed by the volume of information out there.

Use this guide to get started on a sake safari.  

Beer, wine or spirit?

Sake isn’t easily classifiable into a distinct category. Although commonly mistaken for “rice wine” and/or a spirit thanks to its complex flavour profiles and high alcohol content, sake is in fact neither. The production of sake most closely resembles that of beer, as starch (rice) is converted into sugar, which then ferments into alcohol.

Alcohol content further delineates sake from beer, wine and spirits: wine usually contains around 9-16 per cent, and beer normally hits the 4-6 perc ent mark. Undiluted sake contains around 18-20 per cent alcohol, bringing it closer to spirits (but less likely to leave you wondering what happened last night).

Grade school

Sake is made with four ingredients – rice (saka mai, sake rice), water, yeast and koji-kin (mould). Some varieties of sake (usually lower grades) are topped up at the end of production with distilled alcohol, which serves to extract certain flavours and to increase volume.

As far as alcohol goes, this list of ingredients list is sparse; this means each plays an integral role in how the finished product tastes. Grains of rice are ‘polished’ down to reveal the starch at their centre – the lower the polishing ratio, the cleaner and more delicate the flavour.

Premium sake: Junmai Daiginjō and Junmai Ginjō

Junmai means “pure rice”, and is made with rice, water yeast and koji without the use of additives like distilled alcohol. Rice grains are generally polished down to 50 per cent-60 per cent of their original size.

Second-tier sake: Honjozo, Ginjō and Daiginjō

These varieties require the same polishing ratio as their Junmai counterparts and are topped up with a small amount of distilled alcohol to achieve distinct flavour notes. Honjozo sake must be polished to 70 per cent of its original size.

Third-tier sake: Futsu

No minimum polishing ratio is required, and no restrictions on additives. While futsu saturates the market at 75 per cent and is likely to be the least expensive bottle on the list (generally considered “table sake”), be prepared to pay the price in hangover recovery time.

Brewing style: Kimoto sake

Sake made using the traditional method of grinding the starter mash together with wooden paddles.

Brewing style: Yamahai sake

When the Toji (brewing master) bypasses the starter mash process and begins the fermenting process straight away.

Brewing style: Sokujo sake

The most common, easiest and fastest brewing method involves adding lactic acid to the starter mash before fermenting.

Unpasteurized sake: Namazake

While normal sake is heated up to 62 degrees Celsius and then rapidly cooled, Nama is brewed and bottled immediately resulting in an extremely fresh and expressive flavour. A seasonal brew, Nama is produced during colder months and is not available all year round.Image by Martin Cathrae via Flickr. 

Hot or cold?

In short, both are correct; it depends on preference more than anything. Sake is traditionally served warm (around 43 degrees) to enhance and bring out the subtle, delicate flavours.

“All sake can be served warm,” says Jason Wassef of Sydney Japanese restaurant Cho Cho San. “Unless it’s unfiltered or cloudy, then it has to be served chilled. There are about four or five bottles on our sake list that we recommend diners have warm, only because it brings out the flavour profile, the textures and the aromas.”

Whatever you do, don’t pour your own sake ­– it’s considered bad manners.

Sake and food

As per usual with Japanese food, pairing sake with a meal is all about umami – the savoury taste. Both sake and the meal its accompanying should contain umami. According to Wassef, a good rule of thumb to follow when cooking or eating with sake is to match light sakes with light dishes, and fuller-bodied sakes with main meals.

“The flavour profiles of Junmai Daiginjō and Junmai Ginjō are going to be lighter, more floral and crisp,” he says. “We’d recommend pairing them with entrees, sashimi and lighter dishes, or even just having as an aperitif.

When it comes to the main meal, Wassef suggests moving onto something more full-bodied, like the Kimoto or Yamahai classifications. “I’d recommend a medium-bodied Houraisen sake warmed up and paired with our teriyaki fish collars.

Planning on cooking with sake at home? Leigh Hudson from the Japanese knife and sake specialist store Chef’s Armoury provides three tips for your next meal (Japanese-inspired or otherwise):

• Use sake to take the edge off of strong fish flavours. “It has a very cleansing characteristic when it’s thrown in with seafood or other strong-flavoured meats,” he says. “Even a glass on the side of a dish of john dory refreshes the palate.”

• Not cooking Japanese? No problem. Hudson recommends using dry sake as you would white wine – to deglaze a pan, or in simmer sauce.

• “If I’m making yakitori over charcoal, I like to ‘spritz’ the chicken skin with sake first,” Hudson says. “It tightens up the meat and improves the flavour.”Get your hot hands on these chicken yakitori skewers which calls on 60ml of sake in the marinade. Recipe right here.

Lead image by atsunori kohsaki via Flickr. 

Want to cook with sake? Check out our recipe collection here.

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