Amongst the many different drinks worldwide – from Scottish whiskey to Jamaican rhum to Belgian beer, Japanese sake is in a world of its own. Just like most things from the Orient, something about sake gives it an air of mystery. Truth be told, not many people know about it – its origins and history, how it is made, and even how it is consumed remain a topic of debate, especially to the uninitiated. But if you are interested in this wonderful drink, you’ve come to the right place. Here is your best guide to sake – and of course, how to choose your sake like a connoisseur.
The basics for every beginner: what you need to know
In Japan, the term ‘sake’ refers to alcohol – so your first lesson is that ‘sake’ is termed ‘nihonshu’ in Japan, a kind of alcohol based on rice. The beverage has been made for more than a thousand years, but the premium ones, known as ginjo, were only introduced 50 or so years ago.
Most of the sake available today has approximately 15 to 16 per cent ABV as a standard, but there will always be exceptions to this rule. It has around a fifth of wine’s acidity, but it makes up for its smooth texture, subtle flavours, and diverse styles. There are more enthusiasts today, and they find pleasure in coming up with different flavours (such as sake flavoured with pear and apple) or exciting ways to try sake, such as sake bombs (a must-try)!
- The polishing
The grade of sake is determined by the polishing – in essence, the amount of rice grain milled before converting the core to sugar that can be fermented. The prices and grades of the sake can vary, but it is worth noting that you can often find a low-grade but premium sample made by one of the top breweries.
- The fermentation
Another noteworthy contribution when it comes to flavour profile and style – perhaps the most noteworthy contribution of all – is the fermentation. In other words, think about the techniques and goals of the toji (the master brewer). First, the rice is washed, steamed, and then cooled at the brewery before spreading it out on tables where the starch breaks down into fermented sugar. It is when they add koji spores that the fermentation process begins.
The different styles of sake
It is also worth remembering that sake comes in different styles, so it’s best to familiarise yourself with some of them. They are as follows:
This is an ultra-premium grade sake, and its fragrance sets it apart. It has a minimum ratio of polishing at 50%, and only a tiny amount of alcohol is added to enhance its aroma and flavour. As a result, it is best when chilled.
Another premium sake with a minimum polishing ratio of 40%. This is highly comparable to daiginjo.
This sake is quite fragrant and light as well, and it is polished to about a 70% ratio. A tiny amount of alcohol is added to give it extra flavour and aroma.
This is sake made with water, rice, and yeast, with koji spores added and no polishing ratio.
In general, ginjo and daiginjo are popularly served chilled, while junmai and honjozo offer more versatility and value, especially when paired with food.
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