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Understanding Sake

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What is Sake?:

Sake is typically referred to as "rice wine" but is produced by brewing, in the same way as beer. It is a clear, low proof, alcoholic beverage that is made from rice, yeast, water and koji.

Sakes are categorized based on grade, style and amount of polishing the rice receives and these are important factors when picking out a good bottle of sake. A label may have each of these three elements on it to indicate the sake's quality (i.e. Junmai Ginjo Genshu).

More about sake from Shizoku Mishima, About.com Guide to Japan Travel

Basic Grades of Sake:

  • Junmai - No additional alcohol is added to this sake and this is the purest grade of sake. If a label doesn't say "junmai" then some additive has been used.
  • Honjozo - This sake includes a small amount of brewer's alcohol to bring out its flavors and is only produced in Japan.
  • Futsu-shu - This is a very basic sake without any regulations and is considered to be the quality of a table wine. Because heat masks impurities in sake, this one is typically served hot.

Styles of Sake:

Most sake is bottled at 15-16% alcohol by volume with the exception of genshu.
  • Genshu - Full strength sakes that are undiluted and typically bottled at 18-20%.
  • Koshu - Sake that has been aged.
  • Nama - A sake that is unpasteurized and needs to be refrigerated.
  • Nigori - This sake tends to have a cloudy appearance because of a lack of filtering that others go through.

Rice Polishing:

Rice is polished to remove the husk, bran and a portion of the germ. The sake designations below indicate the amount of polishing the rice has received and is the primary factor in finding a good sake. The lower the polishing, the higher quality that sake is considered to be because more flavor is left in the rice.
  • Dainginjo - Ultra-premium sakes polished 35-49%.
  • Ginjo - This rice is polished 50-60% making it a premium sake.
  • Tokubetsu Junmai - Junmai from rice polished at least 65%.
  • Junmai - Traditionally a rice that has been polished 70%, but now all the producer has to do is indicate the percentage on the bottle.

How to Store Sake:

As stated above, sake is not a wine so it should not be stored like a wine because they do not improve with age. Here are a few tips for keeping your sake fresh...
  • Most sake labels will have a bottling date on them and it is best to drink them as close to this date as possible.
  • Nama sake should be refrigerated because it is not pasteurized.
  • Unopened bottles should be kept in the refrigerator and can stay there for up to 16 months, though if you intend on opening it within a week a wine chiller will suffice.
  • Opened bottles of sake should be capped and refrigerated and will lat around 2 weeks.

How to Drink Sake:

There are two ways to drink sake straight, either hot or cold, however the premium sakes are best chilled while lower grades like futsu-shu are best served warm. There are many traditional sake sets available that include small cups and a small carafe (usually also heat-proof) which you can use to serve sake to guests. It is also appropriate to pour sake for the person next to you and allow them to do the same for you, never pouring your own if you have company.

More and more often sake is finding its way into cocktails. Here are a few...

Then there are sake-based drinks...

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