All About Japanese Sake
As much is I love everything Asian, I really didn’t get into exploring world of fine Japanese sake (SAH-keh) until just recently. A little over a year ago, I had a chance to sneak into a meeting with a sake sales representative, Morgan Hartman. Morgan was giving a artisan sake tasting to a local restaurant’s staff, and I kind of tagged along, curious to experience what artisan sake was all about.
The next hour just blew my mind. We sampled eight or nine different brands of sake, the exact number I really can’t remember. While the other is utilized their spit bucket, I couldn’t fathom the thought of wasting a single (hiccup) drop.
Sidenote: You know when wine pros do wine tastings, they don’t really swallow the wine….they take a sip of wine, gurgle around in their mouths, make funny faces and then spit it out. Because if you DON’T swallow and you’re tasting like 10 different wines, by the time you get to number 6, you are so flat-out drunk that everything tastes like pencil lead, cat piss and leather. Honestly, I’m probably not a super-taster nor will I ever be a wine geek, because I just cannot understand which pie-hole they pull out these obscure flavors and aromas from. And really. The only time I really would enjoy tasting leather would be if I was on the back of Fonzie’s motorcycle, holding on tight and trying to reach and kiss the back of his neck. Okay, sorry for the rambling sidenote.
Anyways, the tasting blew my mind. Nine artisan sake from different regions of Japan, each brewed using handcrafted methods and premium ingredients. No chemicals, no sulfites and some utilizing no machinery. Yes, some of the sake were expensive, but the majority of them were surprisingly affordable, about the same as an everyday bottle of wine.
So, these next two weeks, I’ll be posting a lot about Japanese sake – the good stuff that you drink chilled like wine. Not the cheap sake is served hot and goes down burning like a lighter fluid. In fact, after my sake tasting experience, I can’t even drink the hot sake at all. Did you know that the cheap, lesser quality sake is served hot to mask it’s inferior flavors? You’re so distracted by the heat that you can’t even taste a thing. I know that some people love hot sake (I even did a Twitter poll), but I’d like to show you around the world of chilled, artisan sake.
I’ve been studying my ass off the past 2 weeks (I’ve really been loving my late-night “MARKET RESEARCH” sake tasting sessions) and my teacher is none other than that company that Morgan works for, a small company called Vine Connections, based in California, who represents over 20 of Japan’s finest premium sake breweries. These artisan, ancient (the youngest is 86 years old!), and traditional family brewers produce some of the best sake that you’ll ever try. So I’ll be learning from Morgan, Lisa, Ed and Jeffrey, who will be sponsoring a sake section on Steamy Kitchen. They are a great partner, because they represent over 20 different artisan sake brewers, and we’ll be able to give you the basics of premium sake, how to order sake and read the labels, full tasting notes, teach you how to pair sake with food and how to hold your own artisan sake tasting with your friends.
So, what the heck is “premium” sake?
Sake, often called the “Drink of the Gods” by the Japanese, is a beverage produced from sake varietal rices, pure water, koji spores, and specially selected yeasts. Premium sake is brewed like beer, but drinks like fine wine.
Like beer, the starch must be converted to sugar, which then turns into alcohol. Like wine, each brand has its own distinct tasting notes – some sake is woodsy and earthy (pairing well with meats and other full-flavor dishes) and some have flavors of lychees and lemon zest (pairing well with steamed seafood)
What makes a sake a PREMIUM sake? Well, premium Japanese sake is to regular sake what Single Malt Scotch or Agave Tequila is to their cheaper counterpart. Premium Japanese sake brewers are family artisan craftsmen and all their sake are made by hand with little, if any, automation. No cheap rice, no mass-production and certainly no chemical additives.
And one of the great things about premium sake is that it’s gluten-free, sulfite free, and kosher. Premium sake becoming popular, too…enjoying a 20% annual growth rate in the U.S. for the past 5 years. The newest drink that is made with premium sake is sparkling Japanese sake infused with all-natural Asian flavors. It’s served chilled and it’s fantastically fancy served in a champagne glass.
It all begins with the rice.
You know how a grain of rice is pretty darn small? Well imagine polishing (or milling) the rice so much that only the heart of the rice remains. That center heart of the rice grain produces the most clean, pure, fragrant and complex tasting sake!
So, what’s all the other unwainted stuff that you’re polishing off?
- amino acids
- other “stuff” (like unwanted rice cling-ons)
While all this stuff we’re polishing off is actually good for you (in terms of EATING rice) it’s bad for the fermentation and taste of sake. So, the more you mill the rice, the cleaner, elegant and refine the sake is. Cheap sake uses the cheap rice and the entire grain. Super-premium sake is made with Yamada Nishiki Rice (a rice variety ESPECIALLY made for sake) that are polished to just 40% of its original size! See the last rice photo, how the rice grain is very white and less than half the size of the table rice?
All these fancy Japanese words! What do they mean?
Think about wine. Instead of merlot, pinot noir or chardonnay, the common words used to differentiate premium sake are:
Junmai (JOON-mai): Junmai is pure rice Sake. Nothing is used in its production except rice, water, yeast, and koji (that magical mold that converts the starch in the rice into fermentable sugars). Junmai is brewed WITHOUT any addition of distilled alcohol. Now why would you add distilled alcohol to sake? Because cheaper, faster. Instead of allowing the rice starch ferment naturally – lower grades of Japanese sake will include added distilled alcohol. Junmai is premium sake with no added distilled alcohol. Generally a bit heavier and fuller in flavor than other types of Sake, with slightly higher acidity. Goes well with a wide range of food. Must have rice grains polished to at least 70%, meaning the outer 30% of each rice grain has been polished away.
Gingo (GEEN-joe): Super premium sake and special practices must be followed to make it, including higher milling rates, the use of special rice and yeast, longer fermentation periods, and many other labor-intensive brewing processes.
Daiginjo (die-GEEN-joe): Even a more painstaking brewing process than Ginjo, which results in Sake that is even lighter and more fragrant and fruity than a typical Ginjo. Must use rice milled to at least 50%. Often, Daiginjo goes as far as using rice milled to 35% (65% of the kernel polished away!).
So you can combine “Junmai” with “Ginjo” and “Daiginjo” == or use the words independently.
Junmai (no distilled alcohol added, milled to 70% of grain- i.e. 30% polished away)
Junmai Ginjo (no distilled alcohol added, milled to at least 60% of grain)
Junmai Daiginjo (the very very best, no distilled alcohol added, milled to at least 50% of grain)
Japanese Sake Grades
Percentages from Sake World
Here are other sections that we’ll be covering:
$50 Sur La Table Gift Card
My friends at Sur La Table gave me a $50 gift certificate. Originally, I was going to take that gift certificate and give it away to you guys…but the trouble was…I WENT to my local store to pick up the gift certificate.
How could I resist NOT buying a few new goodies for the kitchen?
So I used it.
But never fear, due to my own shortcomings in the willpower department, I am buying a $50 gift certificate to give away.
So – how to enter? Easy. Just comment and tell me ANY QUESTIONS YOU HAVE ABOUT JAPANESE SAKE. If you’re a smart-ass and don’t have any questions, just pretend you do and copy someone else’s. You have until Tuesday, June 16th 12pm EST.
CONTEST IS OVER! HERE’S THE WINNER ~the management