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All About Japanese Sake

japanese-sake-chilled-2809

To launch my sake section – I’m giving away a $50 gift certificate to Sur La Table – see end of post! ~jaden

Contest Over!

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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.

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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)

nihonshu

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.

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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?

  • protein
  • minerals
  • fats
  • amino acids
  • starch
  • 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?

japanese-sake-rice grades

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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.

japanese-sake-junmai-labels-2862 Junmai (no distilled alcohol added, milled to 70% of grain- i.e. 30% polished away)

japanese-sake-junmai-labels-2865 Junmai Ginjo (no distilled alcohol added, milled to at least 60% of grain)

japanese-sake-junmai-labels-2863 Junmai Daiginjo (the very very best, no distilled alcohol added, milled to at least 50% of grain)

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Japanese Sake Grades

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Percentages from Sake World
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Coming Soon!

Here are other sections that we’ll be covering:

Japanese Sake Grades (this post)

How is Sake Made?

Artisan vs. Mass Produced Chart

Food and Sake Pairing

How to Read the Labels

How to Serve Sake

How to Have Sake Tasting at Home

What’s a fun, modern way to enjoy sake? Sparkling Sake: sake2me

Tasting Notes: Living Jewel

Tasting Notes: Divine Droplets Sake

Tasting Notes: Wandering Poet Sake

Tasting Notes: Snow Maiden Sake

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$50 Sur La Table Gift Card

surlatable

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

Comments 658

  1. Christina

    What is the polite way of telling frat boys that doing sake bombs throughout dinner is incredibly loud and annoying for the rest of us?

  2. mirinblue

    Sake-I love it! I do have a question tho’-I often drink it warm and also love it cold on the rocks-depends on how I feel I quess. Am I wrong in believing that warmed sake goes to my head much, much faster? My imagination or what?

  3. Lynn

    Fascinating article. I’m sending it along to my son who experimented with making his own sake this year.

  4. ann

    What is your favorite sake and way to drink it, I have only had it cold and whatever the “table” version served at the resturant.

  5. Soyon

    It took a second reading of your post to realize that I was supposed to ask a question… duh…

    What are some easy simple food I can make to go with sake?

  6. Soyon

    Email subscriber! Sorry about dup posting. I’ll make sure to read your post more carefully next time!

  7. Lee

    Love the site! Years ago, when the sake craze was first starting, we went to a restaurant in Columbia, SC (I know!) that was featuring sake flights. There was a very thick, creamy sake they served, and my husband really liked it. What kind of sake is it and where can I find it?

  8. Susan

    Why do they always shoot sake in your mouth from plastic bottles at those Japanese steakhouses???? I’m betting it isn’t premium sake!

  9. Carlene

    Do you advocate cooking with the premium sake..or just the lesser stuff?

  10. Hankela

    How do you order sake at a sushi bar without knowing names/brands (and don’t sound stupid doing it)?

  11. Azeral Pawn

    Luckily I don’t have too many questions, being an otaku of all things Japanese and sake being number one on that list of obsessions and being in the bay area adds to the number of sake bars, grocery stores that sell top end sake.

    My question is where did the drinking cold sake from wooden boxes come from?

    What dishes best compliments the different grades of sake?

  12. Cess

    with flavored sake at what part of the process if the flavor added?

  13. Jen

    How do they make infused sake? I’ve seen plum sake, and even a vodka sake, and I’ve always wondered about it.

  14. Diana

    What kind of sake should I use for cooking. Need to be economical.

  15. scrapper al

    You know I’m a Steamy Kitchen email subscriber! And very interesting stuff about sake. Thanks!

  16. Kelly

    Thanks for all the great info. Who knew sake was such an art form. You have peaked my curiosity and now I’m headed out to find one of the brands mentioned. I’ll let you know what I think.

  17. Jeannine

    Is there a place in the Tampa Bay area to buy some premium sake mentioned in your article?
    Thank you.
    Jeannine

  18. maria

    like i said in my previous comment, i still don’t like to read without big fancy pics of mouth watering delictable looking foods. soooo, what is japanese sake? i saw key words like drunk, so im guessing that it’s wine.

  19. Sharle

    I’d love the opportunity to spend some $ at Sur La Table. Worth a trip across the pond. he Olympic Peninsula does not offer the greatest sake selection.

  20. Evelyn

    what is the average alcohol content of sake? is it closer to that of wine, or mild hard liquor?

  21. Audrey

    Although I don’t drink very often, I found this post rather interesting!
    That being said, my only question about sake would be: So, what the heck are “koje spores”? And which sake have you tried, and would recommend (and pair it with which of YOUR recipes)?

    I’m also an email subscriber :)

  22. Marc

    Nice post about Sake, but I was wondering which sake to drink with wich kind of food. Like would it be: Daiginjo with delicate and sweet fish and junmai with beef?

    Thanks!

  23. truc ha

    Hi,

    The first time I had sake, the Japanese sushi chef ordered it for me for my 21st birthday and called it “milk sake”. I assume it’s just unfiltered sake, but do you know if milk sake is a type of sake? And I’m an email subscriber too.

    :)
    TD

  24. Pingback: Wine Blogging Wednesday #59: Homage to the God of Sake | At StrumErika.com

  25. nik amartseff

    Jayden,

    Love your website.
    Next week on Wednesday the Northern California premium sake fest will take place here in Sacramento. How exciting, especially after you added your premium sake section.

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