What is sake?
Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage with a long tradition and cultural history. It is always made from rice, koji rice and water. The flavours are extremely varied and there are also different quality levels. The term "sake" is often used in Japan as a collective term for alcoholic beverages. Sake as such is called "Nihonshu" in Japan. This traditional, fermented beverage has more than five hundred different aromas.
Sake is commonly known as Japanese rice wine. But this is not correct, as it is not really a wine. In terms of its numerous taste nuances, sake is indeed most comparable to wine. Sake also resembles wine in its alcohol content of 15 to 20 percent. However, the fermentation processes and the addition of yeast, which is necessary for production, are more reminiscent of beer.
Sake is one of the oldest cultural drinks in the world. Archaeological findings prove that as early as 300 B.C. in the Yayoi period, rice was brought from China to Japan as a cultivated plant. In order to produce good sake, the rice variety is of great importance, similar to the grape variety for wine. Conventional rice, which is usually used for food, is not very suitable for sake because these varieties have too little starch. Sake rice varieties on the other hand are rich in starch, which has a very good effect on the taste of the end product. A total of about 500 rice varieties are in use, the most widespread being Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku. In order to achieve the optimum taste, the rice is polished, as the outer layers of the grain contain increased protein and fat. The starch is only contained in the core of the grain. Part of the steamed rice is then separated and inoculated with koji which is a special mould. The koji ensures that the starch in the rice is converted into fermentable sugar and is therefore essential for alcoholic fermentation. Once this has been achieved, the rest of the steamed rice, together with water and yeast, is placed in a fermentation vat with the koji rice and fermented into sake.
The quality of the sake is distinguished by the degree of polishing. There are basically two categories: Standard Sake ("Futsushu") and Premium Sake ("Tokutei Meishôshu"). Futsushu represents the simplest quality and does not require polishing of the grains. Honjozo sake, on the other hand, has a degree of polishing of 70 percent, which means that 30 percent of the rice grain has been removed. The qualities "Ginjo", with at least sixty percent, and "Daiginjo", with only fifty percent of the original rice grain size, are considered particularly fine. The more it is polished, the finer the taste of the sake becomes, but also the more expensive. Sake, in which the alcohol is purely the result of the fermentation of rice, bears the additional designation "Junmai", which may only be used if no Jozo alcohol, i.e. distilled alcohol from sugar cane, is involved. Thus, for example, a "Junmai Daiginjo Sake" is made from one hundred percent rice, which has been polished at at least fifty percent.
What's the best way to drink sake?
Sake should be enjoyed slightly chilled, as its aromas develop best then. It is generally a misconception that sake should only be drunk warm. The higher the quality level, the less sake should be warmed. Honjozo sake, for example, is suitable for warming. Sake with a higher quality level should be enjoyed slightly chilled in a special sake glass, or alternatively in a white wine glass.