With the popularity of saké rising in America, I wanted to devote a column on the basics of saké to enhance your understanding, appreciation, and most importantly, experience.
Saké is an alcoholic beverage derived from rice, yeast, and water. In some cases, distilled alcohol is added (more on that later). Saké is fermented twice in the same tank, and its brewing process is more similar to beer than wine. Although saké is pasteurized twice, it should generally be consumed within one year from bottling, two weeks after opening. Saké should be stored in a cool area away from direct sunlight, and should be refrigerated after opening.
One major way of categorizing saké is based on the amount of outer layer of rice that is polished off during the milling process. This step is necessary to remove the fats, proteins, minerals, and other impurities that may adversely affect the flavor. Because refining saké to a higher degree is a much more involved process with lesser yield, those sakés command premium prices.
The first class of saké is the “junmai,” where 30% of the rice is removed. Junmai tend to be richer in body and creamier in texture. Junmai is to saké what California chardonnay is to white wine. An example of traditionally- styled saké is Masumi Okuden. This well-crafted saké’s flavor is all about the essence of steamed rice. For a fruitier and complex style, either Nanburyu or Kaguyahime is an excellent choice, pairing exceptionally well with lighter meats.
The next class is the “junmai ginjo,” where 40% of the rice is milled away. At this level, the flavor becomes more fragrant, aromatic, and rich. Good representatives of this style are Wakatake Onigoroshi Ginjo with its nose of dried plums and rich flavors of tropical fruits, and Kaori, featuring a light body with refreshing flavor of Muscat grapes.
Junmai daiginjo“ is the ultimate saké experience. This classification is the most delicate and elegant, a result of having 50% or more rice polished off. Junmai daiginjo tends to have a very subtle nose, followed by a crescendo of sweet tropical fruits that climax then gracefully recede, leaving a trail of elegant and lasting finish. While the flavor is rich and savory, the body is light and gentle. Wakatake Onigoroshi Junmai Daiginjo is a reputable and affordable introduction to this style. For a truly complex bottle, I would recommend Umenishiki Junmai Daiginjo. Its mildly peppery sensation provides a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of tropical fruit, while simultaneously adding extra dimension to the palate.
Earlier, it was mentioned that some sakés contain additional distilled alcohol. Saké brewers do this to lower the production cost and to open up the flavor, similar to the effect of adding water to whiskey and scotch. I notice that these sakés tend to have more compact range of flavor compared their counterparts. If “ginjo” or “daiginjo” lack the “junmai” designation, then they contain added alcohol. “Honjozo” would be the equivalent in the junmai class.
With the temperatures in the balmy 20’s, many are turning to warm sakés as a drink of choice. While a theory that only inferior sakés are heated to mask unpleasant flavor may have been true when the times were difficult to produce good quality sakés, it no longer applies. In fact, there are some sakés that taste better when they are heated. One example would be Taru-zaké by Ichinokura. When served chilled, the dominant flavor of cedar cask (taru) makes it a drier saké. When heated, the cedar flavor dissipates, making it a well-rounded and sweeter saké.
Heating saké tends to suppress the fruity flavor while bringing out spicy finish, and is best suited for less complex junmai sakés. Therefore, ginjo or daiginjo should not be served warm. Some extra dry “chokara” junmai sakés should also be served chilled, or they would become too spicy. Many saké bottles note the best temperatures for serving.
There are two ways of heating saké. The first is to microwave a saké- filled carafe for 30~40 seconds. Although efficient with no noticeable effect on flavor, it can be susceptible to uneven heating. The best method is to bring a pan of water to a boil, shut off the heat, and insert saké- filled carafe for 3~4 minutes. The desired effect is to not exceed 120F, as evaporating alcohol out of saké tends to diminish the overall experience. Kampai!