Sake 101

(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in February 2018.)

There are plentiful options when it comes to choosing a beverage to accompany a Japanese meal. Since Japanese cuisine is frequently subtle, it can go nicely with well-chosen wine and beer is also a popular  accompaniment. However, those seeking the full Japanese experience should order sake (sock-ay) to go with their meal after first learning a few basics about this surprisingly complex beverage. First off, sake is not rice wine, as many diners believe it to be. Rather, it’s fermented from special rice varieties that have first been milled to expose the starchy core, then a special enzyme, koji, is added that helps convert starch to sugar while the sugar is turned into alcohol. Typically, the more the rice has been polished, the higher quality is the sake it produces, which is best consumed within a year of bottling in most cases.

The word “sake” in Japanese means “alcoholic drink,” so sake lovers in Japan know to order Nihonshu, which means the “sake of Japan.” Alas, there is a surprisingly large amount of domestic sake in the United States but connoisseurs usually prefer the Japanese version, particularly some of the more highly regarded kinds of sake.  Keep in mind that sake is a bit stronger than wine at 17 to 20% alcohol, which is why the usual serving is around four ounces.

Most familiar to neophyte sake drinkers are the ceramic cups of hot sake served at sushi bars.  Alas, this is usually cheap, less-enjoyable sake.

There are many kinds of sake but it’s worthwhile for neophytes to keep just a few in mind. Junmai means “pure rice” and indicates that the sake was brewed using just rice, water, yeast and koji. Junmai sakes have a rich, full body with an intense, slightly acidic flavor. Within junmai sakes, the junmai ginjo variety is the most wine-like, which might appeal to those new to sake. Meanwhile, honjozo sakes also contain a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol, which is added to smooth out the flavor and aroma of the sake. Honjozo sakes are often light and easy to drink.

A rough rule of thumb is that higher-quality sakes are served cool but there’s such an array of sakes available that the serving temperature should be left to the experts — often the sushi chef will be most knowledgeable.  Sake aficionados prefer freshly opened bottles to the ceramic carafes of hot, cheap sake that is most familiar to Westerners.  Since understanding sake can take some work, the easiest strategy when in a restaurant is to ask the staff for recommendations and descriptions of the sakes available.  They should know the best temperature to serve the beverage and which will be most compatible with the chosen meal.



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