Sake (pronounced sah-keh) is a well-known spirit that isn't well-understood in the West. Many wonder what sake is, but it isn't comparable to other spirits, as it is its own category. Sake is a spirit that uses rice as a base, unlike others that may use potatoes or grains, such as vodka. Often thought of as rice wine or rice beer, it results from fermenting and brewing rice with water and yeast. The result is a liquor brewed like beer and served like wine. But don't let this puzzling flowchart dissuade you from wading into the world of sake.
What Is Sake?
Sake is an alcoholic fermented rice spirit that has been a Japanese tradition for more than 2,000 years. Master sake makers (toji) produce it from four simple ingredients: polished sakami rice, water, yeast, and koji, a mold used to convert rice starches to sugar. Some sake may also have alcohol added.
In Japan, the term sake refers to any liquor, and the term nihonshu is the word for the rice spirit Americans called sake. In the United States and other parts of the Western world, Japan's fermented rice spirit is simply called sake. Therefore, depending on who you're speaking to, you may hear either term to reference the Japanese beverage.
Sake Styles and Categories
Nihonshu ranges from cloudy white (from small particles of rice) to clear, and flavors range from light, dry, and floral to rich, sweet, and fruity. While all sake is made from the same ingredients, it has a surprising array of flavor profiles.
Just like other spirits, sake has different categories arranged according to how much the rice is polished and whether additional alcohol is added. You can quickly organize sake into two basic types: ordinary sake and special-designation sake. You can think of ordinary sake as a similar grade to your everyday wine or table wine. Special-designation sake is one you would serve on special occasions or when you're looking to pair your sake with a flavor profile more closely. It would be loosely similar to fine wine.
Junmai vs. Non-Junmai
Sake is categorized into two types: junmai, which doesn't have any additional alcohol added, and non-junmai, which has alcohol added.
There are several primary grades of sake, and the grade depends on the percentage of grain, or rice, left after the bran is polished. The amount of rice left is referred to as the rice polishing ratio or seimaibuai and is expressed as a percentage of the original grain size. Rice polishing ratio ranges from 70+% to under 50%.
Futsushu is the most accessible sake grade, with a minimum of 70% of the grain remaining after the distilling process. It is a non-jumnai table sake that is made economically using standard processes. It accounts for more than 65% of all sake produced in Japan.
Tokutei grade sake is a special designation sake (similar to a fine wine). It has a rice polishing ratio of minimum 70% (at least 305 has been milled away), and these are often more premium styles of sake. It may be either junmai or non-junmai.
Special designation ginjo sake can be either junmai (junmai ginjo) or non-junmai (ginjo). It has a minimum rice polishing ratio of 60% (at least 40% of the grain has been milled away). Toji achieve this by brewing slow and low to create signature floral and subtle fruit flavors.
Daiginjo grade sake can be junmai or non-jumnai as well. It has a minimum 50% rice polishing ratio, but can be refined even more. Daiginjo sakes are also artistan sakes, requiring handcrafting throughout the brewing process. It goes without saying that Daiginjo is one of the most exceptional styles of sake.
Any grade of sake can be nigori style, which means it is cloudy. The cloudiness comes from suspended rice solids in the liquid.
Just like wine, sake can also have bubbles. Sparkling nihonshu (happoushu) is either naturally fermented or has carbonation added to create the bubbles. It's a relatively new (21st century) sake that is increasing in popularity.
How to Drink Nihonshu
The good news is there is no incorrect way to serve sake, as you can enjoy it chilled, at room temperature, warmed or in sake cocktails. The criteria depend on the characteristics of the sake, the current season, and most importantly, the personal preference of the sake drinker. Much like hot toddies, you'll typically enjoy warmed sake in the winter or on cooler, chilly days. In the summer, you'd be more likely to enjoy chilled or room temperature sake. However, you'll enjoy higher grade sakes, such as ginjo or daiginjo, chilled or room temperature to preserve its nose and flavor profiles. People serve sake in a variety of glassware, including wine glasses, ceramic shot glasses with intricate designs, or saucer style glasses called sakazuki for grander occasions.
It is traditional to hold your sake glass or cup with both hands while someone pours it for you. You should always take a sip of the sake after the pour and before you set the glass down. You can toast by saying, "Kanpai! (kahn-pie)" which translates loosely to "drink your cup dry" and is a traditional Japanese toast. Don't worry - saying "kanpai" doesn't mean you have to chug your sake. Simply take a sip and enjoy the flavors and aromas of this special beverage.
Sake and Food
Sake goes well alone, or it's great with food. The food you enjoy it with will depend on the sake; some styles are delicious with a waygu steak while others come alive when sipped with a delicate fish dish.
Learning the Ropes About Sake
Don't hold off on exploring sake. While it can be intimidating to grab a bottle off a shelf if you don't know where to start or how to enjoy it, the beauty of sake is there is no wrong way. Better yet, many restaurants offer sake flights of their own design. Shake off that shyness and dive into the world of sake.