Beginner’s guide to Japanese sake

Traditional Japanese sake barrel, used in ceremonies.
Traditional Japanese sake barrel, used in ceremonies.

Sake (pronounced sah-kay) is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice.

Its typically elegant packaging makes it seem like a meek contender in the world of alcohol. Fact is, sake has an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 15 to 20%–higher than most wines.

In this article, we introduce you to the world of sake, how they are categorised and graded. We also speak to a sake sommelier for advice on food pairing (Japanese and otherwise) and the etiquette of drinking sake.

What is sake made of?

The key components of sake are rice, water and koji mould.

Instead of regular rice, sake is usually made from the higher quality sakamai (酒米). The grains are bigger with a higher starch content which aids in fermentation.

Water used in sake tends to be naturally sourced from lakes, rivers and wells. Soft water typically yields sweeter sakes, while hard water (with higher mineral content) is known for producing drier-style sakes.

Often referred to as Japanese wine, sake is anything but. Unlike wine which is distilled, sake undergoes a double fermentation process that has more in common with beer brewing.

From left: Nippon Seishu Chitosetsuru Junmai Ginjyo Sake, Kitanohomare Junmai Ginjyo Sake.
From left: Nippon Seishu Chitosetsuru Junmai Ginjyo Sake, Kitanohomare Junmai Ginjyo Sake.

Difference between nihonshu, sake and shochu

In English, sake refers to Japanese sake. But in Japanese, sake refers to alcoholic drinks in general. So when in Japan, use the term nihonshu (日本酒) instead, which translates to ‘Japanese alcohol’.

Sake is different from another type of Japanese alcohol–shochu–which is made from barley. Shochu has a higher alcohol content of 25% ABV.

Broad categories: With or without distilled alcohol

Sake can be broadly categorised into junmai (pure rice) and non-junmai (non pure rice) types.

Junmai (純米) sakes such as junmai daiginjyo (純米大吟醸) , junmai ginjyo (純米吟醸), and tokubetsu junmai (特別純米) are brewed without distilled alcohol. They tend to appeal to ‘sake purists’ who prefer its high acidity and rich, full-bodied profile with relatively little sweetness.

Non-junmai types like daiginjyo (大吟醸), ginjyo (吟醸 )and honjyozo (本醸造) contains distilled alcohol. The distilled alcohol is not added to produce more sake at a cheaper price but used by the brewer to balance the taste of the drink. With lower acidity, these sake tend to be lighter with a smoother texture and a more aromatic aftertaste.

japanese-sake-barrel

Broad categories: Rice polishing ratio and grading

Rice used in sake brewing and the levels of polishedness.
Rice used in sake brewing and the levels of polishedness.
Sake is classified by how finely milled the rice is before brewing. The more polished the rice, the higher the grade of sake.

For a sake to be considered premium, at least 30% of the grain has to be polished away. Daiginjyo, considered the top grade of sake, has had at least 60% of its bran removed.

A sake sommelier speaks

Leanne Ng, sake sommelier
Leanne Ng, sake sommelier

We spoke to sake sommelier Leanne Ng to find out the most common types of sake graded on their polishing ratio and suggested pairing for local food or non-Japanese dishes.

The grades of sake, ranked from most premium:

  1. Junmai Daiginjyo (純米大吟醸): >60% polished rice
  2. Daiginjyo (大吟醸): >60% polished rice
  3. Junmai Ginjyo (純米吟醸): >40% polished rice
  4. Ginjyo (吟醸): >40% polished rice
  5. Tokubetsu Junmai (特别純米): >40% polished rice
  6. Junmai (純米): >40% polished rice
  7. Tokubetsu Honjyozo (特别本醸造): >30% polished rice
  8. Honjyozo (本醸造): >30% polished rice

Let’s dive deeper into the differences of the grades.

Junmai Daiginjyo (純米大吟醸)

>60% polished rice | Pure rice without distilled alcohol

A premium grade sake that is delicate and refined with a fruity aftertaste. Best paired with other premium food ingredients such as uni (sea urchin) or hotate.

Suggested non-traditional food pairing: Abalone, Truffle fries.

Daiginjyo (大吟醸)

>60% polished rice | With distilled alcohol

Fruity taste with a refreshing aftertaste. Best enjoyed with an aperitif or with strongly flavoured dishes.

Suggested non-traditional food pairing: Fish and chips, kuning fish served alongside Nasi Lemak.

(Right) Kitanohomare Kissho Daiginjyo Sake
(Right) Kitanohomare Kissho Daiginjyo Sake

Junmai Ginjyo (純米吟醸)

>40% polished rice | Pure rice without distilled alcohol

Light, fruity and complex flavour. Best paired with food with lighter taste. Traditional pairing include Japanese garlic rice and -don (rice bowl) dishes.

Suggested non-traditional food pairing: Fried rice, roti prata, popiah.

Leanne explaining the taste of Chitosezuru Junmai Ginjyo
Leanne explaining the taste of Chitosezuru Junmai Ginjyo

Ginjyo (吟醸)

>40% polished rice | With distilled alcohol

More fruity and lighter than the junmai version. Smooth and easy to drink.

Suggested non-traditional food pairing: Prawn mee, laksa, curry noodles, mala steam boat.

Tokubetsu Junmai (特别純米)

>40% polished rice | Pure rice without distilled alcohol

Recommended for first-time sake drinkers. The taste of rice lingers after a sip. Contrasts well with delicate dishes such as steamed snow crab or edamame tofu.

Suggested non-traditional food pairing: Chili crab.

Junmai (純米)

>40% polished rice | Pure rice without distilled alcohol

A rich full body with intense, slightly acidic flavour. Goes well with grilled items such as toriyaki, barbeque mushrooms and tempura.

Suggested non-traditional food pairing: Satay, barbecue chicken wings, Chinese fried dumplings.

Nippon seishu Tanchotsuru Junmai Sake
Nippon seishu Tanchotsuru Junmai Sake

Tokubetsu Honjyozo (特别本醸造)

>30% polished rice | With distilled alcohol

Still considered a premium sake. Typically served as a house pour at Japanese restaurants. Light on the palate. Can be served warm or chilled but is usually served warm in Singapore.

Suggested non-traditional food pairing: Char kway teo, Hor fun.

Honjyozo (本醸造)

>30% polished rice | With distilled alcohol

Also served as a house pour at Japanese restaurants. Goes well with foods that are lighter in taste.

Suggested non-traditional food pairing: Fish soup, steam boat.

Nippon Seishu Honjyozo Namara Chokara Sake
Nippon Seishu Honjyozo Namara Chokara Sake

Namazake(生酒)

Unpasteurized sake that needs to be kept chilled and drank as soon as possible. It has a refreshing taste and pairs well with lighter food and desserts.

Suggested non-traditional food pairing: Chocolate, mashed potato, orange slices and strawberry.

Kitanohomare Junmai Namazake
Kitanohomare Junmai Namazake

Quick tips about sake from Leanne

  • No proper way of drinking sake: Unlike wine, there’s no “proper” way to drink sake. Leanne prefers to take a sniff of the sake before drinking it in sips.
  • The taste is in the name: Junmai which has no distilled alochol has stronger fragrance of rice while ginjyo sake has a fruity taste
  • Chill or no chill: Higher grade sake are drank chilled so their flavours aren’t affected by the higher alcohol content as the water evaporate. Lower grade sake can be drank warm.
  • The best source: Niigata, Hyogo and Kyoto have the best and most sake breweries in the country as they have access to the soft water from the mountains
  • The most challenging location: Hokkaido sake are made using hard water from underground so they are drier in taste. It’s also more difficult to brew sake in the chilly Hokkaido weather so the supply is more limited
Take a whiff of your sake before drinking.
Take a whiff of your sake before drinking.

Sake-tiquette

1: Never fill your own cup. Fill your host’s cup when they’re done pouring the guests’ cup.

2. Wait for everyone’s cup to be filled before the toast. Say “kanpai” when toasting. You can touch the cups together. If you are with a person of a higher rank, make sure the rim of your cup is lower than theirs when touching.

3: When drinking in groups, periodically check your friends’ glasses, and replenish them before they get empty.

4: If someone serves you, hold up your glass towards the person and take one sip before putting the glass down.

5: When drinking with someone of a higher rank, turn away from them when you sip your sake or cover your mouth.

One-cup sake, convenient for toasting.
One-cup sake, convenient for toasting.

Learn about sake at Hello Hokkaido!

Standing Sake Bar at Hello Hokkaido!
Standing Sake Bar at Hello Hokkaido!

If you’d like to learn more about sake, visit the sake bar at the Makoto-ya inside RWS Convention Centre from 18 – 27 Nov 2016 where the sake sommeliers will share more about this unique Japanese alcoholic beverage.

A range of Hokkaido sake and wine are available too.

For an in-depth workshop about sake, join the sake social event on 26 November from 3 to 6pm at the Makoto-ya booth. The sake sommelier will share how to appreciate sake and how to pair sake with the yatai food at Hello Hokkaido!

Facebook Comments