Saké Made Simple, Part 2

The Ins and Outs of Japanese Rice Wine.


Part 2 in a 2-part series

Nothing complements the fresh sea flavors and velvety textures of sushi like the balanced acid and earthy aromas of quality saké (pronounced saa-kay). Brewed like beer but made for slow savoring, sake's been produced for hundreds of years all over Japan. Until recently, industrial, fast-brewed stuff was what your local sushi bar likely served. Fortunately, restaurants and specialty shops now offer traditionally made premium grades.

Most of us have tilted back a doll-sized ochoko cup or two of warm saké over a bento box. It's a comforting repast, but the saké, called futsu-shu, is table wine—nothing much to linger over. Premium grades, by contrast, are often served cold, may be cloudy, and invite smelling, sipping and pairing with all kinds of subtle flavors as well as meandering conversation.

Making the Grade
Top shelf saké falls into three main groups: Junmai, Ginjo and Daiginjo. These grades are painstakingly brewed using

 sushi set
only rice, water, and carefully cultured molds and yeasts that transform the mash into richly flavored and textured rice wine. Each grain of saké rice is polished down to the starch core, removing fats and proteins that can kibosh the flavor.

Beau Timken, founder of True Saké—America's first sake store located in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco—explains, "The first level, junmai, contains rice that's been polished to 70% of its original size. Ginjo is polished to around 60%, and Daiginjo to 35%." The more polishing the rice receives, the purer the remaining starch, and the more subtle the final product.

Saké pairing tips

To pair saké with a sushi meal, Timken offers a few ground rules: "If you're into the fun sushi like rolls made with strong flavors or nigiri, try pairing with Junmai." For sashimi, where fish takes center stage, Beau suggests pairing with a more subtle Ginjo or Daiginjo. "But don't stop there," he insists, "Next time risotto's on the menu, try it with Junmai instead of Chardonnay, and use a wine glass."

Benjamin Keyser is a San Francisco-based writer who specializes in food and winemaking techniques, history, and culture. Keyser blogs regularly on food and wine at

Click here for our companion piece, Sushi Made Simple.




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