Whether you’re an established saké connoisseur or a curious first timer, saké drinking in the USA has never been easier or better.
In the past, premium Japanese saké was rarely distributed stateside, or found only at top Japanese restaurants. Increasingly, however, you’ll find a plethora of outstanding, often hand-crafted sake in retail stores and restaurants nationwide. Here’s a quick guide to get started.
How is saké made?
While often misnomered as rice wine, saké is a brewed beverage with a production process more similar to beer than wine.
At its essence, saké is made from steamed rice and water fermented by koji, a mold that triggers the conversion of starch to sugar, and yeast.
Saké is made from specialized strains of rice that are milled or polished down to remove unwanted proteins and fats. The percentage of the grain remaining after milling is known as its milling rate, or seimaibuai. The more rice is milled, or the lower the seimaibuai, and the more refined and expensive saké is to produce.
The lower the milling rate, the higher the saké classification and generally, the more fruity, floral and delicately textured it becomes. The higher the milling rate, generally the more earthy and robust the saké is.
What are different types of saké?
To identify styles of saké, it’s helpful to know some basic terms.
Junmai: Pure rice saké made with just rice, water, koji and yeast. Saké not labeled junmai has a small amount of distilled alcohol added to the mash during fermentation
Honjozo: The most basic category of premium saké with a milling rate or 70% or less. Always made with added alcohol, it’s typically refreshing and uncomplicated.
Ginjo: Premium saké with a milling rate of 60% or less.
Daiginjo: The most premium saké classification with a milling rate of 50% or less.
Nigori: Cloudy, or milky in color, a coarsely filtered saké with particles of rice remaining in the bottle.
Koshu: A general term for aged saké. Jukusei koshu refers to saké aged more than 3 years at the brewery.
Tokubetsu: Meaning “special” in Japanese, a term applied loosely by brewers to indicate a special characteristic, often lower seimaibuai, or a special strain of rice used.
How do you drink saké?
In Japan, saké drinking is a social pastime with time-honored rituals focused on sharing and attentiveness. Always pour saké for your companions and allow them to pour for you. As a sign of respect, use both hands to pour and to receive.
Saké can be enjoyed at almost every temperature, from ice cold to boiling hot. Even subtle shifts in temperature can transform the aroma, flavor and texture of saké. A delicate, fruit-forward daiginjo shows most aromatically at cool white-wine temperatures. But most junmai, and almost all savory or rustic styles of saké (honjozo or higher-acid kimoto and yamahai) can be enjoyed at a variety of temperatures. Experiment by sampling pours from a single bottle at room temperature, chilled and heated swiftly (in a water bath or microwave).
Saké can be enjoyed in a wine glass as well as traditional Japanese saké cups, called ochoko, or cedar boxes, called masu. Enjoy how each drinking implement changes your perception of texture, aroma or taste.
What pairs best with saké?
Undoubtedly, saké pairs spectacularly with sushi. But its low acid, tannin-free structure makes it a pairing powerhouse with applications far beyond traditional Japanese cuisine.
Unlike wines that can clash with vegetables, vinegar, spice or oily fishes, saké’s rounder, smoother profile harmonizes with punchy foods and teases out subtle characteristics of sweetness, fruitiness or minerality.
Pair an aromatic, fruity ginjo or daiginjo with foods that have subtle sweetness, fruit or floral elements like brie cheese, a carbonara pasta or a citrusy vinaigrette.
Pair a savory or saline honjozo with briny seafood dishes, or a funkier kimoto or yamahai with meatier dishes like steak or a carne asada taco.
Saké is prounounced sah-keh, not sah-kee. The word saké refers to any alcoholic drink in Japanese, thus in Japan, it’s typically called nihonshu, meaning Japanese alcohol.
For those seeking drier or sweeter styles of saké, look for the saké meter value, or SMV often indicated on back labels. Starting at a median value of +3, typically, the higher the SMV, the drier the saké.
While intentionally aged, or koshu-styles are increasingly popular, most saké should be consumed within a year or two from bottling. Check the label for any dates – some are stamped with bottling or shipping dates that can give you an idea of freshness.
The number of saké breweries in Japan has been in rapid decline since the 1970’s. Today, there are only about 1,400 breweries with only 1,000-1,200 in active operation.