Most people are familiar with sake, the national beverage of Japan. It is the alcoholic beverage you might order at sushi restaurants, most of the time served hot in little ceramic jars and cups.
Sake has a rich and extensive history, and there are many distinct varieties to choose from. Having a fuller understanding of these nuances can help you better appreciate sake and give you a foundation for exploring different styles and renditions.
This article covers the different types of sake available and at varying price points. It will help you find one that fits your preferences and your budget. Keep reading to learn more.
What Is Sake?
Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. It is often referred to as a "rice wine," due to the similar methods of production.
It is uncertain how long human beings have been making sake. The earliest indication was when rice cultivation was brought from China to Japan around 300 BCE. By the 9th century, sake production was prolific in temples and shrines, and in the general Japanese population as well.
Commercial sake production is much older than many Western alcohol operations. Sake breweries became prevalent in Japan as far back as the 14th century. There is evidence of taxation of sake and the implementation of pasteurization (called hiire) as far back as the 16th century.
There is still a growing demand for sake in Japan (and throughout the rest of the world) today. This is undoubtedly due to its versatility as a beverage for pairing with meals as well as a stand-alone drink. You can also find it at a range of prices, which makes it accessible to almost everyone.
How Is Sake Made?
To make sake, you only need rice, water, and a fermenting agent, Aspergillus oryzae. This is the same mold used to produce fermentation in soy sauce. Most sakes have an alcohol content between 15 and 20 percent.
Prominent sake makers start by selecting the right ingredients. These include high-quality white rice and spring water.
Brewers add koji spores, a certain fungus, onto the rice. This helps convert starches in the rice to sugar (which the yeast consumes to make alcohol). The rice is then washed, soaked in the water, then steamed.
Once it cools, the resulting rice mash can begin fermentation. The rice is separated into cakes and sprinkled again with koji spores. They then sit for about two days while the koji makes enzymes that convert the starch in the rice into sugar.
Yeast is then added to the resulting mash. It consumes the sugar, which results in alcohol production.
Once this process completes, the fermented mash, or moromi, is pressed and filtered for clarity. In modern sake production, there is a heat sterilization process that takes place as well.
Afterward, the sake is stored in large tanks in either a refrigerated setting or at room temperature. Sake ages for at least one year before brewers bottle it.
How to Drink Sake
Sake is almost always sipped from small glasses, although increasingly mixologists experiment with adding it to various cocktails. While sake is drunk at different temperatures, it is rarely served over ice (but chilled instead).
There is a lot of debate about whether it is best to drink sake hot, cold, or at room temperature. There is no right or wrong answer, but preferences are largely influenced by the type of sake.
For instance, cheaper sakes are often served warm to mask some of the harsher elements. But sweet and fruity sakes can benefit from the warmth as well, since it can also add to the depth of flavor.
Likewise, much like white wine, cold sake can yield a crisper experience and make subtle flavors more discernible. There are exceptions though: even some experts recommend serving certain high-end sakes warm.
What Are the Different Types of Sake?
There are many distinct types of sake to choose from. Here are the basic categories to consider, with recommendations of particular sakes for each.
Junmai vs. Honjozo
In general, premium sakes can be classified as junmai or honjozo. Junmai sake indicates that the product is one of the purest types of sake available. There are no additives, only the product of rice, koji, water, and yeast.
Honjozo sake is a rice wine with small amounts of distilled alcohol added to it. (This general classification applies to all other sakes on this list.) The reason for this additive is to lighten up the sake, bringing out textures and aromatics (not necessarily to make it boozier).
Although there are many different types of junmai sakes, they all tend to be very full-bodied with robust, earthy flavors. They likewise can be less fragrant than other types of sake.
Futsu sake is a categorization for everyday drinking or table sake. It is generally the most affordable and widely available sake type. In fact, futsu sake makes up about 80 percent of the entire sake market.
The main reason for this is that futsu sake does not have to meet specific brewing parameters. Brewers can decide the type of ingredients and methods, including whether to add brewer's alcohol to the finished product.
That is not to say that all futsu sake is low quality. In fact, there are a number of very solid futsu sakes that are great tasting and interesting, while still coming in at budget prices.
For instance, Tozai Typhoon is a very popular futsu sake. It is a medium-dry sake with a mellow finish, especially when served warm, and is an increasingly go-to ingredient for sake cocktails.
Masumi Karakuchi Gold is another very solid futsu sake. It consistently wins awards and is ubiquitous in American sushi restaurants.
Ginjo sake is sake that has had at least 40 percent of its outer rice layers removed. It also uses premium products, including rice and fresh spring water.
This produces a higher quality sake, with more refined tastes and subtleties. You can find junmai ginjo as well as ginjo sake that has had brewer's alcohol added to it.
Mizubasho is one of the most popular ginjo sakes available. It has a white gold color, with fruity aromas and flavors. It is medium-bodied and reminiscent of a Chardonnay.
For a junmai ginjo sake, check out Kikusui. It is modestly-priced, Kosher-certified dry premium sake. It too is medium-bodied and has distinct aromas of fresh cantaloupe and banana.
Moonstone makes a ginjo sake that infuses umeshu fruit and has hints of almond and citrus. It is a popular sipping sake that also goes well over ice.
Daiginjo is in general the best type of sake. It refers to some of the most refined and prized bottles of sake from a brewery.
"Daiginjo" translates to "big ginjo," meaning that it meets the standards of ginjo sake, while taking it a step further. For a sake to be classified as daiginjo, brewers must polish away at least 50 percent of the outer rice layers.
Another general classifying quality of daiginjo sake is that makers use their best rice and take meticulous care during each step of the brewing process. For instance, it is common for brewers to use smaller tanks for daiginjo sakes, which allows them to better regulate temperature and fermentation speeds.
Likewise, they are more meticulous in the koji-making process, often using a completely separate room for daiginjo koji. Brewers also may use distinct pressing methods to get specific liquid yields from the rice. Like with other types of sake, you can find junmai daiginjo as well as daiginjo sake that has had brewer's alcohol added to it.
Yaegaki Mu Sake is a very solid and reasonably priced junmai daiginjo sake. It is fruity yet dry, with an aromatic character, which makes it quite refreshing as an aperitif or with appetizers or meals. You can expect aromas of green apples and Asian pear.
Takubetsu is a general classification of sakes that indicates a special brewing method. It can apply to other types of sakes on this list, including junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo.
In most cases, takubetsu relates to the specific brewing methods used in sake production. This can include aging in wooden tanks or using unique pressing methods. For instance, takubetsu junmai sake would be sake that incorporates one of these techniques into brewing processes, but meets all the other standards of junmai sake.
For instance, Okunomatso's tokubetsu junmai sake is made using groundwater from Mount Adatara that is 40 years old. It has a silvery straw color and sweet aromas. It pairs well with yakitori and any dish that incorporates miso.
Nigori sake is unfiltered sake that still contains tiny rice solids that are unfermented. "Nigori" translates to "cloudy," due to the sake's coloration.
By definition, nigori sakes are unrefined. This means that, not only is there no filtration, there is little attention given to rise polishing. This yields unique flavors and textures in the sake.
In general, nigori sakes tend to be much sweeter and creamier than other sakes. This makes them popular as a dessert beverage or as a dessert topping (try pouring some on ice cream). They also pair well with spicy foods as an appetizer or entree compliment.
Gekkeikan makes a popular nigori sake. It uses spring water from Kyoto and Fushimis, as well as premium rice, koji, and yeast. This sake is full-bodied and has notes of melons and bananas.
For a coconut treat, try TYKU nigori sake. It has a silky texture with hints of vanilla.
Genshu is another general classification that describes sake that has not been undiluted. (Most other sakes contain small amounts of water used during the brewing process.)
For this reason, genshu sake typically has a much higher alcohol content. Since it is stronger than other types of sake, this makes it one of the few sakes where it is common to order it over ice, like a liquor drink.
Kimoto and Yamahai Sakes
Kimoto defines sake production that employs a unique yet traditional process for creating the rice mash. Brewers use poles to smash the rice. This creates a higher level of lactic acid, a bacteria that initiates a natural fermentation process.
Yamahai sake production uses the same concepts but uses mixing rather than poles to initiate the process. Both methods create unique, natural flavors of sake. Production is very limited though, accounting for just 10 percent of all sake made in Japan today.
Kurosaw makes a junmai kimoto sake that is a great starting point. It has lively aromas of bananas and smoked herbs and a medium body. It is extremely well-balanced, making it a fantastic choice for newcomers or seasoned sake sommeliers alike.
Although it has been around for some time, sparkling sake has become extremely popular in recent years. Much like beer, it undergoes a second yeast fermentation in the bottle, or is injected with carbon dioxide, to produce carbonation.
Sparkling sake is very similar to champagne in texture and uses. For this reason, it is a good option for non-seasoned sake drinkers who want to ease into things.
Sho Chiku Bai MIO is a very solid sparkling sake. It is fruity, sweet, and refreshing.
Murai Family nigor genshu sake is one of the most widely-available genshu sakes. It is a bold sake that goes well with spicy dishes, such as curries. It is also hearty enough to treat as a dessert by itself.
Kikusui Sakamai junmai daiginjo is a higher-end genshu sake. It is made from the rarest sake rice, known as kikusui. This yields deep, elegant aromas and a richness of flavor you will not find in other sakes.
Learn More About Sake Variations and Uses
Now that you know about the different types of sake available, you can decide which is best for your next dinner party or social gathering. With so many options at varying price points, you are sure to find the best sake to suit your taste and your budget.
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