When I taught the introductory wine course at The Boston Center for Adult Education, I suggested, as “homework,” for the students that they drink one type of wine exclusively for a month. It made no difference which kind of wine — California Chardonnay, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux, or Muscadet — they just needed to immerse themselves in it to see the theme and variations. For extra credit they could read about the grapes, the region, critics thoughts about the category in general, or the individual producers. It was homework that the students enjoyed. I also employed that exercise during a recent 18-day visit to Japan with my wife and two adult daughters to learn about sake, a beverage I had always wanted to explore, but never had the in-depth opportunity until now.
Over the two-plus weeks, we drank a broad range of about 30 different sakes. Some were poured from what appeared to be a milk carton, while others came from small jars with pop-tops. Many were poured with great ceremony into cutting-edge designer ceramic ware. I even sampled sake from an open barrel positioned outside a sushi restaurant where patrons were enduring the two-hour wait, unsurprisingly, without complaint. I selected many of the sakes randomly, since the Japanese-only drink menu was incomprehensible to me. Others were recommended by a restaurant staff member, and some were selected because it was the only one offered. (At an upscale Tokyo steakhouse there was a choice among four beers, but only one sake.)
The most important take-away message for me was that the quality level of sake and expense didn’t always provide maximum enjoyment. Still, it is important to understand the broad categories of sake (premium versus regular) and the levels of quality within the premium range, if for no other reason than you can be sure that you will see these terms on labels and on restaurant sake lists in the United States. The more refined sake, made from more highly polished rice, will always be of higher quality and more expensive. But surprisingly, it may not be the one you prefer.
What you drink with ramen or udon noodles is not necessarily the same as with sushi or sashimi, both of which may call for a more delicate or refined sake. But frankly, sake is versatile, so I would not obsess with “food and sake pairing.” All types of sake turn out to be a surprisingly good match for a wide variety of food, from robust ramen dishes to velvety and meaty Wagyu beef.
Sake in restaurants will be served either from a large (1.8-liter) or standard-size (720-milliliter) bottle poured by the staff into either a fancy or utilitarian ceramic bowl or from a small decanter and then poured by one of the diners into a small glass. Sometimes the server will pour directly into a small glass, invariably filling it to the brim to demonstrate abundance and generosity, but also making it impossible to pick up without spilling it. Sometimes the small glass is seated in a small box which catches the overflow and prevents it from flooding the table. Alternatively, the sake might arrive at the table in a small (180-milliliter) bottle, to be poured directly into the small glass. Though the overall atmosphere of the restaurant — casual or highly refined — determines how the sake is served, one rule prevails regardless of the elegance of the meal. You never pour sake for yourself. When your glass is empty, an alert companion should refill it. So be observant regarding your companions’ glasses. When pouring for a guest, you do not need to fill it to the brim.
Many restaurants or izakaya (what we might call a gastropub) offer sake to be served either warm or chilled. Although warm sake helps take the chill out of the winter, I found it also removed subtle nuances and so preferred to drink it slightly chilled.
Sake and Japanese culture are intertwined and have been so for centuries. Indeed, the Japanese word for alcohol is sake. During important holidays, sake producers (known as brewers) send colorful and elaborately decorated barrels to major shrines and temples.
Sake is a unique alcoholic beverage made from rice. Though sake has some similarities to wine and is sometimes referred to, erroneously, as “rice wine,” it is not wine, even though fermentation generates the alcohol. It also bears no resemblance to vodka — even though rice, like potatoes, is a complex starch — because sake is not distilled. Sake’s alcoholic content varies between 15 percent and 17 percent (30 proof to 34 proof), comparable or only slightly higher than many New World wines.
Like wine, sake has many nuances, levels of quality, and differences based on the quality of the rice, the water, and the talent, dedication, and compulsiveness of the producer or brewer.
The top level, known as premium sake, is defined by the Japanese government and represents only about 25 percent of sake produced. It is the one most commonly found in the United States. Premium sake contains only rice, koji (the mold added to the rice that converts the rice’s starch to sugar so the latter can be fermented by yeast), and sometimes a small amount (less than 10 percent) of distilled alcohol. The remainder, or regular sake, can be made with additives and a large amount of added alcohol. Although I had many regular sakes in Japan — I’m certain the one sitting in the barrel outside that sushi restaurant was in that category — I suggest you stick to the premium category.
Premium sake can be stratified according to how much the rice is purified by “polishing.” The grains of sake rice, of which there are hundreds of different varieties, are typically larger than those of table (eating) rice with more starch in their centers. The outside part of the rice, containing impurities, is removed carefully by a process known as milling or polishing. The koji breaks down the inner kernel of starch, containing fewer impurities, into sugar that the yeast can then ferment to alcohol.
The amount of polishing is critical to the style, quality, and price of the sake. The more external portion of the grain that is removed, the purer and more precise will be the flavor of the sake. Rice that has been polished leaving 70 percent of the kernel can be labeled honjozo. A small amount of alcohol is always added to honjozo sake. Although it sounds like adding alcohol is “cheating” because it dilutes it, in reality, a little added alcohol can make sake more aromatic and drier. From a practical point of view, little honjozo sake is imported into the United States because the US government taxes it at a higher level since it is considered a fortified beverage. Rice that has been polished leaving 60 percent of the kernel is labeled ginjo. When only 50 percent is left, it is labeled daiginjo. The amount of polishing will always be on the label, even if everything else is in Japanese. The lower the number, the higher the quality — and the price — of the sake. But remember, trust your palate because drinking a daiginjo won’t necessarily give you more pleasure than drinking a ginjo. Brewers can opt to add a small amount of alcohol to ginjo and daiginjo sake for stylistic reasons. If brewers add no alcohol to the sake, it will also carry the word junmai on the label — junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo, for example. Most sake imported into the United States will be junmai because of the added tax burden when even a little alcohol is added.
Another term seen on labels of premium sake is tokubetsu, which literally means special, but has no legal definition. Brewers use it if they have polished the rice more highly — so only 40 percent is left, if they have used special brewing techniques or special rice.
Though I am not recommending particular sake in this article, I do recommend trying several made by the same producer to see and taste for yourself the difference in quality. For example, tasting a ginjo and a daiginjo made by the same brewer (i.e., the same brand) allows you to see the difference polishing the rice to a greater degree makes. In contrast, if you compare a ginjo and daiginjo from different producers, you’ll not know whether the differences you are tasting are related to the amount of polishing or the talent and style of the producer. Similarly, if you can find them, try a junmai ginjo or daiginjo and a non-junmai ginjo or daiginjo made by the same brewer to see how a little added alcohol alters the taste and texture of the sake.
An impediment to learning about sake, in contrast to wine, is the obvious one. Most of us will have far fewer opportunities to taste or drink it. And while sake is the obvious beverage when eating at a Japanese restaurant, few Americans frequent them more than a couple of times a month. Sake is an especially fine choice for Japanese food because it complements and cuts through the plethora of flavors — from pickles to grilled fish — that are frequently on the table at the same time. It’s the clear choice for sushi since it goes equally well with robustly flavored uni (sea urchin) as with more delicately flavored hotate (scallop). But, in addition, it works well with Western fare. Glenn Tsunekawa, an American who has lived in Japan for decades, recommends sake as the perfect accompaniment for grilled salmon or grilled tuna as well as a mixture of sautéed vegetables. W. Blake Gray, a San Francisco-based wine writer and sake expert who lived in Japan for years and is married to a Japanese woman, finds it the perfect drink for the sashimi that he and his wife prepare at home. He realizes, of course, that not everyone has access to high-grade raw fish, and notes that they find that it also goes very well with take-out rotisserie chicken.
When first learning about sake, I suggest buying it in as small a bottle as possible so you can try many types. Often, you’ll find sake sold in a 180-milliliter bottle, about 6 ounces, the typical portion for one person, but the range of sake in that size bottle will be limited. You’ll have a broader choice buying the a 720-milliliter bottle — the standard size sold in the United States — which contains enough for a couple to enjoy over two nights. An open bottle of sake will keep its freshness and flavor for up to a week as long as you put the screw cap back on and keep it in the refrigerator.
So, if you want to learn about sake, try my one-wine-a-month exercise.
Michael Apstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.