Sake is a misunderstood drink. Many people first taste it somewhat reluctantly at a sushi restaurant, where it often comes in a hot cup with a slightly nauseating quality. Sound familiar?
Just try and suppress that memory and start with a blank slate, because like other alcoholic beverages, there’s a world of difference between good sake and cheap sake. And unfortunately, many people are introduced to the cheap kind first.
If you can overcome any bad experiences you might have had with the tipple and give it another shot (well, more of a sip, really), you may be pleasantly surprised. Here’s what you need to know to have a great experience with sake.
Sake actually just means “alcohol” in Japanese
Don’t go asking around for “sake” in Tokyo, because you might get some strange looks — not just because you’re asking in English. The word is actually used as a catch-all for alcohol in Japan. What we call ‘sake” in English, others call “nihonshu” in Japanese.
Here’s what’s in it
It’s a pretty simple recipe of rice, water, yeast and a particular type of mold called koji (some recipes include distilled alcohol, too). But there’s also a specific environment needed for the rice and water to be stored in.
After the mold has done its magic converting the starch in the rice to available sugars, it’s moved here to the cold fermentation for 2 weeks. This will be the “mother”. The room is kept at 4 C / 39 F and the center container seen here is filled with ice. Before 1950 Sake was produced in wooden barrels and the process often went wrong. Steel has been a vast improvement and Noritsugu says that quality Sake has only been produced in the last 40 years. ~ Hatsukame Brewery, Shizuoka, Japan.
It’s all about the rice
All sake starts with the same basic product: rice. The rice grains are “polished” or milled down to varying degrees, which removes impurities and reveals the starchy core. Generally, the more polished the rice, the higher quality the sake. After the polishing process is complete, the rice is washed, steamed and fermented.
It’s more comparable to beer than wine
The fermentation process of sake is more akin to beer brewing than it is to winemaking even if most sake contains around 16 to 18 per cent alcohol. The starch in the rice is first converted to sugar and then to alcohol, whereas grains don’t need to be broken down at all in the winemaking process.
There are four main kinds
Junmai: Rich and full.
Honjozo: Smooth and light.
Ginjo: Fruity, fragrant and dry.
Junmai Daiginjo: The good stuff.
It’s served cold, warm or hot
Despite the fact that most North American sushi joints serve it hot, that isn’t how real sake is necessarily enjoyed. Some are best served chilled, others at room temperature and others warm. Most bottles suggest how it’s best served, but really, it’s whatever floats your boat.
You’ll find one that fits your budget
Like wine, you can spend a lot of money on a good bottle of sake, but not all the good ones are expensive. At the LCBO in Ontario, for example, there are bottles of sake from $10 to $350, with plenty of bargains to be had for any budget. At $18, this Junmai Daiginjo from Tamanohikari Sake Brewing Company is a great place to start. Sip it chilled and look for notes of plum, cherry and vanilla.
There are over 1,500 sake producers in Japan and one in Ontario
Did you know Toronto’s Distillery District has a sake company? The Ontario Spring Water Sake Company brings Japan’s national tipple to Canada, and tastings are available on-site if or when you’re in the city.