Introduction to sake

I’ve been asked a few times for sake recommendations, such as where to start in terms of understanding different types, or how to choose a good sake.

Before going into that, I wanted to explain a couple of things about sake.

Higher-end sake is made using rice, koji-kin (a type of fungus), water, yeast and depending on the method, lactic acid and a very small amount of brewers’ alcohol (colourless, flavourless alcohol, distilled to a high percentage). Sake is not distilled, but is a type of fermented drink; the koji-kin helps break down the carbohydrates in the rice, allowing the yeast to ferment the resulting sugars and produce alcohol. The process is called multiple parallel fermentation, if you feel like googling it!

Usually the rice is polished to 70% or lower (i.e. 30% of the grain removed), though junmai sake can legally be polished less and still be classified as junmai (junmai = no added brewers’ alcohol). The rice is polished before brewing to remove unwanted fats and proteins from the outside of the grain, resulting in a higher proportion of carbohydrates remaining. The primary objective of this process is to remove unwanted flavours from the amino acids and fats, and to produce a pure style of sake.

Lower end sake can have other additives but that will not be the topic of this post!

There are plenty of good educational resources online if you want to learn more, for example on the Museum of Sake or WSET websites, as well as on the websites of online specialist sellers of sake.

One important point to keep in mind is that unlike wine, the method of production has a greater influence on the style of sake rather than geography – i.e. where the rice grain is grown and where the sake is brewed. There is some regionality in sake, often linked to a) the type of water in the region, and b) the type of cuisine eaten in that area (as sake was often a very local product, designed to match that region’s food).

Therefore, it is better to start understanding sake by looking at how it is produced, rather than where it comes from. The classifications for high end sake reflect this – for example, giving an indication of the polishing ratio, whether brewers’ alcohol has been added, and other common terms cover aspects such as if there was a special way of making the fermentation starter, or other unusual characteristics.

In terms of tasting, I would always recommend starting by trying smaller size bottles to get a sense of the different types of sake; you don’t want to spend £30+ on a 720ml bottle that you don’t like.

sake bottles in Kanazawa

For a starting tasting selection I would try three different types:

  1. A classic daiginjo or ginjo, either junmai (without added brewers’ alcohol) or non-junmai (also called aru-ten, with added brewers’ alcohol)
    • Highly polished
      • Polished down with <=50% of the original rice grain remaining (daiginjo), or 51-60% remaining (ginjo)
    • Long, slow, cold fermentation to get lots of classic sake esters; typically aromas of melon, sometimes pear, sometimes banana; with modern yeasts you might get anise
    • Usually drunk cold(ish) at 10ish degrees
    • I would normally have this type as an aperitif, but it can be paired with lighter foods like steamed fish or sea bass sashimi
  2. A honjozo
    • It is probably the least fashionable style but I think is sorely underrated, as it goes with nearly all types of food
    • Usually the rice is polished to between 61% and 70%
    • Typically is more robust than a ginjo style and has more amino acids, which gives it a bit more umami flavour
    • I would still drink this cold(ish) but also experiment with having it at or close to room temperature, even possibly warmed in winter
    • Easy to drink and easy to pair with food, as the relative richness goes with most food
  3. A yamahai or kimoto
    • Longer fermentation without the use of lactic acid; I won’t go into the chemistry but the net result is that the fermenting mash is a bit funkier
    • Leads to game-y flavours in the sake and a good level of acidity
    • This can be drunk cold but heats well so it can be fun to play around with heating up this style in a water bath (or microwave…don’t tell purists that I said that)
    • Goes well with umami food like mushrooms / meats

In terms of specific recommendations for these:

  1. Daiginjos / ginjos:
    • Probably the easiest to find as most sakes which have “ginjo” or “daiginjo” somewhere in the name will be indicative of the style; have a look at the links below
    • Dassai is probably the easiest brand to find in London – not terribly exciting but indicative of the style
    • Other classic ones which are often seen on restaurant lists include “Iki na Onna” and “Kinka” from Tedorigawa and “Oka” by Dewazakura but you usually can only get these in 720ml bottles
  2. Honjozo
  3. Yamahai and kimoto

I do have a few sake myths I’d like to cover here too!

  • Myth 1: You drink sake like a shot
    • Answer: Only if you have cheap nasty sake; please don’t waste a lovely sake by downing it!
  • Myth 2: All good sake should be drunk cold
    • Answer: It depends on the style and part of the fun is experimenting with temperature; I would not heat a delicate, fragrant daiginjo but a gently-warmed yamahai with a mushroom dish is a delight
  • Myth 3: The more polished the rice grain (i.e. the lower the % polishing ratio), the better the sake
    • Answer: Not necessarily; all it means is that you are likely to get a more delicate, fragrant sake; if I am having grilled meat then perhaps I’d like something with a bit less polished. For me it is about matching the sake to the situation. If you only stick to daiginjo then you are missing out on a whole range of delicious sake
  • Myth 4: Junmai (no added brewers’ alcohol) sake is more pure/authentic/better than non-junmai sake
    • Answer: If you want to get into the deep debates on this topic, you are welcome to google them! However, from my perspective – some fragrance / flavour compounds are only soluble in alcohol and adding brewers’ alcohol can add a crisp and clean finish. There is a place for both junmai and non-junmai sake, and again, why limit yourself to just one type?!
Sake shop at Narai
Sake shop at Narai

Where to buy sake:

I have listed a few sources here, but there’s an even more detailed list of places to buy sake on the Museum of Sake: The Covid-19 Essential List of Online Sake Shops.

Tengu Sake, Hedonism and Sakaya only sell really good quality sake so I would say it is worth trying anything from their selections.

The Japan Centre does sell some good sake, but also some of the more basic sake; keep in mind that they sell sake for cooking and are appealing to a broader customer base than the more specialist retailers. When looking on the Japan Centre website, I would suggest looking for one of the following keywords, until you get more familiar with sake:

  • Ginjo
  • Daiginjo
  • Tokubetsu
  • Honjozo
  • Junmai

This is just an introduction to the world of sake and so it doesn’t cover other types of sake, for example nigori sake, genshu, koshu or sparkling sake. However, hopefully this is enough to get you started!

My last piece of advice is to just explore! Try different types of sake, don’t be scared to heat sake up and try drinking it in different vessels. You may find you like it much more than you expect!

Kampai!

A collection of different sake vessels
A collection of different sake vessels – including some from House Of Sake

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