Learn more about Sake in general by reading the answers to the most commonly asked questions below.
What is Sake?
Sake is essentially a fermented alcoholic beverage made from rice.
It is at times referred to as a “rice wine” and, for import purposes it is actually taxed like a wine, but it is brewed more like a beer and has considerably different flavour profiles to wine; a wider range of temperature at which it can be enjoyed; a wider range of style of tableware including glassware and porcelain in which you can enjoy it; and a wider range of food with which it can be paired than wine.
So, simply put, it does it a disservice to classify it as a wine and it deserves to have its own category.
What is Sake Made From?
While the key, distinguishing ingredient in sake is obviously rice, there are a limited number of other key ingredients from which premium sake can be made.
First of all, there is the yeast which is essential in any alcohol production. However, the yeast requires sugars to consume and convert into alcohol, with carbon dioxide as a by-product.
Rice does not contain any available sugars but is made up of starch and, in sake production, the work of a fungus called “Koji-kin” is essential to breakdown the starch into the smaller fermentable sugars which the yeast can then eat.
Water is also an essential element in sake brewing. It makes up approximately 80% of the ingredients in a bottle of sake and is also used extensively during production for washing the rice, soaking the rice, steaming the rice and producing the fermentable sake mash. It is also used to wash the equipment.
Other additional ingredients can include brewer’s alcohol which is only added to non-junmai sake. This is not to increase the alcohol percentage but to ensure that the aromas present in the main sake mash are captured in the liquid once the mash is pressed and do not stay in the sake lees (the leftover solids after pressing the sake mash). The addition of the brewer’s alcohol is strictly limited to 10% of the weight of rice to produce the volume of sake.
Lactic acid is another permitted ingredient in the production of sake. Naturally occurring in the fermentation process, the addition of lactic acid cuts the production process down by around two weeks. The style of sake produced by adding lactic acid is called “Sokujo” and has less depth of flavour and concentration of umami than sake produced where the lactic acid is produced naturally by fermentation.
As for the non-premium, table sake, the addition of amino acids and sugars is also allowed, along with a higher percentage of brewer’s alcohol.
What is Premium Sake?
The majority of sake produced and consumed in Japan (approximately 70-75%) is table sake which is called “Futshu-shu”.
Premium Sake, however, has strict rules limiting the ingredients used and is then categorised depending upon the rice polishing ratio; the percentage of rice remaining after it has been polished.
First of all, Premium Sake falls broadly into two distinct styles of Junmai sake and non-Junmai sake. Junmai sake is sake to which no brewer’s alcohol has been added. Non-Junmai sake has a limited amount of brewer’s alcohol (10% of the volume of rice used) added to it prior to pressing. The Junmai style of sake tend to be richer in flavour on the palate making them more suitable for pairing with food and less aromatic. The non-Junmai style of sake tend to be more aromatic and smoother on the palate.
Within those two main styles, premium sake is further separated into an additional four categories according to the rice polishing ratio (the percentage of rice remaining after being polished), with the exception of Junmai sake which does not have a restriction on the rice polishing ratio.
One category is simply “Junmai” which does not have a rice polishing ratio requirement but is simply sake which is only made from rice, water, yeast, koji-kin fungus and lactic acid (as the only permitted additive).
On the other side the non-Junmai version is called “Honjozo” (“real brew”) and for sake to be classified as Honjozo, the rice polishing ratio needs to be 70% or less of the rice remaining. It is usually quite flavoursome but suitable for warming and is quite smooth drinking with a light bouquet.
Then there is a category called “Tokubetsu” meaning “special” which either means that the rice polishing ratio is less than 70% or that there has been a special method used for production. You can either have a “Tokubetsu Honjozo” or a “Tokubetsu Junmai”. Due to the higher polishing rate they have more elevated aromatics than the non-Tokubetsu version.
The next main category is the “Ginjo” and to be classified as “Ginjo” or “Junmai Ginjo” the rice must have been polished down to 60% of the rice grain remaining or less (the “Junmai Ginjo” not having any brewer’s alcohol added). The effect of the polishing of the rice is that the flavour on the palate is not so umami rich but has more elegance and the aromatics are more elevated with aromas of fruit and flowers.
Then, at the pinnacle, the highest quality of premium sake is either “Daiginjo” or “Junmai Daiginjo”. Along with the limited ingredients allowed for premium sake, the additional requirements are that the rice is polished down to 50% or less of its original size. The effect of polishing the rice to this extent means that you have very fragrant and complex aromatics on the nose and a more elegant, restrained, delicate flavour on the palate but also with increased complexity.
How is Sake brewed?
Sake brewing is quite complex with many different stages and is more time-consuming and hands on than with other alcoholic beverages.
If you look at the fermentation process alone then you will notice distinct differences in wine production and beer brewing.
The fermentation process for producing wine is “simple fermentation” as the sugars from the grape juice are available for the yeast to eat and produce alcohol.
When brewing beer an additional process is required in order to release the sugar in the cereal grain by germinating the barley or wheat in the malting process. This malt, now with fermentable sugars, is then transferred to the main tank mash for the yeast to convert the sugars to alcohol in a “multiple fermentation” process.
When it comes to brewing sake there are two separate fermentation processes that occur in the same tank. Firstly, the starches in the rice have to be converted into fermentable sugars. This is initially started by propagating the koji-kin fungus on steamed rice in the Koji room but continues in the same tank as the yeast is converting the sugars into alcohol. The result of this “multiple parallel fermentation” is that the sugars from the rice are released slowly meaning that the yeast eats slower and produces alcohol slower over a longer period of time. Combined with temperature control to maintain a slow production of alcohol and regular mixing of the tank the yeast does not die in a high concentration of alcohol and can go on to produce the highest naturally occurring volume of alcohol without distillation of around 22%.
What Food can you Pair with Sake?
As a result of the fermentation process, Sake naturally contains amino acids which make up “umami” the underlying delicious savoury notes. When you combine two different types of umami you have a synergistic effect and rather than simply doubling the flavour impact the result can be three or four times as flavoursome as the original flavours were.
When it comes to pairing chocolate, blue cheese and artichokes with wine it is considerably difficult to get a good flavour combination. However, sake does not create such clashes in flavour when paired but has the potential to improve the flavour of the food with which it is paired. It is therefore a good companion with most food including non-Japanese cuisine such as Chinese, Italian or French. Due to a wide range of styles of sake you can inevitably find a sake which not only accompanies the food you are eating but actually supports and increases the flavour of that food.
As a simple guide, choose the richer, more flavoursome Junmai and Yamahai for red meat or game, more elegant Honjozo and Junmai Ginjo for white fish, more aromatic Junmai Ginjo, Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo and Daiginjo for simple, elegant appetisers and Nama (unpasteurised) for spicy food.