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4 Simple Steps to show you Appreciate Japanese Saké

Nobody knows how Saké came to be. According an eighth century text, The Chronicles of JapanSaké was instrumental in saving Japan from an enormous and fearsome eight-headed dragon, Yamata no Orochi, which had been ravishing the lands. To assuage the beast, villagers had to sacrifice a young daughter to the dragon each year. After hearing of this injustice – but mostly because he witnessed the beauty of the young woman to be sacrificed (ugh, men 🙄) – the storm god Susanoo took it upon himself to battle this beast.

 

 

To aid the storm god in his fight, the villagers brewed particularly strong Saké to intoxicate the beast. Pots of Saké were placed outside the dragon's lair. Happily, Yamata no Orochi gulped down 8 pots of the libation. Blissfully buzzed, the dragon curled up and catnapped. 

The plan had worked. Taking the opportunity, Susano sprung from his hiding place and chopped off all of the tipsy dragon’s eight heads.

The victorious storm god returned to the village with the heads of the slain dragon. The villagers cheered him. He took the almost-sacrificed young woman as his bride. Everyone lived happily after in Japan.

And that’s the story of how Japan and the world came to love Saké. We think.

How then, do we show others we know how to appreciate Japan’s most well-known alcoholic beverage? Breweries run aplenty. The variety of styles seems overwhelming.

 

(Image Source: Silverkris)

 

It gets truly confusing if you do not speak Japanese.

Not to worry. There are only 4 things you need when learning to appreciate Saké. Know them and you will sound like you’re a pro at a Saké bar. Almost.

  

Pure rice or non-pure rice Saké (Junmai vs non-Junmai) (純米)

 

Junmai

 

(Image Source: Sake Guide)

 

Sakés are sometimes described as “pure rice” Sakés, or junmai (純米). This indicates whether the Saké had been fortified with additional alcohol. Any Saké labelled “Junmai” would have been brewed without adding any distilled alcohol, making the alcohol “purely from rice” so to speak.

Junmai sake tend to have a rich, syrupy and full-bodied profile, with a stronger and slightly acidic flavour. They are usually enjoyed with richer or more savoury (umami) foods.

An example of a Junmai Saké is the Dassai Junmai Daiginjo.

 

 

Non-Junmai

Non-Junmai Sakés would have additional distilled brewers’ alcohol added to brew to fortify the drink.

These Sakés tend to have lighter bodies, higher ester count and greater fruitiness. They tend to be easier to drink, and can be paired with lighter tasting foods – like perhaps sashimi or tofu.

So long as the label of a Saké does not mention “Junmai”, chances are, it is a non-Junmai Saké. An example of a non-Junmai Saké is the Kiminoi Honjozo Josen.

 

 

Rice polishing ratio / Seimaibuai (精米歩合) (Ginjō or Daiginjō, etc)

Another really important factor considered by Saké fans is the rice polishing ratio, or the extent to which rice was polished before it was used to brew the Saké.

Rice polishing is an important step in Saké production, and helps create a highly pure product without the use of distilling apparatus. Raw fibre, fat and protein on the outer layers of each rice grain are milled milled away, leaving only the pure, starchy interior for saccharification, before the batch is taken for alcohol fermentation.

 

(Images Source: Tippsy Sake)

 

Sakés labelled as a “Daiginjō” sit at the top of the hierarchy in terms of rice polishing percentage – 50% or less of the rice remains before it is used for brewing. This ensures that impurities are removed and the Daiginjō Saké is refined, clean and light-bodied.

An example of a Daiginjō Saké is the Dassai Junmai Daiginjo (mentioned earlier).

All the indicators for different grades of rice polishing are set out below: 

Label

Rice polishing ratio (percentage of the rice left)

Daiginjō (大吟醸) (premium Saké)

50% or lower using premium rice

Ginjō (吟醸) (premium Saké)

60% or lower using premium rice

Honjōzō (本醸造) (premium Saké)

70% or lower using premium rice

Futsushu (普通種) (mass-produced Saké)

Between 93% to 70% using non-premium rice

 

(Image Source: Hakushika Sake)

 

One may instinctively assume a highly polished rice means it would make a “higher grade” Saké. But this would be an incorrect assumption. It all depends on a drinker’s tastes and preferences.

Generally, the more the rice has been polished (e.g. Daiginjō), the cleaner, sweeter and fruitier the resulting Saké would taste. On the other hand, the less the rice has been polished (e.g. Honjōzō), the more complex and umami the resulting Saké would taste.

Many drinkers – including regular Saké drinkers – may shun Futsushu grade Saké (literally translated as “standard Saké”) because they are not subject to the same rigorous production standards as the 8 categories of specially designated “premium Saké” (Honjōzō, Junmai, Tokubetsu Honjōzō, Tokubetsu Junmai, Ginjō, Junmai Ginjō, Daiginjō, Junmai, Daiginjō).

However, in the same way that we argue that blended whisky isn’t necessarily inferior to single malt whisky, Futsushudoes not mean low quality. There are many great brands of Saké that do not fall within the specially designated categories and are thus considered Futsushu. An example is the Dassai Togai expression, which used “rejected grains” of Yamada Nishiki rice to brew a high-quality Saké, thereby winning praise for Asahi Shuzo Brewery for its clever efforts in reducing food waste and promoting sustainability.

 

Rice variety / Sakamai (原料米) (Yamada Nishiki, Omachi etc)

  

 

Finally, when bottling premium Saké, bottlers are not obliged, but may nonetheless wish to highlight that they used a specific variety of premium rice on the label. There are over a hundred varieties of rice that may be used for Saké production. But even the most seasoned Saké drinkers look out for these 4 most common types of rice:

  • Yamada Nishiki (山田錦)
  • Omachi (雄町)
  • Gohyakuman-goku (五百万石)
  • Miyama Nishiki (美山錦)

 

Yamada Nishiki rice (山田錦米)

Widely regarded as the best rice for Saké-making, Yamada Nishiki rice is the most popular variety amongst premium Saké bottlers. This variety of rice tends to make Saké that is well-balanced in flavour with light to medium texture, notes of fruits, florals and a mild savoury note.

From a Saké brewer’s perspective, the rice also polishes well without breaking, making it well suited for Saké-making.

 

Omachi rice (雄町)

A heirloom strain of rice that dates back centuries, Omachi rice makes Saké with rich aromatics, earthiness and sometimes a mild herbal quality. This variety is often used to add complexity to the Saké.

 

Gohyakuman-goku rice (五百万石米)

Gohyakuman-goku rice is a strain that produces smooth, crisp and dry Saké, with subdued aromatics.

 

Miyama Nishiki rice (美山錦米)

Miyama Nishiki rice is a strain that tends to produce Saké with a clean, mellow rice-like flavour.

 

Saké Meter Value (日本酒度)

 

 

Finally, one of the most helpful indications of how a Saké tastes is a numerical value printed on its label known as the Saké Meter Value or nihonshudo (日本酒度).

The Saké Meter Value ranges from -15 to +15 and is derived from density of the Saké relative to pure water. The value is used to indicate the dryness or sweetness of the Saké, and its alcohol intensity. A lower value indicates a sweeter Saké with lower alcohol intensity. Conversely, the higher the value, the dryer the Saké with higher alcohol intensity. A value of +3 is treated as neutral.

 

Other little things to note 

Bottling date and freshness

(Image Source: Sake Times)

 

Saké is a perishable product and ought to be consumed when fresh. It is recommended to select a bottle that had been bottled at most within a year for the freshest and best tasting Saké.

Once opened, the Saké should be kept refrigerated and finished within a week.

 

Should Saké be drunk warm?

 

While it is popular for many Japanese establishments to serve warm Saké for cold nights, Saké professionals generally prefer drinking good Saké slightly chilled, around the temperature of red wine at 10 °C to 15 °C. Most Sakés today taste the most vibrant at such temperatures.

Modern technology and rice mills now allow breweries to create incredibly light, delicate and floral Sakés. Heating such Sakés may cause them to lose much of their delicate and volatile flavour compounds. This is why many Saké connoisseurs therefore have the impression that only cheaper Sakés are served warm by restaurants to mask the bitterness and impurities of the Sakés.

That said, certain breweries may brew Saké that taste great when warmed – this would likely be recommended on the label.

And there we have it! This is all we need to begin appreciating Japan’s most well-known drink.

 

Kanpai!

@CharsiuCharlie