So what is sake?
Sake is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. Lots of people think it’s a spirit – like vodka, whiskey, gin or tequila – but whereas spirits are distilled, sake is not.
It’s often said sake is “brewed like beer, but drunk like wine” and that’s a pretty good way of understanding how it fits into the booze family tree. It might be brewed, but the alcohol content is generally 14–16%, so you won’t want to swill pints of it.
Right – fermented and brewed rice juice... Sounds disgusting. Is it?
You could say that about a lot of alcoholic drinks. Most of them come from processes and ingredients that look pretty unappealing written down. But, with care and skill, the final products are delicious.
And that’s the case here – accomplished sake makers are shokunin, a term used to describe traditional Japanese artisans who have perfected a particular craft. They channel centuries-old lore into making something simple absolutely exquisite – be it sushi or ramen or washi paper or candles or, indeed, sake.
Thanks to their skill, sake is a whole world of flavour. Of course, it’s different to beer and wine, and your taste buds will take a little adjustment. But the more sake you drink, the more you’ll appreciate it – and no, not in a “one drink leads to another” way.
There’s junmai sake and honjozo sake and daiginjo sake. There’s earthy sake, fruity sake, cloudy, unpasteurised sake; mature sake and sake so fresh it fizzes. There are the kinds that are better warmed. These definitely have their merits, but it’s best to start with a more refined, artisanal sake (generally around 2000 yen).
Junmai and honjozo and daiginjo – what makes those sakes different from each other?
Well, there are lots of processes and factors in sake production, but one of the most important is an early stage: the polishing of the rice.
Polishing is actually just a fancy term for “milling”, the process whereby the outer layers of the rice are worn and worn away to get rid of the bran, leaving just the inner nugget of starchy goodness behind.
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The best grades of sake have been polished the most. Daiginjo, the top stuff, has had at least 50% of its bran removed.
Do the Japanese still drink sake, even though they've discovered beer and wine and whiskey now?
They do, but beer and wine especially have chipped away at its popularity in Japan. For the Japanese, beer and wine and whiskey are relatively exotic and new. It’s taking a new breed of sake brewers to revitalize it with the country’s youth.