Sake is a very misunderstood beverage. Most people think of the warm stuff served in Chinese/Japanese restaurants. Sake is served warm when it is inferior, the heat covering up the roughness and the impurities. Premium Sake is wonderful, with often intense, pleasant aromatics and delicate flavors of apple, pear, melon, and banana. It is an excellent accompaniment to food.
Although considered rice wine by most Americans, it is actually brewed rather than fermented. In winemaking, the naturally occurring sugar in the grapes is fermented. In beer production, a starch must be converted to sugar, which is then converted into alcohol. While these steps are done separately in beer, they are done simultaneously in Sake production.
A special type of rice is used for Sake. It is larger and stronger than edible rice, with less protein and lipid. The rice is then polished to remove the bran. The greater the percentage of rice polished, the higher the grade of Sake, as further polishing removes impurities and lipids.
Water is very important in Sake making. Hard water that is full of minerals is nutritive to the yeast in the fermenting process so it converts more sugar into alcohol. Hard water results in drier Sakes, while softer water is used for sweeter Sakes.
A scale, known as the Nihonsgu-do (SMV), measures the sweetness of Sake, with zero being neutral, positive being dry, and negative being sweet. Acid levels affect the sensation of sweetness much like in wine, with acidity making sweeter Sake taste drier.
Most Sake is filtered so it is clear. However, Nigori Sake is unfiltered so it is extremely cloudy with sediment. Nigori Sakes are rich and flavorful and tend to be sweet.
When considering filtered Sakes, look at the various grades. Futsu is the everyday drinking Sake made from lightly polished rice and is the equivalent of VDP or table wine. Tokutei are the premium Sakes:
Junmai: the outer 30% is polished leaving rice grains 70% of their original size
Junmai-Ginjo: at least the outer 40% is polished
Junmai Daiginjo and Daiginjo: at least 50% of the outer portion is polished leaving grains less than 50% of their original size.
Each grade results in more delicate pure flavors—and higher prices.
Tozai Nigori Snow Maiden. Junmai grade. Great body, long finish, fruity, bright acidity. Fairly sweet, around -6 SMV $16.99 720 ml
Rihaku Wandering Poet. Junmai Ginjo grade. Wonderful tropical fruits, pear and appl, dry, beautiful acidity. Intense aromatics $36.99 720 ml
Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto. Kimoto means using a traditional and very time consuming method of producing the mash, giving this sake a beautiful oily, earthy richness along with flavors of apple and pear. SMV +2. A great bargain, especially good for Junmai grade. $16.99 720 ml.
Konteki Tears of Dawn. Daiginjo grade. Slightly sweet, very aromatic, wonderful aromas and flavors of apple and tropical fruit. $32.99
There are lots of cheaper Sakes, but these are representative of what really good Sake can taste like. Sake is wonderful with light fresh foods such as seafood, sushi, fish, and chicken dishes that aren’t too spicy or rich.
So give Sake a try. You my very well find yourself turning to this beverage a lot more than you ever thought.