Sake to Salivate Over: A Guide to Japan’s Finest
I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about food and drink. I remarked how funny it is, the way in which one can grow sentimental about such things, to the point of craving such things when they are no longer freely available.
Certainly, from my own viewpoint, as someone who was born in Glasgow there are often times when I crave a fish supper, a glass of Irn Bru and a scotch pie. And on these increasingly hot summer days I often think I would like nothing better than a cold, refreshing can of McEwan’s Export out of the fridge. And yet, conversely, it’s equally funny how, when we are in the place where these things are available, we rarely, if indeed ever consume them.
In this respect, my friend had just perfectly articulated the relationship I enjoy with Japanese Sake. Whenever I am back in Scotland, anytime my father and I plan to have a few drinks together it’s straight down to the local Asda (that’s Walmart to my American friends) and pick up a chilled bottle of Choya imported Sake.
Photo: Sandro Lacarbona on Flickr
Of course any of my Japanese friends with any sense of taste will laugh and tell me that the stuff tastes like vinegar, but when it’s your only choice and you’re feeling homesick for Japan, as indeed I do anytime I leave, then it’s hardly surprising that one finds themselves “making do” as it were.
However, in Japan, as much as I love to sample food and drinks of all varieties, though admittedly not quite in quantities I used to, I have to admit I am not a big sake drinker. End of year drinking parties with coworkers or occasional forays to the izakaya with Japanese friends aside, it is not something I would normally go for. I’m much more of an Umeshu man in all honesty.
Photo: Janine on Flickr
“You just need to educate yourself.” My sake-loving friend lamented. “Proper, high-grade Sake is one of the finest drinks in the world.”
Taking up my friends challenge, I decided to do a bit of homework and try to uncover what exactly passes for “proper, high-grade sake” in Japan.
Before we get into the specifics, it’s probably pertinent for me to give a little bit of background here. Anyone who has ever tasted a variety of Sake before will know all too well that the taste, aroma and harshness of the Sake varies considerable from one type to another. Some sweet Sakes can almost taste like white one, whilst heavier, more sour Sakes can come close to an almost vodka like taste
There are a number of factors that can influence how a Sake turns out in the end.
Sake is brewed from the starch produced by fermenting rice, much in the same way that wine is brewed from the sugar naturally found in grapes, or the starch derived from potatoes is used to distill Vodka and its Japanese and Chinese cohorts Shochu and Bai Jiao respectively. In order to ensure the smooth taste and clear texture, the rice is thoroughly polished to remove any traces of bran which may adversely affect the fermentation process.
Its also important to note that you will find very few drinks in Japan actually called Sake. Sake is a name commonly used abroad for this type of rice wine, in actuality it is derived from the Japanese word “O-sake”, which is used in Japan as a collective term meaning any alcoholic drink.
Legally speaking, Sake as we know it is not actually classed as a wine. Since wine, according to internationally accepted norms must be produced from grapes. Hence, Japan defines it as “Seishu” which translates as “clear or transparent liquor”.
However, amongst ordinary Japanese people, the colloquial term “Nihonshu” meaning “Alcohol from Japan” is used. Certainly when you go to a restaurant or bar in Japan ordering “sake” may draw some confused looks from both the staff and your Japanese colleagues. However, if you request “nihonshu” you’ll be sure to get what you want.
Finally, its also important to consider the temperature at which the Sake is served.
In winter nothing beats a warm, soothing cup of hot Sake (atsukan in Japanese). However, in the summer you may prefer to opt for chilled Sake (Reishu).
Photo: Chris Battaglia on Flickr
Sake is also commonly served at room temperature (joon). It’s important to state which of these three temperatures you desire when ordering. If you don’t, in most cases you’ll get room temperature sake, which, in all honesty, I find the least desirable of the three.
Now, for your consideration, I present some suggested sakes based on my research. In no particular order, here’s five of the best:
Photo: 克年 三沢 on Flickr
Typically most Sakes are diluted with water to lower their potency. In Japan it is generally accepted that harder drinkers tend to opt for Shochu, with its 40-50% alcohol content being comparable to whisky or vodka, whereas Sake is usually diluted down to around the same as conventional red or white wine, around 12 to 14%. Genshu however, forgoes this part of the brewing process and as such retains an alcohol content of around 20%, packing a significantly harder punch, but also fuller flavour than most other Sakes. In short, delicious, but probably best avoided at the office Christmas party!
Photo: Ernesto De Quesada on Flickr
Have you ever been served a bottle of sake and thought: “wait a minute, that’s not right. This sake is all cloudy.” Not to worry, chances are you not drinking Sake that had gone stale, but instead you were sampling the delightful flavour that is Nigorizake. Early on in the brewing process, this sake is passed through a rather loose mess, to remove it from the initial rice mash. However, unlike other types of Sake, it is not further filtered prior to bottling which allows for the formation of a certain quantity of rice sediment in the base of the bottle. The bottle is then shaken prior to serving, giving the Sake its cloudy appearance.
Photo: hidekio on Flickr
Unlike its western counterpart wine, Sake does not usually improve with age and can quickly go sour and unpleasant. However Koshu is different. The ageing process used in making Koshu can allow the brew to sit for decades, as its flavour enhances and it takes on yellowed, honey-like appearance and taste. Probably not everyone’s conventional idea of Sake, but a nice drink nonetheless.
Photo: tokyofoodcast.com on Flickr
If you’ve had one glass of exported choya too many and you want something a bit sweeter then Amazake is for you. It’s not Sake in the purest sense, but still this sugar enthused Sake derivative is still a pleasant little tipple in its own right.
Photo: Daiju Azuma on Flickr
If, like me, you enjoy a good whisky from time to time, then hopefully you’ve sampled the delights of a sherry cask whisky at some point. I recommend Glenmorangie, if anyones interested. But did you know that there’s a type of Sake that’s often matured in casks. It’s called Taruzake. Traditionally these casks are reserved for special occasions such as opening a new business, retirement or wedding parties and so on. Despite the high esteem with which it is held in Japanese society, the very strong flavour that the wood casks impart upon the Sake means that low grade Sake is traditionally used in producing Taruzake. In spite of this, just tasting it is an experience in itself, should you ever be lucky enough to be invited to sample it.
Photo: Kuruman on Flickr
As far as drinks go, worldwide there are few as diverse as Sake. From the strong to the weak, from the sweet to the sour, there’s a Sake out there to suit all tastes. As the Japanese like to say: “Kanpai!”