A Japanese feast is incomplete without the national drink of Japan, sake. But if you are not a drinker, its taste and use might be a point of curiosity for you. So, without taking much time, let’s get to know everything about Japan’s beloved beverage, sake!
Locally known as nihonshu, sake is a sweet and fruity alcoholic beverage that releases its flavorful taste in both chilled and warm temperatures. It has long been considered the national drink of Japan, and with its increasing popularity around the world, many secrets behind its ancient traditions have slowly come to light.
In Japan, Sake is not only savored for its taste in casual drinking, but it is also an integral part of formal religious ceremonies. It is believed to have been around since the third century BC.
Currently, there is a large variety of sake available in Japan, which is determined by the polishing and fermentation process, amongst other things. Come, let’s take a closer look at this much-famed liquor!
What is Sake?
Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made using fermented rice grains. It is a drink that was produced in Japanese temples and monasteries. Unlike other alcoholic beverages, sake can be served both hot and cold.
For centuries, sake has been brewed using highly polished sake mai rice, water, a mold called Aspergillus oryzae, and yeast. Fine sakes are aged for a year or more, and its alcohol by volume is more potent than most wine.
Most varieties have an alcohol content of between 15% and 20% alcohol. However, strong undiluted sake, called Genshu, might also have an ABV of 20% plus.
In terms of temperature, a simple rule of thumb is that higher-quality sake is served slightly chilled, whereas cheaper sake should be warmed up.
What Does Sake Taste Like?
If you are new to the world of sake, you might be wondering where to begin from. So, let’s check out the flavor profile of sake for a better understanding.
Since sake is prepared from white rice‘s fermentation process, the prominent taste profile of sake is mild, having a sweet and fruity flavor. It is a well-balanced combination of astringent and savory flavor and has a mild aroma that disappears a few minutes after being poured into a glass.
The overall feel of this drink is smooth and light. But like any other alcoholic drink, it leaves a bit of an aftertaste. In taste, sake also has slight notes of umami flavor due to its glutamic acid content offered by its key ingredient, which is koji.
In comparison to other alcoholic beverages, sake tastes slightly like white wine. Sake, when served cold or hot, also tastes different. While cold sake tastes like dry white wine, hot sake has a similar taste profile to that of vodka.
In terms of its aromatic profile, sake releases fruity aromas like that of melon, citrus, banana, apples, and pear. Its sweet fragrances also remind you of the taste of honey, brown sugar, or soy sauce. In contrast, its spicy and nutty aroma can be compared to cinnamon, fenugreek, and cloves.
Fun Facts About Sake
1. Sake is known to be the oldest known spirit in the world. Some say its origins date back to 4800 BC China.
2. In the 19th century, there were over 20,000 sake breweries in Japan. But the number has declined considerably today to what is now just over 1,400 breweries due to war, government restructuring, and the Japanese consumer culture.
3. Sake, as compared to wine, has more similarities with beer as it is made from rice and its brewing process converts starch to alcohol, just the way beer is made.
4. The grading of sake varieties depends on how much of the rice grain is polished away in processing. While the lowest grade of sake has 30 percent or less of its grain polished off, the highest grade polishes off 50 percent of its grain.
5. In comparison to beer or wine, Sake has a higher alcohol content. While the alcohol by volume content of beer is typically between 3 and 9 percent, and of wine is between 9 and 16 percent, sake can have an ABV of 18 to 20 percent.
6. According to Shiari in Birth of Saké, “Yeast plays a critical role in sake’s quality. Because each strain of yeast yields its own distinct characteristics of aroma and taste, brewers must test which yeast is best for their saké.”
7. Pouring sake for yourself is considered to be rude. This drink is poured as an act of bonding as it is used to make a toast at weddings and other celebrations.
Different Types Of Sake
With the above understanding of the key elements of sake, it will become easier for you to see the differences between the various types of sake. Although there are a wide variety of sakes available in the market, to keep it simple, we will look at the six basic types of sake that require a different brewing method.
- Ginjo or Junmai Ginjo
- Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo
If you are looking for the purest form of sake, then Junmai is the one for one. Junmai refers to rice in the purest form, meaning that Junmai sake is brewed using only rice, water, yeast, and koji without any additives such as alcohol or sugar. Therefore, brands label it as “pure rice sakes.”
Brewers typically use around 70% of the full rice kernel in this variety of sake, making Junmai taste richer and fuller-bodied with an intense, subtly acidic, and umami flavor.
Although it can be enjoyed ice-cold, Junmai tastes best at room temperature or even warm as its acidity mellows down and brings out its richness. Given its taste profile, Junmai pairs well with meats like pork and ribeye steak, along with umami veggies like mushrooms, asparagus, and artichokes.
2. Ginjo or Junmai Ginjo
Ginjo sake is made using highly polished rice and particular kinds of yeast that are cultured to be more expressive and fragrant than others found in different sake grades.
In addition, this sake undergoes low-temperature fermentation across a long period of time, giving this variety a delicate and fruitier taste than other Junmai sakes. It can be served at room temperature or chilled and is a match made in heaven for classic Japanese sushi and sashimi.
It also goes very well with international food items like burritos, tandoori meats, tajine frittatas, cheese plates, wraps, shrimp, tofu, and German spätzle. Its fruity taste works well with salads, too, such as Caesar, chicken, and tuna.
Honjozo is another variety of sake having a deeper taste and aroma. It also uses rice that has been polished upto 70 percent. However, honjozo has a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol to smooth out the flavor and aroma of the sake.
Honjozo sakes can be enjoyed both warm or chilled. Its earthy and acidic palette makes it go well with grilled meats, steaks, chicken breasts, as well as grilled or sauteed veggies and kebabs.
Junmai Daiginjo is a super-premium sake that has been polished to at least 60 percent. It is brewed using special yeast and fermentation techniques that give out a light, fruity, and complex taste, which is quite fragrant. It’s often served chilled and makes a great pairing with popular Asian foods like dim sum and mild pad Thai.
Sometimes referred to as a table sake, Futsushu sake is made with rice that has barely been polished. Its taste profile is not as nuanced as the above-mentioned varieties, and you can get it at cheaper rates.
While all sake undergoes a pressing step, some have the fermented rice mash run through a filter. While most sakes eliminate all the rice residue, Nigori sake is passed through a coarse filter that allows undissolved rice kernels to make their way into the final product. Hence, out of all the varieties, Nigori sake is easily identifiable due to its milky white color.
Nigori sake is typically sweet and creamy. It can be savored cold instead of warm.
Although sake is usually allowed to mature for around six months or more for its flavors to mellow out, shiboritate sake is one variety that goes directly into the bottles from the presses and out for sale. It tends to be wild and fruity in taste. That’s why some people like it as an option for white wine.
How To Drink Sake?
Now comes the fun part of drinking the sake! For all the beginners out there, drinking this beloved Japanese drink calls for two rules. One is figuring out at what temperature it should be consumed. Secondly, what kind of receptacle should be used.
As you have read above, there are no hard and fast rules about how to consume sake. However, it’s always good to know what temperature pairs well with what kinds of food to savor its optimum flavor.
That being said, here are some general guidelines to help you choose the right temperature.
- It’s best to ask your restaurant server or shop staff for their recommendation of the right temperature at which variety should be consumed.
- Avoid extreme cooling or warming since extreme temperatures can easily disrupt a sake’s particular flavors and aromas.
- If you wish to have warm sake, don’t heat the sake directly. Rather, pour it into a heat-resistant receptacle and avoid heating it too intensely. Sake should definitely not be microwaved.
What Kind of Receptacle to Use
While many connoisseurs recommend drinking sake out of a glass, it’s also fun to drink sake out of an ochoko or masu. To appreciate its taste better, it would be worthwhile to invest in good sake-drinking glasses.
How To Store Sake?
Sake is a delicate drink with no added preservatives, which makes it vulnerable to change in response to factors such as light, temperature, or exposure to air. Hence, two things should be followed to preserve the taste of sake.
1: Do not store sake in a place where the temperature fluctuates. It is always better to store sake in a cool place.
2: Sake is best kept in a dark place. Do not store sake in direct sunlight.
That being said, the refrigerator is the best place of storage for sake. It should be kept at a temperature of approximately 41 °F. In addition, sake should be consumed within about one year from the date the brewery releases it.
While buying sake, you will observe it is generally stored in a green or brown colored bottle as it is a very delicate, sensitive product. Being vulnerable to factors such as light, temperature, or exposure to air, these two colors help in fighting the effects of sunlight.
How To Tell If Sake Is Fresh?
So, if you’ve stumbled across a sake bottle and are wondering about its freshness, here are some tips to help you.
- Check the date on the bottle- In Japan, instead of mentioning an expiration date, the date on which sake was bottled will be found. Look out for that. If the manufacturing date is less than a year, it is considered fresh. However, if you come across a bottle that is 1-3 years old, you can still enjoy it if it’s stored properly. Beyond this, it’s not advisable to consume sake that is four or more years old.
- Smell and color- just like any other food freshness indicator, check for sake’s smell and color. A bad sake may have a yellowish hue and an unpleasant smell. Or there could also be lumps floating or resting at the bottom of the bottle.
What Are The Uses Of Sake?
Apart from being savored as a drink with your meals or by itself, sake can be enjoyed in cooking too. While you can opt to use regular cheap sake for cooking, premium Japanese sake would also enhance the flavor by adding a subtle umami taste to different foods.
You can use sake to marinate fish or meat. It not only adds flavor but also eliminates the foul seafood odors. It can also be used to make flavorful bread and baked goods, and foods fried with sake turn out to be crunchier.
Apart from the above uses, sake also makes a great ingredient for marinades, soups, stews, and sauces. It also makes rice more flavor when added while cooking. Sake also brings out profound flavors in stir-fries to balance the flavor of soy sauce and garlic.
The Nutritional Content Of Sake
Typically made from rice, sake possesses vital nutrients and is a great source of amino acids that help maintain health. It has low-calorie content, assists digestion, and prevents diabetes and osteoporosis.
Among its other qualities, sake helps reduce blood pressure, promotes blood circulation, reduces cholesterol, and lowers gastritis and ulcers.
|Nutrients||Amount One Serving Of Sake (100 grams)|
After reading about its characteristics, I’m sure you would agree that sake makes for a wonderful drink. It not only comes with a great taste but is packed with several health benefits.
To know more about sake’s fermentation process, you can visit some of the breweries that offer tours of their facilities in Japan. Note that sake production is seasonal, and most of the action takes place in winter.
Frequently Answered Questions (FAQs)
What type of alcohol is in sake?
Sake is a type of brewed alcohol made out of fermented rice.
Is sake a beer or wine?
Sake is not a wine, a beer, or a spirit. It’s a beverage category in itself.
Can sake get you drunk?
Most sakes’ are about half as strong as most whiskeys and vodkas, contrary to popular belief. It depends on individual consumption and alcohol tolerance.
Is sake better hot or cold?
Sake is best served cold.
Is sake the healthiest alcohol?
Sake is considered to be one of the healthiest beverages in the world.
What is the alcohol content in sake?
Sake contains about 14 to 16 percent alcohol.