10 Things You Need to Know about Sake
Sake is made of three things: water, fermented rice and koji, and while it may sound simple it can be as complex as fine wine. I quizzed sake specialist Windy Ho, who is on track to become a sake sommelier later this spring, (there are currently only 79 in the US) about all things sake. Ho is currently developing the sake programs at her family’s two Japanese restaurants located in Atlanta: Rice and Eight Sushi Lounge.
Ho, who takes her sake list as seriously as a Master Sommelier, explains, “We wanted a beautiful crafted sake program that distinguished us with range and variety, flavor and profile. Sake comes in so many styles: dry, rich, fragrant, full-bodied, etc. There is a lot to consider.” Below are Ho’s Ten Things to Know About Sake:
What is sake?
It is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made up of rice, water and koji (a microbe). Koji is in soy and miso; it’s a fungus that breaks down the starch into fermentable glucose—and influences the aroma and flavor of sake. The water is the reason why Japanese sake is so unique—Japanese water has high mineral content that makes it so soft and that adds a masculine or feminine component.
How is sake is made?
It's made with koji, water, rice and yeast. It has to be short grain sake rice. Sake rice is very high in starch concentration, and they have to polish the rice. Brewers make a mash of everything –then press it to get sake out, or let it drip, or extract it with centrifuge.
What does it pair best with?
It’s so versatile, but it has a milder mouthfeel than wine so it pairs best with fish and seafood, but can also pair with meat. It brings out delicateness of seafood, sushi---but heavier flavor profiles match well too.
Is it expensive?
That depends. Production takes a minimum of two months and depends on Koji, water and rice. The price is most influenced by rice, and how much you actually mill (or polish) the rice.
Is it true you don’t get a hangover from sake?
Yes, because it doesn’t lower your body temperature after consumption like wine or beer, and the ions in the water use to make it provide energy. I have had customers tell me they never get a hangover with sake no matter how many bottles they drink. It’s like having vitamin water with your booze.
Does it give you good skin?
It gives your skin good complexion too because of the amino acids in the water itself. But, not every sake will achieve this, the more premium the better.
What is the best rice to make it with?
It has to be sake rice, and there are four famous ones, but yamadanishiki is the most famous rice (32% of breweries in Japan use this rice). Look for that word on the label. The other big rice is Omachi; it is the grandfather of sake rice.
Can it age?
There are some that are meant to be aged, but most are aged before bottling. You want to drink it when it’s fresh, unlike wine. Look for the freshness date on the bottle. Two years is the maximum for most sake to be on the shelf. After you open a bottle it starts to lose freshness---and kept away from light. It lasts about a week once opened.
Serve it warm or cold?
This depends on the sake you buy---there are different grading systems in sake and the way that works is there are two main kinds. Junmai sake is a pure rice style. Dinjo (premium) and Daijinjo styles (more premium) are usually served slightly chilled. The fortified style will taste best served warm.
What is the best glassware for sake?
Treat chilled sake similar to wine; in order to really get the aromas and the nose you should swirl and sniff. Traditionally we know that sake is served in those teeny tiny cups, but premium grade should be served in larger glass—a wine glass works—so its aromas can open up. Also, in Japan, once you open it and present it….you leave bottle on table and serve each other—you should never pour your own sake, it’s a privilege to pour sake for guests and others.