For Saké’s Sake!
Saké! What is it? Ask the question and nine out of ten times you’ll get the response – Japanese rice wine! Yeah – I guess so, but not technically! I don’t think you would hear anyone explain wine as only crushed grapes, well; would you? Probably not, you see; the thing is that as third or fourth generation Canadians most of our heritage is connected to Europe – hence the connection to wine. Think about it! When was the last time you had a cup (ochoko) of saké in Tuscany, Burgundy or Mosel? Probably never!
The history of Japanese saké dates back to 300 B.C. Though its origins can be traced to 3000 B. C China, saké never really took off as a popular beverage until it hit Japan. The basic process of making saké involves polishing or “milling” (seimaibuai) rice. Not table rice but a special type of brown rice (there are about 60 kinds) used for saké production only. The rice is then cooked in clean water and made into a mash. This was originally done in days of yore by having young female “virgins” chew on rice and nuts and then spit the mixture into a large open vat. This saké was called “kuchikami” for “chewing the mouth”, with the whole point of the enzymes in the saliva causing the necessary fermentation to make the finished product. Luckily this practice was discontinued when it was found out that koji (a mold enzyme on rice) and yeast could be added to the rice to start fermentation.
In the 1300’s saké became Japan’s most popular drink due to mass production. In later years the production was improved and sake breweries (kura or sakagura) began producing better quality saké. All of the saké that was produced in the early years was cloudy or unfiltered (Nigori). It was a lone unknown kura worker who thought to use ashes to purify and filter the sake and thus producing the clear sake of today. Even later in the 1900’s during Japan’s industrial Revolution, special machinery was designed to polish the saké rice kernel without breaking it open and releasing all the fats and protein. You see; it’s the starch at the centre of the grain that makes pure, clean tasting saké and that’s what the Brewmaster (toji) is after. During WWII, rice shortage was a problem so pure alcohol and glucose were added to the mash to increase production. This process is still continued today but the best quality is made with rice, water, yeast and koji – that’s it. This makes saké the purest form of alcohol in the world, which is why you can drink a lot and never get hangovers.
The super clean refined saké of today produces amazingly rich, intense and powerful aromas as well as soft, delicate and featherlite flavours on the palate. Tropical fruits like banana, pineapple and guava are common as are vanilla, coconut and bubblegum. It is said that wine has 1000 characteristics whereas sake has 2000. The differences don’t stop there. Saké also differs from wine in that wine is made by the single fermentation of fruits (grapes) and generally not grain. Saké is made from rice by a process called “multiple parallel fermentation”, in which the rice mold (koji) converts rice starch to sugar and yeast in turn converts the sugar into alcohol. In saké, saccharification and alcohol fermentation occur at the same exact time where in wine, because of the natural high sugars present; it only needs single alcohol fermentation. Another key point is that saké is meant to be consumed young, when it is lively and fruity. Don’t let it sit more than 18 months as its flavours and aroma can become cloying, dank and off-putting. All high quality sake (dai ginjo and nama let’s say) are meant to beenjoyed chilled or at 58ºF, if you heat it up you will destroy all its beautiful properties. Some ginjo and kimoto can actually benefit from slight heating, based on their flavor profile.
There are also four main classifications of sake in terms of degrees of rice polishing and brewing style. Beyond that there are what we call “sub” classifications that all stem from the four production methods below, but then evolve into a separate distinct style:
Sake Brewing Classifications
Honjozo is sake wherein a small amount of distilled pure alcohol is added to smoothen and lighten the flavor, and to make the sake a bit more fragrant. Honjozo-shu, like Junmai-shu, must be made with rice with a “seimai-buai” (degree of milling) of at least 70%. This is the number you will see on the label (if it is given at all), but what it means is that the rice has been polished so that no more than 70% of the original size of the grains remains. In other words, at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been ground away. Honjozo sake is often a bit lighter than other sake, due to the small amount of grain alcohol added at the end of the ferment. Remember that this is not a bad thing, in moderation, and brewers have been doing it for hundreds of years. It is NOT simply a cost cutting measure when used within the limits prescribed by honjozo. The flavor is lighter, and magically the fragrance becomes much more prominent.
Junmaishu refers to pure sake, pure in the sense that no adjuncts (starches or sugars other than rice added to the fermenting mixture) were used, and that no brewer's alcohol was added either. Junmai-shu, like Honzojo-shu, must be made with rice with a Seimai Buai (degree of milling) of at least 70%. This is the number you will see on the label (if it is given at all), but what it means is that the rice has been polished so that no more than 70% of the original size of the grains remains. In other words, at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been ground away. Junmai often has a fuller, richer body and a higher-than-average acidity. The nose is often not as prominent as other types of sake, nor is other parameters dependent on whether sake is a junmai or not. Here is a typical junmai-shu flavor profile.
Ginjo sake is much more delicate and light and complex than the above two. Why? The rice has had the outer 40% of the grains polished away, leaving the inner 60% left. This is opposed to leaving 70% for junnmai and honjozo. On top of that, special yeast, lower fermentation temperatures, and labor-intensive techniques make for fragrant, intricate brews with a flowery fragrance.
Super premium saké that is polished to at least 50% its original grain size. The best (or most expensive) dai-ginjos can polish up to 70%! They are light, super clean, complex and fragrant.
“Cloudy sake” sometimes called unfiltered sake (when it should be called “coarsely filtered” instead as it is filtered!). It has not been pressed fully from the rice solids (kasu). Nigori can range from smooth, sweet and creamy to chunky and full, usually not a true saké lover’s choice.
Genshu is saké that is undiluted where all other sakés have a bit of distilled water to them to curb the alcohol content. This is becoming popular as it makes sweeter, richer flavoured sake with alcohol content between 17-22% as opposed to the 12-16% of the others listed above
YAMAHAI-SHIKOMI AND KIMOTO
These sake are two variations on the brewing method in which the yeast starter is made in a special way that allows more funky yeast and bacteria to be present, often lending the sake a gamier, wilder “yogurty” flavor that can be fascinating.
Unpasteurized sake (where 99% of all other sake has been pasteurized twice – once after brewing and once again after maturation period). Submerging the bottled sake in 65ºC water or running the sake through a pipe in hot water does this. It is fresher, livelier and has more “zip” to the flavour. (MUST BE REFRIGERATED).
“Aged” sake from 3-15 years, this is very expensive and can have a deep brandy colour. It is stronger, more astringent and quite earthy with a smoky aroma. Very rich and satisfying
Aged sake with rich, sweet style and sensations of sweet sherry, woodsy notes combined with hay, chocolate and rich berry flavours. The texture is rich and oily with amber, copper and coffee colours.
Means unfiltered. It refers to sake that has not been carbon filtered, but which has been pressed and separated from the lees, and thus is clear, not cloudy. Carbon filtration can remove desirable flavors and odors as well as bad ones, thus muroka sake has stronger flavors than filtered varieties.
Is sake aged in wooden barrels or bottled in wooden casks. The wood used is Cryptomeria (杉, sugi), which is also inaccurately known as Japanese cedar. Sake casks are often tapped ceremonially for the opening of buildings, businesses, parties, etc. Because the wood imparts a strong flavor, premium sake is rarely used for this type.
Japanese vodka-like spirits made with rice, potato, barley (shochu) and awamori (only from Okinawa) made from Thai rice and fermented and distilled with “black” rice koji (kurokoji). They are usually drank on the rocks with a bit of water added.
"Freshly pressed", refers to sake that has been shipped without the traditional six-month aging/maturation period. The result is usually more acidic, "greener" sake.
Is a method of separating sake from the lees without external pressure by hanging the mash in bags and allowing the liquid to drip out under its own weight. Sake produced this way is sometimes called shizukazake (雫酒), meaning "drip sake".
Unpressed “drip” sake that is put in a bag, which acts as a strainer and the clear sake is then allowed to run off by gravity alone. The taste is more elegant, complex and this sake is very expensive.
Other Sake Terms
Is sake pressed into 18-liter bottles "tobin" with the brewer selecting the best sake of the batch for shipping.
Not really a “sub-class”, “Jizake” means sake manufactured by small scale breweries in local regions. (Local regions mean regions other than Nada and Fushimi, where national brand sake manufacturers are located.) Of the 1,600 sake or so breweries in Japan - most of them are jizake manufacturers.
"clear/clean sake", is the Japanese legal definition of sake and refers to sake in which the solids have been strained out, leaving clear liquid. Thus nigorizake and doburoku (see below) are not seishu and therefore are not actually sake under Japanese law. However, nigori-zake can receive the seishu status by being strained clear and having the lees put back in afterward.
Where to Drink It!
Don Don Izakaya – 130 Dundas Street West, Toronto (416) 492-5292
Fin Izakaya – 55 Eglinton Ave. East, Toronto (647) 347-3864
Guu Izakaya – 398 Church Street, Toronto (416) 977-0999
KI – 181 Bay Street (BCE Place), Downtown (416) 308-5888
EDO Sushi – 484 Eglinton Ave. West, Toronto (416) 322-3033
Sushi Kaji – 860 the Queensway, Etobicoke (416) 252-2166
Hiro Sushi – 171 King St. East, Downtown (416) 304-0550
Kaseki Yu-zen Hashimoto – 6 Garamond Court Toronto (905) 670-5559
Blowfish – 668 King Street West, King West Village (416) 860-0606
Guu Saka Bar – 559 Bloor Street West, Toronto (647) 343-1101
Ontario Sprig Water Sake Company – 55 Mill Street (Bldg. 4) the Distillery District (416) 365-SAKE (7253)