Saké, Part 1: Introduction to Saké

Perhaps more than any other country, rice is at the heart of Japanese cuisine; think sushi, musubi rice balls, bento boxes, mochi, donburi rice bowls and curry rice. While it plays a central part in many foods, rice is also at the heart of one of the most well-known beverages as well: Saké.

Saké is an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Although often called “Rice Wine,” saké is actually closer to beer because the starches in rice need to be converted to sugars before being fermented into alcohol. Like wine, saké typically has an alcohol percentage around 15% and is a complex drink that can range from sweet (Amakuchi 甘口) to dry (Karakuchi 辛口) and come in a variety of subtle flavors and aromas.

Although it can be brewed from any rice, there are over 100 commercial varieties of rice grown specifically for the production of saké. Saké is made by first milling rice grains to remove the outer surface of the grain which contains undesirable proteins. Next the rice is steamed and inoculated with Koji fungus which converts rice starches into sugars. These sugars are converted by yeast into alcohol. Once fermentation is complete (a process that can take up to 3 weeks), the saké is pressed and filtered to remove the lees.

With so many bottles to choose from, shopping for saké can be a daunting task. Here are a few of the most common terms that can help you choose the bottle that fits your tastes.

Honjōzō (本醸造) – Saké blended with neutral alcohol to balance flavors. Honjōzō saké rice is polished to at least 70% of its original size.

Ginjō (吟醸) – Saké brewed from rice grains that have been polished to at least 60% of its original size before brewing

Daiginjō (大吟醸) – Saké brewed from rice grains that have been polished to 50% or less than its original size before brewing.

Genshu (原酒) – Undiluted saké. No additional water is added after pressing. Typically higher alcohol content of 18-20%

Junmai (純米) – “Pure Rice” sake brewed from only rice, water and koji. Can be used in combination with Ginjō, Daiginjō or Genshu.

Nigori (濁り) – “Cloud Saké” is pressed through loose filters allowing some of the solids to remain, typically producing a sweeter drink. Nigori saké should be shaken before serving.

Saké can be enjoyed in glass, ceramic or wooden cups. Special saké masu (枡) made from fragrant cypress or cedar impart a delicate scent and flavor. A majority of the saké produced today is intended to be enjoyed slightly chilled. With few exceptions, saké is not intended to be aged and should be consumed within a year of purchase. Store in a cool, dark place and avoid temperature fluctuations; the refrigerator is ideal. Once opened, finish within 2-3 weeks.