Now that everything but the dogwoods are starting to pop, it’s officially time to celebrate spring. (Clearly, I’m refusing to acknowledge the unwelcome return of winter temperatures). And one of the first celebratory to-dos on my list is to grab a stack of magazines and pour a glass of cool, crisp sake for a light, relaxing elixir.
Some of you may have made it to Tuesday’s Sake Fest in Philly and are perhaps well on your way to experimenting with this refreshing libation. To that, I say, “Cheers!” Whether you’ve forgotten what you learned that night due to excessive “tasting” or simply haven’t a clue where to begin with sake, here’s a hit list to help you on your journey.
Â» Rice wine has more in common with beer than it does with wine. It’s made from a grain, not a fruit, and is brewed rather than merely fermented. Ordinary sake (futso) is typically drunk warm, while ginjo and daiginjo are served chilled.
Â» Sake takes approximately one month to make and is then aged for about six months to smooth out its flavor. Unlike wine, it won’t improve with longer aging and shouldn’t be left idle in your liquor cabinet. After the aging process, the sake is blended and bottled (often, water is added to achieve the proper level of alcohol by volume). Some sake is actually not filtered and contains some of the lees (sediment), making it nigori-zake (cloudy sake)—it’s usually labeled as “pearl” in Western countries.
Â» The different types of sake start with junmai (no alcohol added) and honjozo (alcohol added during the fermentation process). More than 80 percent of the sake made in Japan is honjozo sake. Within these classifications, the different grades are:
â€¢ Junmai-shu: This type is “pure” sake, with no distilled alcohol added as a finishing ingredient. Traditionally, 30 percent of the grain had to be milled away for this designation. However, recently, the laws have changed, and there no longer are any milling requirements—only that no alcohol be added to the product.
â€¢ Honjozo-shu: This style has had at least 30 percent of the grain milled away, and a modicum of alcohol has been added during finishing.
â€¢ Ginjo-shu: This kind of sake has had 40 percent of the grain milled away, and may or may not have alcohol added during finishing. If the bottle is labeled ginjo (premium sake), it indicates that distilled alcohol was added, and if it’s labeled junmai ginjo, it means there was no alcohol added.
â€¢ Daiginjo-shu: This sake style has had 50 percent of the grain milled away, and also may or may not have had alcohol added during finishing. If the bottle’s labeled daiginjo, distilled alcohol was added, and if labeled junmai daiginjo, no alcohol was added.
â€¢ Namazake: This sake is actually a special designation that means it was not pasteurized before bottling. Sake is generally pasteurized to kill any bacteria or mold that may contaminate or ruin the final product in some way. It also serves to deactivate certain enzymes that may change the characteristics of the sake (for better or worse) before it reaches the consumer.
Â» The eight basic tasting parameters to consider when sampling sake are:
Â Â Â â€¢ Fragrance (none to fragrant)
Â Â Â â€¢ Impact (quiet to explosive)
Â Â Â â€¢ Sweetness/Dryness (sweet to dry)
Â Â Â â€¢ Acidity (soft to puckering)
Â Â Â â€¢ Presence (unassuming to full)
Â Â Â â€¢ Complexity (straightforward to complex)
Â Â Â â€¢ Earthiness (delicate to dank)
Â Â Â â€¢ Tail (quickly vanishing to pervasive)
Â» Sake is not limited to Japanese or other Asian cuisine. When it comes to pairing sake and food, this is the most important thing to remember. You can match a sake with a dish that has similar or complementary flavors and characteristics, or play off their contrasts. Very spicy food and strong-flavored dishes aren’t ideal mates for sake, and premium sake that’s complex and layered (like ginjo or daiginjo) generally don’t work well with a protein-rich meal. Milder, gently tart or rice-laced fragrances are compatible with moderately flavored fish and vegetables. Sake with a settled, earthy flavor profile and traces of bitterness, tartness, acidity and extremely well-rounded tones works well with unflavored vegetables.
PLUS: If you’re really smitten with this tantalizing beverage, there’s still time to sign up for the 2009 Stateside Sake Professional Course, declared “The Most Comprehensive Sake Education Program in the World.” It’s held in New York City July 27-29.
For more about sake, check out our June 2008 “In the Drink” column.