Sake (pronounced sa-keh) is also commonly referred to as Japanese rice wine. It is an alcoholic drink that is made by processing and fermenting polished rice.
This polishing process removes the bran on the outside of the rice. This is done as the bran contains lots of fat, proteins, and vitamins which can affect the sake’s flavor.
The manufacturing process is more similar to beer than wine. Sake rice is milled and polished before being crushed. A fungus is then added to assist the conversion from starch to sugar, which then ferments due to the presence of yeast.
The starches in the rice are converted into sugars. These then ferment and change to alcohol. In beer, this happens in 2 stages, whereas in sake they happen simultaneously. Sake has an alcohol content of between 15 and 20% ABV.
Types of Sake
There are many different types of sake, all with different flavors and odors. You should try a variety of sakes, to see which is your preferred tipple. The 2 main categories are fresh and matured sake (or koshu). The matured version is stronger than the fresh and can be an acquired taste.
You are likely to see an SMV (Sake Meter Value) or Nihonshu-do on the label of the sake. This indicates the level of sugar and acid in the bottle, similar to wine. An SMV of +5 will likely be dry, whereas -2 would be significantly sweeter.
Sake is a drink with a lot of cultural significance, particularly in Japan. It should never be drunk as a shot, as this is seen as a sign of disrespect.
It is poured from porcelain flasks known as tokkuri. It is then served individually in a small ceramic cup known as a choko or sakazuki.
Sake has been designed as a sipping drink that you should take your time to enjoy. Don’t rush the process, just slow down and take the time to enjoy the experience.
Chilled sake is often served in wine glasses. For special occasions, a cup that resembles a saucer is used. Sometimes, sake is served in a masu - a small box traditionally used to measure dry rice.
The cup is placed inside this and then the masu is placed on the cup that resembles a saucer. The sake is poured so that it fills both containers to represent the host’s generosity.
If you are drinking sake with others, you should never pour your own. Slightly hold out your cup to indicate you wish for a refill. When drinking, smell and then take a small sip. Hold the alcohol in your mouth for a second or two before swallowing.
When you are pouring sake, you should always hold the tokkuri with 2 hands. This is generally seen as a marker of respect and should always be done when pouring for a superior. If pouring for a junior, you may only need to use one hand, placing the other on your pouring arm.
If you are having sake poured from a superior, hold your cup with 2 hands, if from a junior, one. This is particularly important for business dealings.
Sake is traditionally served slightly warmed, however, this depends greatly on your own personal preference. During the winter you are more likely to find warm sake, and during the summer it may be chilled.
If you have very high-quality sake this should not be heated. This is because the heat can cause the flavors to deteriorate.
To heat sake, place the tokkuri in a large pan of boiling water. Allow it to warm to about 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit before serving.
You would be forgiven for assuming that sake should be consumed with sushi, as this is commonly where it is found in the Western world.
In actuality, it is not recommended that you eat sushi with sake. This is because you are then consuming 2 different types of rice.
It is remarkably well-suited to spicy food pairings, as well as meats and fish. It is commonly served alongside tapas-style dishes known as izakaya or with your appetizers.
Sake is commonly drunk at formal and important occasions. An example of this is at weddings, where sake ceremonies are often conducted to symbolize the union of 2 families.
Sake should be kept vertical at all times, and should never lie on its side as in a wine rack.
You should store sake in a cool, dark, and dry place such as the refrigerator. You should never store sake in the path of direct sunlight as this can spoil the flavor.
If you open a bottle, it is generally regarded as a good idea to finish it rather than storing it. An opened bottle of sake should keep for about 4-6 weeks.