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Sake: The Other Clear Alcohol

April 7, 2010

By Monsieur Anton

Sake has been around since 4800 B.C., so why is it not more popular in the United States?  There are probably many reasons that may include cultural bias, lack of knowledge, and of course lack of marketing, but I have another theory.  Hot sake in sushi restaurants.

The stuff is terrible.   I’m not talking about a quality sake warmed properly, although the vast majority of premium (read; good) are served chilled, there are some sakes that can be drank warm, but not hot.  Remember, as James Bond said, sake should never be above body temperature.  The offensive sake I speak about here is the nasty variety served out of a box and dispensed by a machine.  This swill is awful, and sadly is the first and often only experience people have with this otherwise noble beverage.  In most cases when I give somebody a taste of a premium chilled sake it is a revelation to them. Their face lights up and I know I’ve got them. They are now sake people ready to explore the vast world of this mysterious beverage from the Far East.

People tend to be intimidated by sake.  They know nothing about it, and the names make French wines seem easy to pronounce, but once you start drinking it, sake is just like any other drink, the more you learn about it, the more you enjoy it.  A little background and you’ll be navigating sake lists like a pro.  Don’t worry; I’m not going to go into the science of brewing sake (at least not much).  I don’t expect people to go out and home brew sake, just empower them with knowledge, and that brings me to my first point.  Sake is often referred to as “rice wine,” and while that is a practical description because you drink it like wine, it is actually brewed much like beer is.

Sake is made with rice, water, yeast and koji.  Koji is steamed rice that has aspergillus spores added to it (sounds tasty, right?).  The koji then is able break down the glucose in the rice to create alcohol.  The rice and koji are added to the yeast and water and allowed to ferment for about 18-32 days.  It is then filtered and pasteurized.  Water is again added to bring the alcohol content to around 15%.  The sake is then aged anywhere from 6 months to 1½  years.

Much of the quality and characteristics of the sake comes from the amount of polishing the rice gets.  When the outer layers of the rice are removed, so are the undesirable starches and impurities.  The greater the milling rate means that the brewer is using more of just the “pearl” of the rice, resulting in a more nuanced, higher quality brew.  Sake made from rice that is milled to no more than 60% of its original size considered to be ginjo sake.  When the rice is milled to at least 50%, you have a diaginjo, and of course an even more delicate, high end sake.

Sake made with only the four core ingredients is classified as Junmai. The rice used in Junmai sakes must be milled down to no more than 70% of its original size.  Junmai sakes tend to be assertive and sometimes rustic sakes that match up with food very well.  When a sake meets this criteria, and the rice is milled to a ginjo grade you have a junmai ginjo which tends to be a layered, complex and fragrant; when milled to a daiginjo grade, the sake in your glass is a junmai diaginjo. Junmai diaginjos are generally light and fruity and extremely complex.  They are normally the sakes the brewer puts up as their best.  A grand cru of sakes so to speak.

When a small amount of brewer’s alcohol is added to a junmai sake, it now becomes a honjozo. This makes the sake more full-bodied and a good candidate for those who are intent on warming their sake.  It is taxed at a higher rate making its exporting to the United States a bit less prevalent.  It is also illegal to make in the US.

When the sake is not totally filtered you have nigori sake.   These milky sakes, with some exceptions, tend to be rather sweet.  Most all are thick and milky with a strong coconut milk quality.

Enough with the science of sake.  You want to taste the fine brew, and I can’t blame you.  When tasting sake, do it in much the same way you would taste wine.  First stick your nose in the glass.  Don’t be shy.  Get that shnozz deep in there and take a good whiff. The bouquet is a great preview of things to come.  Now take a sip and let it flow over your tongue allowing it cover all the areas of your taste buds. Is the   acidity balanced, or overwhelming?  Pay attention to the flavor components.  Is it bitter or tart, sweet or dry?

The dryness of sake is measured in the nihonshu-do, or as us New Worlders call it the SMV or Sake Meter Value.  The higher the plus number the SMV, the drier the sake will be.  The lower the negative number, the sweeter it will be.  Logic would tell you that 0 would be neutral sake, but as modern consumers tend to like drier beverages, sake producers have adjusted.  In reality a SMV of +2 should be considered the benchmark.

Enough already, it’s time to imbibe!  There are so many sakes to choose from.  Where does one start?  Lucky for you, I’ve drunk a lot of sake in my time, and I have some sakes to recommend. Some I do enjoy:

Wakatake “Demon Slayer” Diaginjo   SMV 0 The $45 or so this brew will set you back is money well spent.  Very well balanced with a hint of white pepper and a slightly sweet finish.  This a very well made sake.

Dassai No. 50 Junmai Ginjo   SMV +4 The rice in Dassai No. 50 is actually milled to diaginjo levels and it shows.  Why is it not classified as a diaginjo?  Who knows, and who cares?  It’s probably due to tax reasons.  I would say to just enjoy this well rounded sake made from the best Yamadanishiki rice.

Shoin Junmai Ginjo   SMV +3 The somewhat floral fragrance gives way to a balanced easy to drink sake with elements of granny smith apple.  This is an excellent food sake.

Ai San San Junmai Ginjo  SMV +3 Another balanced sake with crisp, clean flavors.  It runs toward the light side with a fine taste of steamed rice.  Very complex and satisfying.

Daischichi Kimoto Honjozo    SMV +1 A rich full bodied sake made using the painstaking traditional kimoto method.  This process results in an earthy quality with root vegetable notes.  A unique and food friendly sake.

Rihaku Dreamy Clouds Nigori   +3 I generally don’t like nigori or unfiltered sakes.  As a rule they tend to be cloyingly sweet with SMV’s of -20 or more.  Not this one.  Dreamy Clouds has a pleasing acidity, and a rich rice taste that is highlighted by a slightly fruity nuttiness.   There is a fun story behind this sake.  Rihaku was the name the Japanese gave to 8th century Chinese poet Li Po.  It is said of Li Po that he could not write his poetry until drunk on sake or wine.  My kind of artist!

This is just a start.  The only way to learn about, and appreciate sake is to get out there and drink some.  Find a good sake bar, or retailer and sample some sakes.  Once you get an idea of what you like, you might want to try an online retailer to widen your options.

I often tell people not to stress when it comes to the often confusing world of wine tasting.  After all, it is just grape juice.  The same can be said for sake.  It’s just steamed rice.  Go out and try some.  Kampai!

Chef Gusteau says:  I love Sake!!  I will also be the first to admit, that Anton has taught me everything I know about sake…and he knows A LOT about sake!  I like to tell people who have never tried this type of sake (I will not try warm sake) to think about the smoothest vodka they ever tasted…and this is better!  The subtleties of sake are very similar to wine, and as such, the food pairing is just as much fun.

Obviously, whenever you have sushi, sake is a great accompaniment.  For every course before dessert, I recommend the drier sakes, +3 or more.  Although many people enjoy beers like Kirin Ichiban or Sapporo with sushi and Japanese cuisine, I recommend trying pairing this food with sake instead, which tends to compliment the food more than beer tends to.  You will be surprised with the new flavors you discover (and the fact that sake is typically 15% alcohol compared to beer’s 3-5%, you’ll feel much better, too!).  For dessert, a nigori or sweeter sakes are quite enjoyable as well.  As far as non-sushi types of food, the pairing can be a bit more challenging.  Italian food, such as, tends to be acidic in nature, and not generally conducive to sake pairing.  Chinese and Thai foods, with their spiciness and rich flavors match well with drier sakes.  French cuisine…sorry, go with Bordeaux style red wines, not sake.  Sorry Anton, I can’t even make that work.

Ok, now the fun part…cooking with sake!  Now, I don’t recommend using a $50 bottle of sake to cook with, but you certainly shouldn’t cook with anything you wouldn’t enjoy drinking.  Sake and Miso paste are the best combinations to make a great marinade for most white fleshed fish.  Usually a 2-1 ratio of sake and miso paste will get you great results (a bit of canola oil adjusts the consistency nicely).  When you do marinate fish with this mixture, you get two great benefits.  The first is clearly flavor.  The marinade adds a roasted sweetness to the fish…heavenly.  Next benefit is for “cheaters” who have trouble with overcooking fish.  Now I am sure that NONE of our At The Pass readers have this problem, but for those non-fans that do, you can tell them that while baking fish with a sake and miso marinade at 375 degrees, if they watch closely they will see that the marinade caramelizes just as the fish is done cooking.  If you see a nice toasted brown color on the fish, it’s done.  No need for “test cuts” or opening the oven every 5 minutest to check for doneness…not that anyone we know does that, right?  Oh, and the other benefit of cooking with sake…it’s unlikely that you’ll need much to marinate the fish…so drink up the rest to ensure that you get as “toasted” as the fish!  Enjoy…and be sure to send ALL of you sake related questions to Anton…he is without question an authority on the subject!

Anton says:  While I have total respect for Gusteau’s culinary expertise there is one small point that I will have to differ with him on.  Sake is an incredibly food friendly beverage, and that goes beyond sushi.  Canton native Beau Timpken, the owner of True Sake, the nation’s only dedicated sake retailer in San Francisco has put this to the test.  In his newsletter for his fine website he has paired sake successfully with all manner of cuisine including French and Italian.  He has even gone so far as to sneak bottles of sake into McDonald’s!  While I’m not ready to eschew Bordeaux for sake with fine French food, a somewhat dry, nuanced sake with a well balanced acidity like Chiyomusubi Daiginjo would go nicely with French fare.  I would also never hesitate to pair sake with seafood of any cuisine.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2010 9:12 pm

    What a fantastic sake primer. I do love the Dreamy Clouds Nigori. Who carries a good assortment of sakes in Cleveland?

    Thanks for the helpful sake/fish baking tip.

    • April 7, 2010 10:19 pm

      Thanks for the comments Heidi.

      For far and away the best sake selection in Cleveland, you have to go to SASA on Shaker Square. You can drink them there, or buy them at retail to go.


  2. April 7, 2010 10:19 pm

    I agree, what a nice primer to sake. I had no idea that there was a SMV indicator to indicate how sweet or dry the sake is.

  3. April 8, 2010 1:57 pm

    We represent a few of the sakes mentioned in your article and appreciate the good vibes and accurate profile of this often misunderstood beverage.

    And I must agree – SASA Matsu is THE place for sake in Cleveland.


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