What on earth is Sake?
It's not just the warm stuff you have with cold beer and sushi...
Sake is a lot more intricate than most people realize. To summarize the topic into a few bullet points is nearly impossible, but the following image has done a pretty good job at illustrating quality level.
"Steamy Kitchen" Guide to sake grades
What's the point of good sake?
I'm sure a lot of the FOODTRIBE community already has their "poison of choice", but Sake is probably one of the most food-friendly beverages on earth. It's dainty enough to pair sushi and many light meals, but its rich, umami forward character makes it a steak-worthy drink as well!
As a culture, the Japanese have the ability to find meaning and significance in every facet of life, and it reflects in the brewing process of their national libation. The higher the level of quality, the more aromatic, silky, and nuanced they get. The point of having good sake is to enjoy something that is worth contemplating and meditating on. When moving above the "Futsu" or "Table Sake" designation, it's all about delicacy and complexity. Heating up these sakes will actually mute the flavors and aromas, and sometimes makes the sake seem more alcoholic than intended. With that said, if you prefer your sake warm, it's not wrong to heat up your bottle in a pot of warm water before serving it; but for goodness sakes, do not microwave your nice sake.
How is it made?
Despite being called "rice wine" by some, making sake is a process more similar brewing beer than fermenting juice or distilling grain. Head brewers are called "Toji", and historically the recipes for their brew are recorded solely in the minds of these masters and passed on verbally. Here's a short informative video on what this process is like.
Filtered or Unfiltered?
"Nigori" is the term you will see on bottles of unfiltered sake. It's technically still filtered, but with a more porous mesh, and the result is strikingly different. It has a fuller texture from the fine pulp, and a more noticeable sweetness in my opinion. I enjoy both variations for their own reasons, but some people I've poured Nigori sake for do not care for the sediment. If you don't like pulp in your OJ, this might not be a style to start with.
Where should I start?
I suggest going with a Junmai or Junmai Ginjo sake, served chilled like a white wine, to get the best idea of premium sake. If not at a sushi restaurant, get a decent cut of fish to fillet thin and treat yourself to some sashimi at home! This simple combo is a super satisfying treat that require no cooking, but keep in mind, sake is just as fantastic with a burger, steak, shellfish, swine, poultry... and food in general.
If you are not into sipping it straight, they make delicious, low alcohol cocktails like a Tokyo Mule, or Japanese Sunrise. A splash can also add a fullness to the profile of other mixed drinks like martinis. If I had to endorse an available, well priced brand who produces a bit of everything, Hiro Sake would be a solid producer to look for.
Hiro Sake (American packaging)
How quickly should it be drunk after opening?
ASAP... well, it's still nice if stored in the fridge for a good week (or two), but after that it does start to go flat. Unpasteurized sake tends to fade more quickly and has the potential to spoil if not stored in a dark, cool environment.
I heard there are health benefits?
That's a tough one to say with confidence, after all, it is a type of alcohol. But it is one of the better ones of you. In the case of Hiro, their sake qualifies for Paleo and Vegan diets, it's gluten-free, super low in calories (~39 per ounce), preservative-free, histamine-free, and low in residual sugar.
If you are a fan of nutty, perfumey white wines, I definitely suggest playing around with some sakes. If you hate the warm stuff at the sushi bar, that does not mean you won't like a chilled Nigori or Junmai Ginjo sake. And lastly, if you enjoyed this surface level assessment of sake, please like, follow, and share!
Thank you for the privilege of your time!
- The Angry Somm