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Demystifying Sake, the Perfect Beverage for All Occasions

An introduction to brewed rice wine

Tim Sullivan

Understanding sake isn’t as daunting as one might think. Knowing the brewed beverage’s basics plus a few key words will ensure you’re no longer blindly picking bottes off a list and hoping for the best.

As someone who has, over the last 10 years, made the transition from neophyte to Certified Sake Sommelier, here’s a digestible guide guaranteed to up your sake game. And don’t forget, sake at its core is about enjoyment, sharing with friends and having a good time. Taste as many styles as you can, drink what you love and trust your own palate.

What is sake?

Sake, in its most basic definition, is an alcohol that is made from fermented rice. The key word here is "fermented." Sake uses a natural fermentation brewing process and is not a distilled high alcohol beverage like a vodka. Sake usually clocks in at around 15 to 16 percent alcohol. Spirts are usually around 40 percent, whereas grape wine can be anywhere from 11 to 15 percent. Sometimes even a bit higher or lower.

What’s sake brewed from?

Sake is brewed from four basic ingredients: rice, water, koji and yeast.

Water: After the brewing process, sake, as a finished product, is about 80 percent water. So, the type of water used in brewing is one of the major factors that influences the sake's impact and impression. In general, more mineral-rich hard water tends to produce more robust, rich sakes, while lower minerality soft water produces generally a lighter and drier style of sake

Koji: Mold. Yes, mold is used in brewing sake. But, it is this friendly mold that makes the sake magic happen. Sake producers grow koji mold spores onto some of the sake rice, and during the brewing process this moldy rice gives off enzymes that breaks the rice starch down into sugars that can then be fermented into alcohol. Very technically, the two step process involves the digestive enzyme a-amylase and then the diastatic enzyme glucoamylase. These two enzymes convert starch to sugar.

Yeast: Similar to wine and beer, yeast’s role in all of this is to eat the sugars in the fermentation mash and give off alcohol and CO2. Yeast is also responsible for a lot of the aromatic compounds you will find in sake.

Rice: The most important thing to know about sake rice is that it is different from eating rice. The many varieties of sake rice have a larger concentration of starch in the center of the grain. This is an important point as it allows brewers to mill or polish the rice down to different levels, removing the fats and proteins found in the outer layers of each grain, isolating more and more pure starch.

What are the sake classifications?

To make sense of the sake classification system, you need to understand a bit about sake ingredients and about sake rice milling. All sakes you will ever drink fall into one of main two categories. The pure rice style (called "junmai" in Japanese) or the alcohol-added style (called "aruten" in Japanese). Pure rice sakes are sakes that are made with only rice, water, yeast and koji, with no additives of any kind. Alcohol-added sakes use the same ingredients as pure rice sakes, but they add a small amount of distilled brewers alcohol (a neutral distilled alcohol) to the mash. This alcohol is added to influence the body, aroma and viscosity of the sake. When it comes to milling rice, the more the sake rice is polished down, the more premium and expensive the sake will tend to be. Three distinct milling rate minimums have been set up to differentiate the classification levels of sake.

The top grade of premium sake: Sake rice that is milled to at least 50 percent or less remaining is called Daiginjo for the alcohol-added style and Junmai Daiginjo for the pure rice style.

The middle grade of premium sake: Sake rice that is milled to at least 60 percent or less remaining is called Ginjo for the alcohol-added style and Junmai Ginjo for the pure rice style.

Sake that is milled down to at least 70% or less remaining is called Honjozo for the alcohol-added style. Sake that is the pure rice style can be called Junmai regardless of the rice milling rate with no required minimums.

Table sake: Sake that is the least milled, that is 71 percent or more remaining, and is the alcohol-added style is known as Futsushu or "regular sake." This is less expensive table sake, and it is not widely available in the U.S.

As a general rule of thumb, the more the rice is milled or polished down, the more smooth, elegant and refined the sake. That’s when price goes up. The rice that is less polished will yields a sake that is bolder, full bodied and robust. Alcohol-added style premium sakes generally produce a silkier texture and more intense aromas, while the pure rice-style sakes are more straightforward, less complex and tend toward to be crisp and dry.

Drinking hot sake versus cold sake

If there is one sake question that comes up more than any other, it is about the eternal debate of hot sake versus cold sake. My simple recommendation is this: Sakes that are more elegant, nuanced and aromatic are best served slightly chilled to enhance these qualities. Sakes that tend to be dry, robust, earthy and less aromatic generally take well to a gentle warming. Warm sake and chilled sake can be equally delicious. One is not better than the other. It really comes down to personal preference. And last but not least, beware of over-chilling or over-heating sakes as extreme temperature suppresses the drink's flavor.