I’m sure we’ve all experienced that same Oshogatsu tradition of having a shot of sake just as the
New Year arrives. It was probably offered by the patriarch of the family, most likely Ojiisan.
More likely than not, the sake was heated – usually just a few degrees below scalding and served
from that golden anodized teapot. And usually the sake wasn’t purchased specially for
Oshogatsu but rather procured from Mom’s kitchen pantry, her “cooking” sake. And you
naturally swore off swallowing anymore sake until next year’s ritual.
Well, that was the sake of old and if you haven’t tried the cornucopia of sake being sold today, I
encourage you to give sake another chance.
From Rice to Mash to Fragrant Nectar
Sake starts out as a simple grain of rice. Though it is always referred to as rice wine, since it is
grain based, sake is closer in nature to beer. Of course rice beer doesn’t sound that appetizing.
Unlike beer, the conversion of starch to sugar and sugar fermentation to alcohol occurs at the
same time (the malting of starch and fermentation of sugar are two distinct steps in beer
brewing). Therefore I simply refer to sake as sake, not rice wine, not rice beer but simply sake.
Most quality sakes use specific strains of rice; Yamada-Nishiki is the most common though there
are several other strains such as Omachi, Gohyakumangoku, Hatta Nishiki and a small handful of
rice strains employed. The rice grains are further processed to mill off the outer coating. Since
most of the pure starch resides in the interior of each rice grain, the outer coating which
contains starch as well as protein, amino acids and fat is removed. The degree of milling or
seimaibuai determines the final classification of sake produced with junmai sake having at least
30% removed all the way up to daiginjo sake with at least 50% removed.
After milling, the grains are rested then soaked in water before cooking. Some of the cooked rice
is then inoculated with koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae) with more rice and koji mold added over
time (like making a sourdough starter) until the main rice mash is ready for fermentation. The
fermentation takes anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks with high end sake taking longer due to lowered
fermentation temperatures. As different rice strains produce distinct sake, different yeast strains
also produce distinct sake. There currently are about 9 different strains of yeast used in the
fermentation of sake.
The mash or moromi is then pressed to separate the liquid from the solids; sometimes a small
amount of brewer’s alcohol is added to extract flavor components from the solid mash. The sake
is then filtered and pasteurized then aged up to 6 months before water is added to lower the
alcohol to the 15% range (undiluted sake is roughly 20% alcohol). The final product is then
bottled and shipped to waiting distributors, retailers and consumers.
Sake isn’t Just a Single Libation
For starters, there are the three main classes of sake:
Junmai Usually has at least 30% of the outer grain milled off and produces the heartiest
flavored sake that pair with the widest range of foods.
Ginjo Has a least 40% of the outer grain milled off. Usually closer in flavor to Daiginjo than
Daiginjo Has at least 50% of the outer grain milled off (there are Daiginjo with more than
80% milled off). Very fragrant and elegant sake. Hearty foods often overwhelm the sake so pair
with lighter seafood.
There is also Junmai-shu, Junmai-Ginjo and Junmai-Daiginjo which indicates that brewer’s
alcohol was not added after fermentation. However it doesn’t mean that these are better
products since the brewer’s alcohol can enhance the flavor and aroma of the finished sake. The
additional alcohol is also limited to 116 liters per 1000 kilograms of rice which translates to less
than 1 tablespoon per bottle.
Namazake Unpasteurized sake that must be refrigerated with a shorter shelf life.
Genshu Undiluted sake so these run in the 18 to 20% alcohol range.
Koshu Aged sake. Most sake doesn’t age like traditional wine but koshu is aged like wine
and has a rich, almost port-like flavor. Good with certain cheeses.
Shiboritate “Fresh” sake that doesn’t undergo the usual 6 month aging process.
Most sake also have a Sake Meter Value or SMV listed on the label. This number is a reference for
that sake’s relative dryness or sweetness. Scientifically speaking, it is the inverse of the specific
gravity of the sake minus one multiplied by 1443. Practically speaking, an SMV of +3 is neutral
sake. Any value less than +3 gets progressively sweeter and any value greater than +3 gets
There are 2 basic sake accoutrements, the serving vessel and the drinking vessel. Since most
quality sake needs to be served chilled, you can simply serve it straight from the bottle as you
would a fine Champagne or Chardonnay. It also makes it easier for guests to remember what the
label looks like if they want to purchase it at a later date (labels are easier to remember than
looking for Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri). If you want a little bling to your serving vessel, there
are sake carafes that allow you to keep the sake cold via ice inserts built into the carafe. For sake
that’s better served warm, Zojirushi did make an electric sake warmer specifically just for sake
but I’m not sure if it’s sold anymore. I purchased one years ago but hardly use it since it’s a bear
to clean (it can’t be immersed in water).
As far as drinking vessels go, the traditional is the sake masu. Usually made of hinoki or sugi
wood, these original rice measuring cups give that authentic feel to sake sipping but once again,
since most quality sake is served chilled, glass choko are the most fashionable.
What I’m Drinking and Serving
For starters I’ve progressed past that who-knows-how-old bottle of sake in the kitchen pantry
to making my own o-toso or medicinal sake. The local Japanese markets here sell packets of
dried herbs/spices for o-toso. It’s basically peppers with a few herbs housed in a tea bag. I simply
purchase a bottle of regular sake sold at any supermarket, pour an ounce or so out then slide the
bag of o-toso herbs into the sake bottle and let it infuse for a couple of days. The herbs impart
a cinnamon-like sweetness to the sake not unlike mulled cider. I serve this to all my guests (in
their own take home choko) at midnight in hopes of warding off any potential illness over the
I also have a bottle of chilled daiginjo sake to serve with any sashimi dish. Of course, my sake
consumption isn’t limited just to January 1st. I also keep a bottle of sake in the refrigerator
throughout the year to pair with sushi or sashimi (never know when those cravings will hit).
Hopefully you’ll follow suit and revisit sake as a regular food accompaniment over the New Year
From the Gochiso Gourmet and his ohana to you and yours, may 2009 bring peace, health and
happiness to all. Shinmen Omedetou Akemashite Gozaimasu.
Sake to ring in the New Year