is an ancient beverage dating back nearly 3,000 years, but began its refinement about 1,000 years ago.  Today,  saké is gaining fast momentum in the United States and leading bartenders across the country are developing a broad range of sakétinis and variations on classic cocktails, which makes it even more profitable than ever before.  So whether you enjoy saké cold, hot or in a cocktail, there’s plenty of love for it to go around for everyone and plenty of money to be made! 

what is sakÉ:

Saké is an all-natural rice-based fermented alcoholic beverage.  Saké is made like beer and served like wine, with tasting characteristics and alcohol content very similar to wine.  Instead of breaking out in terms of different varietals of grapes such as Chardonnay or Cabernet, saké is broken down in terms of how much each grain of sake brewing rice is milled.  Thus, categories of saké are established by polishing/milling percentages irrespective of the rice varietal. So never mind that there are roughly 70 different saké brewing rice types. Instead, think in terms of how much each grain of rice is removed from the outside husk in the attempt to get at the starchy core inside of each grain of the brewing rice.  It is said, “Great civilizations have always possessed wonderful beverages.  Only an advanced civilization can make people sophisticated and give them a refined sensibility.” Every civilization has created its own wine and culture, expanding and mingling through cultural exchange and developing through time.  For example, the wine that originated in Mesopotamian civilization passed through Sumerians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, and eventually spread to almost all of Europe. It was encouraged by the similar natural environment of Europe, which is good for fruit cultivation.  Meanwhile, Saké-making implements have been discovered in the Yangtze River Valley in China dating back to 4800 B.C.  This was about the time, in theory, that nomadic man settled down to grow rice so he could enjoy saké on a regular basis.  Even though saké was actually first made in China, it was later dramatically improved in Japan. It is now made in many countries around the world such as the United States, Brazil, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan.  In the United States, it’s been said that two out of one hundred glasses of wine are saké.  However, saké sales in the past 10 years have quadrupled, and saké enjoyment in the USA is quickly reaching the  world standard of one out of three glasses of wine.

how sakÉ is made

Understanding saké is not as difficult as one may  think. As with the best wine made from grapes, the finest saké starts with the finest four premium ingredients: the purest water, high quality saké rice, special yeast and koji (an enzyme).  The starches in rice are concentrated in the center of the rice grain.  For premium and super premium saké, the outside of the grain, containing the undesirable fat and protein, is polished away. This exposes the heart of the rice that contains the starch that will be converted to fermentable sugars.  The rice is polished (40% milled away for ginjo saké, 50% for daiginjo), washed and soaked to bring up the water content, and then steamed. Part of the steamed rice is reserved for koji.  Koji is the key to the saké making process. Koji mold is cultivated on a bed of steamed rice and this mold eats its way into the rice.  As this occurs, the enzymes provided break down the rice’s starch molecules into smaller sugar molecules that are food for the yeast.  The process relies on the proper temperature and humidity and is done in a special room much like a sauna to maintain the proper conditions.  This process takes about 2 weeks.  Steamed rice and koji are sent to the yeast starter room and moto (yeast starter) is prepared.  Moto is added over a period of 4 days to the rice, water and koji.  Fermentation occurs over a period of 18-32 days.  The saké is then filtered, aged, pasteurized and bottled.

production of sakÉ:

Step 1 ~ “Rice Milling”:  After proper saké rice (in the case of premium saké, anyway) has been secured, it is milled, or polished, to prepare it for brewing good Saké. The amount of milling greatly influences the taste.   Step 2 ~ “Washing & Soaking”:  Next, the white powder (called nuka) left on the rice after polishing is washed away, as this makes a significant difference in the final quality of the steamed rice. Following that, it is soaked to attain a certain water content deemed optimum for steaming that particular rice. The degree to which the rice has been milled in the previous step determines what its pre-steaming water content should be. The more a rice has been polished, the faster it absorbs water and the shorter the soaking time. Often it is done for as little as a stopwatch-measured minute, sometimes it is done overnight.  Step 3 ~ “Steaming”:  Next the rice is steamed. Note this is different from the way table rice is prepared. It is not mixed with water and brought to a boil; rather, steam is brought up through the bottom of the steaming vat (traditionally called a koshiki) to work its way through the rice. This gives a firmer consistency and slightly harder outside surface and softer center. Generally, a batch of steamed rice is divided up, with some going to have koji mold sprinkled over it, and some going directly to the fermentation vat.  Step 4: “Koji Making (Seigiku)” :  This is the heart of the entire brewing process, really, and could have several chapters, if not books, written about it. Summarizing, koji mold in the form of  a dark, fine powder is sprinkled on steamed rice that has been cooled. It is then taken to a special room within which a higher than average  humidity and temperature are maintained. Over the next 36 to 45 hours, the developing koji is checked, mixed and re-arranged constantly. The final product looks like rice grains with a slight frosting on them, and smells faintly of sweet chestnuts. Koji is used at least four times throughout the process, and is always made fresh and used immediately. Therefore, any one batch goes through the “heart of the process” at least four times.  Step 5 ~ “Starting the Yeast”: A yeast starter, or seed mash of sorts, is first created. This is done by mixing finished koj and plain steamed white rice from the above two steps, water and a concentration of pure yeast cells.  Over the next two weeks, (typically) a concentration of yeast cells that can reach 100 million cells in one teaspoon is developed.  Step 6 ~ “The Mash (Moromi)”:  After  being moved to a larger tank, more rice, more koji and more water are added in three successive stages over four days, roughly doubling the size of the batch each time. This is the main mash, and as it ferments over the next 18 to 32 days, its temperature and other factors are measured and adjusted to create precisely the flavor profile being sought.  Step 7 ~ “Pressing (Joso)”:  When everything is just right (no easy decision!), the saké is pressed. Through one of several methods, the white lees (called kasu) and unfermented solids are pressed away, and the clear saké runs off.  Step 8 ~ “Filtration (Roka)”:  After sitting for a few days to let more solids settle out, the saké is usually charcoal filtered to adjust flavor and color. This is done to different degrees at different breweries, and is goes a long way in dictating the style.  Step 9 ~ “Pasteurization”:  Most sake is then pasteurized once. This is done by heating it quickly by passing it through a pipe immersed in hot water. This process kills off bacteria and deactivates enzymes that would likely adversely affect flavor and color later on. Saké that is not pasteurized is called namazake, and maintains a certain freshness of flavor, although it must be kept refrigerated to protect it.  Step 10 ~ “Ageing”:  Finally, most saké is left to age about six months, rounding out the flavor before shipping.  Before shipping, it is mixed with a bit of pure water to bring the near 20% alcohol down to 16 percent or so, and blended to ensure consistency. Also, it is usually pasteurized a second time at this stage.

categories of sakÉ:

In general, there are classically seven types of saké. Each requires different brewing methods and a different percentage of rice milling (seimaibuai). Naturally, there are other special brewing techniques that are less common, but here we present only the five main types.  Type 1 ~ “JUNMAI”:  Junmai refers to pure saké, pure in the sense that no adjuncts (starches or sugars other than rice added to the fermenting mixture) were used, and that no brewer’s alcohol was added either. Junmai-shu, like Honzojo-shu, must be made with rice with a Seimai Buai (degree of milling) of at least 70%. This is the number you will see on the label (if it is given at all), but what it means is that the rice has been polished so that no more than 70% of the original size of the grains remain. In other words, at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been ground away.Junmai often has a fuller, richer body and a higher-than-average acidity. The nose is often not as prominent as other types of sake, nor are other parameters dependent on whether a sake is a junmai or not. Type 2 ~ “HONJOZO”:  Honjozo is sake wherein a small amount of distilled pure alcohol is added to smooth and lighten the flavor, and to make the sake a bit more fragrant. Honjozo often makes a good candidate for warm sake. Honjozo-shu, like Junmai-shu, must be made with rice with a Seimai Buai (degree of milling) of at least 70%. This is the number you will see on the label (if it is given at all), but what it means is that the rice has been polished so that no more than 70% of the original size of the grains remain. In other words, at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been ground away. Honjozo saké is often a bit lighter than other saké, due to the small amount of grain alcohol added at the end of the ferment. Remember that this is not a bad thing, in moderation, and brewers have been doing it for hundreds of years. It is NOT simply a cost-cutting measure when used within the limits prescribed by honjozo. The flavor is lighter, and magically the fragrance becomes much more prominent.  Type 3 ~ “Ginjo”:  Ginjo sake is much more delicate, and light and complex than the above two. Why? The rice has had the outer 40% of the grains polished away, leaving the inner 60% left. This is opposed to leaving 70% for junnmai and honjozo. On top of that, special yeast, lower fermentation temperatures, and labor-intensive techniques make for fragrant, intricate brews.  Type 4 ~ “Daiginjo”:  Daiginjo is fundamentally speaking, an extension of ginjo. The rice has been milled so that no more than 50% of the original size of the grains remain, although this often goes to 35%, and even more care has been taken to create Saké representative of the pinnacle of the craft.  Type 5 ~ “Namazake”:  Namazake is saké that has not been pasteurized. It should be stored cold, or the flavor and clarity could suffer. Namazake has a fresh, lively touch to the flavor. All types of sake (junmaishu, honjozo, ginjo-shu, and daiginjo-shu) can be namazake, or not. Some ginjo-shu and daiginjo-shu are also junmai-shu. So a junmai ginjo-shu is a ginjo-shu with no added ethyl alcohol. If a ginjo or daiginjo is not labeled junmai, then the added alcohol is limited
to the same small amounts as honjozo.

Pairing with Food:

Understanding saké is not as difficult as one may think.  Saké is all about balance, freshness, aroma and flavor. Today’s leading experts agree that the best vessel to drink saké from is a wine glass, and while there are saké specific stemware, a standard white wine glass does very well.  Really, any wine glass will do.  Now it’s time again to forget what you know.  Lose that expectation that saké is to be enjoyed with sushi or the breadth of Japanese cuisine.  Yes, saké is amazing with traditional dishes, but such thinking is limiting your potential.  Consider pairing saké with Brazilian, French, Cajun & Creole, Italian, Peruvian, BBQ or Mexican.  If you explore, you will find that there is a saké for each and every one of the world’s flavors.  The trick is finding a balance of flavors, acidity and overall compatibility.  Simply keep in mind that lighter flavors in food tend to pair better with lighter saké styles, just as bold saké is best with heartier foods.  The goal is to have flavors compliment or enhance each other.

sakÉ & the bartender:

Purists run in fear of the concept of bartenders mixing drinks with saké, but leading mixologists around the U.S. are developing a broad range of saketinis and classic cocktails, with exotic fruit, spices and spirits.  This new wave of mixing capitalizes on the added body saké brings and adds a new dimension to specialty drinks.  A few simple rules of thumb will help when mixing with saké.  If replacing spirits with saké, one should choose one that is similar. Use a dry and crisp saké in place of vodka or light rum, a medium bodied option to replace gin, a hearty saké for dark rum.  If you want to retain the same level of alcohol in the drink, simply use twice the amount of saké. Using less does reduce alcohol intake and may be a good idea for saketini parties.  However, bartenders should be fearless when developing new cocktails.  There’s more fun in exploring exotic flavors, herbs and combinations.  Use straight saké and try adding spirits.  Remember, the important think is to seek balance and use fresh ingredients always!

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