Kanpai ("empty the glass")!
If you've ever been to a sushi bar, ramen restaurant, or izakaya, then you've probably had sake at some point. This Japanese rice alcohol boasts an incredibly rich history, diverse array of flavor profiles, and it pairs well with just about any Japanese food. The craft that goes into making sake is also a huge point of pride for Japanese distilleries, to the point, there are top-shelf bottles of sake that easily sell for more than $1,000 each. Food presentation, flavor, and authenticity are all important parts of dining in Japan, and alcohol is no different.
But what exactly is sake? Why is good sake such a big deal? How can you even tell which sake is supposed to be "good" or not? Experience sake fans are quick to argue that the drink offers a level of diversity, complexity, and craft that's hard to find in any other form of alcohol. Whether or not you agree is a matter of preference, but the weighty reputation of sake means that sake-facts are a fun thing to keep in your back pocket for the next time you visit the izakaya.
While we can't quite offer the years of sake sampling in Kyoto's Fushimi district that are supposedly required to properly understand the craft, let's break down the brewing process for sake and the factors that influence its quality. When you go on your next sushi date, you'll have everything you need to impress your table with your sake-wisdom.
First and foremost, it's worth noting that "sake" means something very different in non-Japan parts of the world. The word "sake" refers to ALL types of alcoholic drinks in Japan, meaning it also encompasses beer, wines, and shochu, which is a hard liquor commonly made from sweet potatoes or barley. If you order sake in Japan, you'll just get confused looks until you clarify that you want nihonshu, which is the Japanese term for the rice wine that we understand as "sake" in other parts of the world.
As the term used in the USA is "sake," we'll be using it for the rest of the article.
So, what actually is sake? While specific ingredient profiles and techniques can vary dramatically, at its core the drink is a type of wine made from polished rice. It typically clocks between 14%-16% ABV, placing it above most grape-based wines in the buzz it can deliver. While it lacks the crispness or acidity of western grape wines, sake compensates by offering a smooth, refreshing profile that's hard to find in any other form of alcohol.
Sake starts as a harvest of high-quality rice. There are around 70 different varieties of rice used for sake, with the three main varieties being Yamada Nishiki, Miyamanishiki, and Gyohakumangoku. If you want to memorize the pronunciations of those words, they're probably worth extra-credit when you start pouring out sake facts at your next sushi date.
After the rice has been harvested, it gets polished. This is the key to many discussions about "purity" that surrounds the drink. Polishing rice is the process of slowly milling it to remove outer layers and expose its starchy interior. Good sake uses rice that's usually been polished down to 50%-70% of its original volume. Fancier sake usually comes with a higher degree of purity, meaning the grains have been polished down even further than their cheaper counterparts.
From there, the rice is washed, steamed, and cooled before a fraction of the batch is spread out on wooden tables (or mats) and fermented with the addition of koji mold spores. This mold is carefully curated to break rice starches down to fermentable sugar, which is what gives sake its uniquely sweet undertones. After the koji spores have been given time to work their magic, the fermentation begins.
Sake is generally fermented for around three weeks, which is a lot shorter duration than most other wines. During this process, however, it's mixed and tested daily to ensure that it's fermenting properly.
After sake has finished fermenting, it's time to extract the sweet, sweet alcohol from the fermented rice and bottle it! This is traditionally done by placing the rice in large cloth bags and slowly squeezing it out, although many modern breweries opt to filter it out through activated charcoal or siphon hoses. Either way, the final product is bottled (or put in jars) and sent off.
While sake is often celebrated as being an expensive, labor-intensive drink that's only appropriate against a backdrop of expensive sashimi sushi, it's grown increasingly popular as a social drink across the globe. There's a unique richness of flavor in the drink that's still present in cheap bottles of sake, making the fancier options into more of a luxury than a necessity in appreciating this liquor.
Just remember to say "Kanpai!" (a Japanese drinking toast) for that extra dose of authenticity! You'll be a connoisseur of sake, yet!
What are your favorite types of sake? Share in the comments.