By Rick Riozza
It’s been said that if Sake is an acquired taste, then the logicians of the world claim we are divided into two kinds of people: those who have acquired the taste and those yet to acquire it. Or one can say that if you love sake immediately, then you’ve must have grown up drinking it. Although, I must say that I don’t know anyone—even Japanese themselves, who drank it when they were kids.
Anyway—we’re sort of completing our little sake discussion from last column where I wrote on learning to prepare Japanese cuisine back in day. And where I tell of my Japanese cooking instructor always opening class with a nice cold Budweiser—we never drank sake, even for our final meal.
Sake just means alcohol in Japan, whereas the rice-based drink that we know as Sake is in fact called ‘nihonshu’. Japanese alcohol made from rice. It has been made in Japan for over 1,000 years, but in the orm of premium Sake such as ginjo, only around 50 years.
Sake generally measures in at around 15–16% alcohol with just a fifth of the acidity of wine. When I hear folks say that you can substitute sake for a Sauvignon Blanc—I look at them and say, “but I like all the acidity in a Sauv blanc.”
“Okay—okay,” they respond but they say, “What it lacks in wine’s crisp, refreshing acid bite however, it more than makes up for in texture, subtlety of flavor and diversity of style. Cheers!”
Sake is brewed from rice — yes, brewed; sake production is more similar to brewing beer than wine making. When one gets into sake, you’ll learn of all the “polishing”
Quality grades are determined by the polishing ratio. i.e. how much of the rice grain is milled away before the starchy core is ready to be converted by fermentation. Grades and accompanying prices are a guide to quality but, as with wine, it can often pay to find a lower grade, premium example from a top brewery.
Perhaps the most significant contribution to the style and flavour comes from the aims and techniques of the ‘toji’, the master brewer. At the brewery, the rice is washed, steamed and cooled before roughly a fifth of the rice is spread out on wooden tables where the starch is broken down into fermentable sugar by the addition of koji mould spores.
Sake styles to know—the standard rigmarole one can read anywhere:
Daiginjo – Super premium, fragrant Sake with minimum 50% polishing ratio and a very small amount of distilled alcohol added to enhance flavour and aroma. Often best served chilled.
Ginjo – Premium fragrant Sake with minimum 40% polishing ratio, similar to daiginjo.
Honjozo – Light, mildly fragrant premium Sake polished to a minimum of 70% with a small amount of distilled alcohol added to extract aroma and flavour.
Junmai – Sake made with nothing other than rice, water, yeast and koji with no minimum polishing ratio.
So around six years or seven years ago, my son Paolo and I went to a major L.A. hotel where the entire place became a sake convention. Every sake in the world was there with their proud brewmaster alongside, and particularly wonderful, was just about every Japanese dish possible, prepared immediately before serving was there for the taking. Talk about a foodie’s dream!!
And I attended a fair share of quick seminars on the making of sake and the different styles. Paolo didn’t join me in these meetings—he did the right thing and went on to sample as many Japanese dishes he could fit in his foodie belly. For everything I learned in the seminars, I pretty much have forgotten because I’m not an avid sake drinker. Sure—I like it; hot or cold. By itself or with a meal, but all in all, I prefer my acidic Sauv blanc.
Broadly speaking, daiginjo and ginjo, with their beguiling fruity and floral fragrances, tend to be popular as chilled drinks while honjozo and junmai can often offer a broader range of value and versatility, especially when drunk with food, and can be served at a wider range of temperatures.
But here’s the rub: sake is not traditionally paired with sushi in Japan! Yes—Martha, it’s an American thing. But talk about a great maneuver to market and sell a lot of sake!! Beer, wine, and cocktails are the match!
At fancy Japanese restaurants, even though the somm smiles when you order sake with sushi, they’re thinking—liquid rice with more rice on your plate!? But at other eating venues, the staff doesn’t care what you order as long as your order something to drink.
But if you have to: for complex sushi rolls, use a mild sake so you don’t interfere. For spicy sushi, a Junmai is excellent because it is clean and dry and won’t throw off the spice you’re enjoying. Cheers!