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Want to know a little more about Moto’s favourite drink?
It’s a complex and rewarding subject, but if you’re short on time and want to get to enjoying some, here’s a quick Sake 101.
The word “sake” in Japanese actually means “alcoholic drink”, so if you want to feel like a native, ask us for a nihonshu (日本酒).
There are dozens of types of nihonshu but the two main factors that determine the categories are how much the grains of rice have been polished, or milled down, and whether the sake has had distilled alcohol added to it or not. The main categories include:
Sake made with grains polished down to at least 60% of their original size, this is a premium classification and is made using special techniques and yeast strains. Very pure and delicate flavours are produced (the most common being fruity flavours of green apple and fresh banana), with a light body and low acidity.
The serious stuff. This is super-premium sake made with rice polished down to 50% of its original size or more, requiring great precision, time and care during the brewing process. Think of them as a natural progression from the ginjo, light and floral, usually best to be served chilled.
By contrast to ginjo or daiginjo, grains of rice are polished more coarsely with only 70% being the required rice polishing ratio. A small amount of distilled alcohol is added to smooth out the flavour and bouquet. Can be served at a variety of temperatures from cold to hot and when compared to ginjo or daiginjo, usually is less aromatic and more of a light and crisp beverage.
This grade of sake does not require a fixed minimum polishing ratio but what is unique is that high-strength distilled alcohol, which is added to all other categories of sake, is not added here. They tend to be more full-bodied and complex styles of sake with high acidity and umami. Junmai can appear on its own or as junmai ginjo (純米吟醸) or junmai daiginjo (純米大吟醸), signifying highly polished rice with no distilled alcohol added. Can be served at a variety of temperatures, usually starting from room temperature and higher.
Table sake, this is usually mass-produced with machines to keep costs low and there are fewer legal restrictions as to the necessary ingredients or rice polishing ratios. This does not mean there is anything wrong with table sake but in terms of flavour profile, you will most likely find more junmai or honjozo styles.
So that’s it, a basic guide to the styles you can expect from the main sake classifications. Next up: trying them all!
When you do, know that there is no “correct” way of enjoying nihonshu!
Sake is Japan’s national drink, made all across the country to fit each locality’s climate and food culture. From north to south, Japan’s topography is blessed with varied mountain and coastal landscapes and at certain times of the year, the difference in temperatures at locations on either end of the country can be almost 50°C! For this reason, each brand of sake has its own personality to fit its own microclimate and henceforth, its very unique way to be appreciated.
For example, sake can be enjoyed at a wide range of temperatures. Your decision will come down to personal preference or the setting in which you are having sake – maybe it is hot outside so you are craving a cool and refreshing tipple, or perhaps you are eating an intensely flavoured and heavy-textured dish so you decide to heat up your sake. The one caveat to note is that by warming sake, it becomes more intense, full-bodied and acidic. Therefore, while most sake can be enjoyed warm or hot, ginjo and daiginjo styles are exceptions as they lose their delicate aromas and flavours when heated.
Speaking of food pairings, there is a whole world to discover with sake at hand. Compared to sake, wines are higher in acidity and red wine has bitter tannins. Beers have bitter flavours from hops. Spirits are high in alcohol. Sake on the other hand is low in acidity and slightly sweet, with little or no bitterness or astringency, and therefore it can be consumed with many different dishes and cuisines. Instead of automatically resorting to Japanese cuisine when having sake, possibly try French, as all its umami-rich cheeses will go beautifully with umami-rich sake. Or perhaps Italian, as more purer styles of sake will not clash with highly acidic dishes using tomato sauces. Have fun experimenting without breaking a sweat, as it is often said in Japan, “sake does not fight with food.”