Sake, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, was introduced in Japan more than 2,500 years ago. Sake is often referred to as rice wine, and while the alcohol content of sake is close to wine’s, sake is more like beer in its brewing process. Sake and rice wine share some similarities, but the process, tasting flavors and aromas are different. This traditional Japanese brew is not just a drink; it’s a source of national pride that is deeply ingrained within both ancient and modern Japanese culture and tradition.
Much like beer, brewing sake only requires a few key ingredients. Sake is made with steamed rice, koji, water and yeast in a process known as multiple parallel fermentation, in which a grain is converted from starch to sugar followed by conversion to alcohol.
Sake rice, also known as shuzotekimai, is larger than the rice grains we normally eat. Sake rice contains less fat and protein and has greater absorbency. Koji is a type of mold that plays an important role in the fermentation process by converting starch into glucose followed by yeast converting glucose into alcohol. Yeasts play a crucial role in determining the aromas of Japanese sake. Water accounts for as much as 80% of the sake ingredients, which is why sake breweries are very particular about the quality of water to produce their ideal sake flavors and aromas. The mineral content and quality of the water source has a large effect on both the taste and the brewing process. Naturally, the quality of every ingredient in sake affects the finished product.
There are many types of sake out there, but the majority are divided into two categories. There is “ordinary sake,” which constitutes the bulk of sake production, and “special designation sake,” of which there are eight different varieties. The different designations reference the amount of polishing the rice has gone through and the added percentage of brewer’s alcohol or the absence of such additives. They come from various locations around the country with each capturing subtle taste differences in the final brew. Fine sakes are aged for a year or more helping to add complexity to the flavor, and most variations have an alcohol by volume content of between 15% and 20% alcohol. Sake is also best when consumed less than a year after bottling.
Compared to wine, the aroma of sake is less fragrant and can be represented as caramel-like, nutty or fruity, fading away right after being poured from the bottle. Sake is also much less acidic than wine and doesn’t include tannins, making the taste profile of sake more delicately balanced and milder. Sake has a smooth texture and is a clean-tasting and slightly sweet drink that is suitable to drink with almost any kind of food. The best way to enjoy sake is with traditional Japanese dishes like sashimi, sushi or tempura, but it also pairs well with steak, pasta, cheese and pizza.
The temperature of sake is a matter of personal preference, though the scent and taste of sake can change dramatically depending on the temperature. Higher-quality sake should be served slightly chilled, while cheaper sake should be warmed up. Cooler temperatures allow the full flavor profile of the sake to emerge. However, a cheaper sake with a rougher flavor profile that is sweeter and fruitier benefits from the warmth. The best way to enjoy sake is to serve in a small drinking cup and sip like you would a glass of tea or fine wine.