Sake: This Japanese libation is more complex than piping-hot shots

Say “sake” and the image many people conjure will likely be of a piping-hot drink served in a ceramic shot glass not much bigger than a thimble. But that’s only the beginning. What many people don’t realize is that this spirit boasts a degree of complexity comparable to that of wine; it just lacks wine’s familiarity.

Even classifying what type of beverage sake is can be tricky. Like wine, it’s fermented and carries, on average, between 15 and 20 percent alcohol. But while wine is derived from fruit, sake is a product of a grain, rice. In that way “it’s more closely related to beer,” said Phil Reed, general manager of Zoë Pan-Asian Café in the Central West End. “It’s not beer either, because it has a clarity and obviously it isn’t carbonated. But the way it’s made more closely follows beer than it does wine.”

Like beer, sake requires a step more than wine in its fermentation. Although grapes already contain the sugars necessary for alcohol production, rice does not, so the starch molecules within each grain must be broken down into sugars. For beer, that step involves malting barley. But for sake it means cultivating a very specific strain of mold in the rice grains called koji, which is then added to the brewing rice and mixed with water.

At its purest, that’s all sake is: rice, water, yeast and koji. Sake with only those ingredients and no additives is called junmai. According to Reed, junmai translates to “pure and natural,” a label that admittedly sounds like a meaningless marketing slogan; in the United States “when you see ‘pure and natural’ on a bottle of beer, it doesn’t mean anything,” Reed said. “It does mean something in Japan.”

As with the grapes used in winemaking, there are a number of rice types suitable for brewing. “There are about 60 that are in play, and those are very much like grape varietals,” said Beau Timken, owner of True Sake in San Francisco, the nation’s only store devoted entirely to sake. “But where wine categorizes by those varietals, sake does not. Sake categorizes by how much you mill the rice.”

The process of milling, or polishing, the rice strips away the outer shell of each grain. Depending on how much of that shell is removed, premium sake falls into one of three classes: junmai (if the sake is pure and each grain is milled to 70 percent of its original size), junmai ginjo (if milled to a higher degree so that just 60 percent of the grain remains) or junmai daiginjo (if milled until only 50 percent of the grain is left intact).

The more the rice is milled, the better the final product. “The best part of the rice is the very center of the rice grain,” said Reed. That’s where all the starch is concentrated, while the shell is where you’ll find the fats, proteins, minerals and amino acids, which, though perhaps good for you, don’t make for quality sake.

Of course, sake isn’t as simple as three classes, and further classifications and subcategories abound. A sake that isn’t up to the standards of the three premium grades is termed futsu, or run-of-the-mill sake roughly equivalent to table wine. Honjozo is sake with extra alcohol added. Genshu is sake that does not use added water to dilute the naturally occurring alcohol. Nama is unpasteurized sake, and nigori is unfiltered sake, which, with its sediments and residual rice particles, has a cloudy, milky appearance and a sweeter taste than filtered sake.

With so many varieties of sake out there – far too many to get a handle on through reading alone – the best way to familiarize yourself with the complexity is simply by tasting. Reed, along with Hans Zarins, a bartender at Red Moon in downtown St. Louis, recommended that sake novices order a flight when they come into the restaurant so they can sample four or more varieties at once.

The same goes for an at-home tasting experience. “If somebody’s going to try this at home, I would recommend that they try to get as many sakes as possible and not just get one or two and assume that that covers the whole range of sake any more than white Zinfandel covers the entire range of wine,” Reed said.

“If you want to see the boundaries of sake then I’d definitely recommend doing a junmai, a ginjo and a daiginjo,” said
Timken. Beyond that, feel free to mix things up a bit. Timken always closes a tasting with what he calls a “flyer,” a wildcard choice that could be a nigori, an aged sake called koshu, a dessert sake, a sparkling sake or one of each – anything goes, really.

“I would try to start out with some premium sakes rather than getting the cheapest sakes you can get,” Reed said. “If you get the cheapest sakes you can get, you’re almost guaranteed that the enthusiasm level will be way down.”

“The higher you go with sake, the more expensive it is, of course, but there’s a reason for it,” agreed Zarins.

Locally, several stores, including The Wine Merchant, The Wine and Cheese Place and Whole Foods Market, stock premium sake, though the selection pales in comparison to the wine varieties on the shelf. Online retailers (Timken’s, among many others) offer an extensive selection ready to ship straight to your door.

If the words junmai, ginjo or daiginjo are printed on the label – and they usually are if the sake is up to that standard, though sometimes you have to search for them – you can be assured you’re getting a quality product. “Now, whether you like that product or not, that’s up to individual taste,” Reed said.

With flavor characteristics such as creamy, flowery, crisp, thick and thin, to name just a few, much of sake tasting is subjective and boils down to personal preference. Fortunately, many manufacturers include descriptions on the label, sometimes even a table outlining the degrees of more measurable characteristics including sweetness, dryness and acidity.

The ideal temperature for sake – cold, chilled, room, warm or hot – is another matter of taste, though manufacturers will often offer suggestions on the label. Zarins said it’s a personal preference but with most premium sakes, restaurant selections included, manufacturers generally recommend that you serve their products chilled.

According to Reed, the lighter, more delicate flavors of premium sake come through better when chilled. Too hot and “you’re just boiling all the alcohol out of it and getting rid of all the flavor,” he said. But some sake – such as honjozos, with the added alcohol, or some cheaper varieties –
take well to warming. “If you have a really rough sake, by warming it you’ll smooth it out,” Reed said.

Drinking vessels are yet another area dependent on individual taste that, like temperature, is worth experimenting with. A sake’s flavor can vary depending on the size and shape of the glass. Zarins often serves sake in martini glasses, but that’s as much for aesthetic appeal as taste. “If you get a $10 drink, you probably don’t want to have a little shot of it,” he said.

Timken prefers white wine glasses to shots, which, he said, focus all the flavor components on a small area of the palate.
“If you want to see the flexibility, the nuance of sake, sometimes little vessels don’t do it justice,” he said. That’s not to say there’s no place for the smaller cups often sold in sake sets. Sample a little bit of each sake in glasses of all shapes and sizes and try to taste the difference.

A sake tasting can be as relaxed or as structured as you like. You can take an academic approach, researching different sake types and studying variations due to rice type or region (the Japanese prefecture where a sake hails from is often listed on the bottle), or you can cover up the bottles altogether and let your taste buds lead the way.

Timken suggested “starting with the bigger flavors, the drier sakes, typically the junmais, and working your way to the lighter sakes, the daiginjos” before finishing with the flyer.

“Now, if you were doing a food pairing, I’d flip that around,” he said, recommending the subtle, nuanced flavor of a daiginjo for appetizers and lighter courses and then a stronger, drier junmai with the main course.

There’s a sake, Timken said, to suit just about any entrée: grilled fish, steak, shellfish and even more unexpected meals such as pizza and spicy Mexican dishes. Sake is by no means bound to Japanese, or even Asian, cuisine. As far as sushi is concerned, it’s time for sake to say, “Thank you for all the exposure, but now it’s time we have to move on,” Timken said.

“Sake is so versatile it can really hit the nooks and crannies sometimes that wine cannot hit, and it has such legs – it has such malleability – that it really can work in many instances where people never thought or dreamed that it would,” Timken said.