Unless you’re a connoisseur of international beverages, Sake can be a little bit of a mystery. What is it exactly? How’s it made? What does it taste like? Do you drink it hot or cold? What kinds are there? Before the anxiety of what to order at your next sushi dinner gets to you, let us break it down for you.
What Is It?
Sake is a Japanese wine made from fermented rice. Less acidic than your average wine, sake is more balanced in its flavor (although exact flavor profiles will differ according to the type of sake you’re drinking – we’ll get to that later). Sake is in a class all its own when flavor is concerned, so regardless of beverage predilections, you may find something to love about Japan’s drink of choice.
While potentially endless in their difference, there are several fundamental Sake variations you are bound to encounter during your next Japanese dining experience. An important thing to note about these is that their points of variation tend to revolve around the degree to which the rice or grains are polished before fermentation, the method in which they’re brewed, additives, degree of filtration, and more.
Junmai & Honjozo
Considered by many to be on the higher end of the sake spectrum, these brews use rice that has been polished to at least 70%. While Junmai is said to be rich and intense in flavor, Honjozo is comparably lighter and easier to drink thanks to the addition of distilled brewer’s alcohol which adds a smoothness to the drink. Honjozo is typically best served chilled or warm, whatever you prefer. Whereas Junmai, given its rich, full flavor, is typically served warm or at room temperature.
Shiboritate, Nama-zake and Nigori
Unlike other sake variations that undergo a process of maturation, Shiboritate sake goes immediately to the market after its production, and as a result is more unadulterated in its flavor and carries a sweet fruitiness that isn’t dissimilar to white wine. Nama-zake is unique given it is unpasteurized but similar to other sakes in this class due to its inherent sweetness and fresh taste. Nigori, is a coarsely filtered variation of sake that is milky in color and – given the degree of filtration – will vary in texture from silky smooth to creamy. Like its Shiboritate and Nama-zake colleagues, Nigori sake also embodies a sweetness that is creamier in flavor than fruity and light.
Ginjo & Daiginjo
Premium sakes with more complex brewing methods, Ginjo and Daiginjo sakes are light, each with their own complex set of flavors and aromas. Ginjo sake is made from rice that has had 40% polished off, along with a special yeast to aid in the fermentation process. Daiginjo sake, is made from rice that has had 50% of it polished and thus requires a very precise and methodical brewing method (which could explain why it’s pricier compared to other variations on this list). Both variations of this high end sake are usually served chilled, so you can get the most out of their hybrid of flavors.
Hot or Cold?
Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a definitive rule when it comes to the temperature at which you enjoy your sake. You may have been surprised to notice that few of the sake types we just covered are typically enjoyed warm. Which ultimately goes to show that you can enjoy sake in the way that is more enjoyable for you. If you’re truly at a loss, there’s no harm in asking your server for their recommendation. They’re well versed in the menu after all, so they’ll be able to steer you in the right direction as far as serving methods are concerned.
You’ve made it through your introductory lesson to all things Sake. When a dinner companion looks bewildered at the sake selection, you will be equipped with the knowledge to help them navigate the choices. You now know the difference between Nigori, Ginjo, Shiboritate, and Junmai sakes, and are prepared to explain them at length to your dining partners. You are now ready to (responsibly) enjoy sake in whatever way that suits your taste buds. Kanpai! (Cheers!)