What is Sake?
You’ll often hear the word ‘rice wine’ being thrown around since it has a similar alcohol level to wine but sake is in fact made in breweries not wineries and closer to beer in its production process.
Not to be confused with Shochu, the Japanese distilled beverage akin to vodka, Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage like beer and wine which uses yeast to convert sugar to alcohol. It averages around 15% to 17% in alcohol but can ferment up to 21% as sake yeast is more potent than beer and wine yeast. Also, in Japanese, the word sake is actually a generic term meaning ‘alcohol’ and you’re better off sticking to the word nihonshu if you’re ordering the rice based tipple in the land of the rising sun.
The flavour profile of sake is surprisingly wider than most people think including me before it took over my life. It can range from light, crisp and dry to sweet, fruity and floral to full bodied, rich with racy acidity, addictive deliciousness with cereal and rice notes to aged characteristics of nuts, caramel and black sugar with sweet, bitter, sour notes. With around one third the acidity of wine with less tart acidity and astringency it makes up for it with umami, the elusive fifth flavour.
Sake can be categorised into either table sake, known as futsu-shu in Japanese, or premium sake. Table sake can apparently be just as delicious as premium sake but it’s generally made for mass production and can legally have a ton of additives thrown in as well as a large amount of distilled alcohol. Premium sake on the other hand, can only have up to 10% distilled alcohol added for Honjouzo grades. If you want to avoid sake with distilled alcohol altogether, just look for the word Junmai, which is sake simply made with rice, water, yeast and koji.
Another part of what defines premium sake is the rice polishing ratio. Sake’s main ingredients are rice, water, koji and yeast and before the rice is added to the tank to be fermented, it’s milled removing the outer portions. Contrary to popular belief, the more that is polished off i.e. the lower the percentage, does not equate to a certain style or higher quality sake - it’s simply an indication of the style and one choice of many by the brewer based on their desired outcome. You will end up paying more for those highly polished ones especially the ones with the word Daiginjo on it.
As a loose rule of thumb, sake made with highly polished rice (50% or less remaining) tend to have a cleaner and lighter style, and lower polished ones lean towards fuller body with more acidity and structure. A brewer could however potentially make a full-bodied style using highly polished rice and this is happening more and more today.