I’m a certifiable wine geek, but lately I’ve been exploring the world of saké. And a fascinating world it is.
One of the things I’ve discovered is that in many ways, saké is like wine. Here are some of the essentials you need to know.
1. Saké is not rice wine
It is a fermented rice beverage brewed like beer that drinks more like fine wine.
2. Saké is made of four ingredients
Saké is composed of rice, koji (the natural mold that converts rice starches into sugars), specially selected yeasts, and water.
3. Rice is to saké what grapes are to wine
Just as fine wine starts with better grapes, premium saké begins with the better rice. The type and source of water used also goes a long way in determining its quality.
4. Saké is classified by style
And speaking of rice, the style is largely determined by how much the rice is milled (“polished,” as the industry puts it). In general, the more the rice used in brewing is milled before being used, the higher the grade of saké.
5. The good stuff
The top 25% of saké is considered premium. There are three primary styles of premium saké to look for are Junmai (JOON-mai), Ginjo (GEEN-joe), and Daiginjo (die-GEEN-joe). If you are new to premium saké, I recommend starting with a Ginjo.
6. The not-so-good stuff
About 75% of saké is the futsu-shu, ordinary saké style. It’s made from ordinary table rice, has various additives, and is commonly served heated (to mask the poor quality). There’s a good chance this is mostly what you’ve been drinking at your local Japanese restaurant.
7. Saké is best served chilled in a stemmed wine glass
In order to maximize your appreciation of the aromas and flavors of saké, it should be served chilled in a wine glass — not in tiny square, round cups or shot glasses. While serving saké in such vessels is customary, it is not the best for showcasing premium saké.
8. Saké is more forgiving than wine
Unlike a bottle of wine, which is usually best consumed within a day or two of opening, saké — if it is re-capped quickly after each opening and stored refrigerated — can be enjoyed for a couple of weeks after opening without too much change in flavor
9. Lifestyle choices
Premium saké is free from additives and preservatives — it is also gluten-free and sulfite free. And virtually all is kosher. There are also organic and vegan options. If buying domestic is important to you, saké is also made here in the U.S.!
There are lots of styles of saké from dry to sweet, and from light to full-bodied. There’s even sparkling saké!
11. How to taste
All too often, saké is consumed without giving it much thought. However, as with wine, there is a lot going on if you pay attention. With that in mind, saké tasting is like wine tasting. Use the 5-S method — See (should be relatively clear, unless it’s Nigori, a cloudy style of saké), Swirl (it releases aromas), Smell (look for floral, tropical or earthy aromas), Sip (pay attention to the flavors and texture), and Savor. I also recommend experimenting with the serving temperature. Find a saké you enjoy and pour a glass right out of the fridge. Then take a sip every five minutes and note changes in taste as the saké slowly warms to room temperature.
12. Saké is enjoyable with a variety of foods beyond Japanese
In most folks mind, saké goes well with Japanese food. And that’s it. In actuality, saké makes a fine accompaniment to many different cuisines. Saké can be enjoyed with Thai curries, Indonesian satay, mushroom risotto, pork tenderloin, barbecued ribs or even pizza. For a dessert pairing, try a sweet Nigori — a cloudy saké with a flourless chocolate cake
Saké can be a great addition to your adult beverage repertoire. And the best way to make yourself more comfortable with saké is to taste, taste, and taste some more!
What’s been your experience with saké?
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