Wish you knew more about Saké how to shop for it, and what makes one Saké different from another? Then you're in the right place!
History of Saké
Saké is believed to have originated around 700 AD. The most successful of these saké breweries are still in operation today. During the 20th century, saké brewing technology grew dramatically. The days of serving hot mass produced (Futsu) grade saké in sushi bars may be coming to an end. Americans are learning more and more about the remarkable flavors and food pairings that saké has to offer.
Premium to ultra-premium Ginjo saké should be served chilled and we recommend a white wine glass. Personally, I never use stemless glasses but find that a stemless chardonnay glass is perfect for saké. Always refrigerate saké after opening and enjoy it soon thereafter.
Most people associate saké with sushi but it also pairs well with steak, roasted chicken, and grilled vegetables. We even enjoy it simply with salted edamame! Mixing saké has become quite popular as well. You can find many food pairings and cocktail recipes at the bottom of this post as well as a glossary of saké terms. Remember, never pour your own glass and don't forget to say "knapai" (kahn-pie) before drinking!
How premium Saké is made
First, specialty rice that only grows in select parts of Japan is polished to remove undesirable fat and proteins from the exterior of the grains. How much of this exterior is polished away helps define the quality of the saké being produced (seimaibuai). The grains are then allowed to rest and absorb moisture from the air. Next they are rinsed clean and go a steeping process in naturally source, iron-free water. The rice is then allowed to cool and koji (a harmless mold spore that releases enzymes which quickly break down the starch molecules into sugar) is added to start the fermentation process. After fermentation, the saké is extracted from the solid through a filtration process and is pasteurized one or two times. Once bottling is completed you will have a premium gluten-free, sulfite free and kosher saké with an average of 15%-16% alcohol.
Futsu (Table Sake) No minium requirements on milling
This grade of saké is made with regular table rice. It is mass produced and the production process is rarely done by hand. It has distilled alcohol added to it. Futsu grade saké represents about 75% of the saké on the market today.
Junmai / Honjozo 30% milled away. At least 70% of the rice remains after milling (polishing)
There is no longer a milling minimum for Junmai. In the past it had been 70%. be sure to check the milling rate on the bottle. Honjozo is a bit lighter than Junmai due to small aounts of distilled alcohol added after fermentation.
Junmai Ginjo / Ginjo 40% milled away. At least 60% of the rice remains after milling (polishing)
These sakés are brewed at lower temperatures and for longer amounts of time. The pressing is usually done carefully by hand. The process shows in the saké's complexity and fragrance. Less than 6% of all saké falls into this catagory.
Junmai Daiginjo / Daiginjo 50% milled away. At least 50% of the rice remains after milling (polishing)
This is an even more labor-intensive process than Ginjo. These sakes are lighter, fruitier, and show even more fragrance than Ginjo. Daiginjo often has a 35% seimaibuai and no additional alcohol is added at this level.
Nigori is saké that is either partially unfiltered or has some of the lees of the fermented rice added back. It's usually cloudy to murky, and slightly off-dry to very sweet. We think Tozai Snow Maiden is a good example of Nigori. It's cloudy but surprisingly dry with a good comination of creamy rice and fresh fruit.
Tokubetsu means "special". They have a seimaibuai of 50% or 60% and have been made with a slightly different process or by using a very special saké rice.
Try saké with raw oysters and fish. We think it's especially nice when the fish is smoked or grilled. Saké also goes well with milder chicken and beef dishes. Be careful with spicy or powerfully flavored foods, they can really over pwer the saké.
Kanpai (kahn-pie) "cheers"
Adapted from Vine Connection and John Gauntner, Copyright 2002