Savouring sake

| April 12, 2012 | 0 Comments

Though delicious, sake can be challenging. From sommeliers to novices, many know exactly what they like to drink. We are familiar with wine, beer and spirits, and we have favourite situations we all like to enjoy them in. It can be a pint of lager at the pub, a glass of Pinot Noir at dinner, or a whiskey for some deep conversation. For most of us, sake is a great unknown and has no such context. It’s often limited to a trip to a Japanese restaurant and perhaps ordered on a lark. However, this tremendous drink of complex aromas and flavours should be given a chance to be truly appreciated, especially as, over the last few decades, premium sakes have made their way to the market.
Sake itself dates back 1,000 years in Japan. It is made with a different kind of rice than dinner table rice, with the grains being longer, stronger and lower in protein. Of the hundred possible types of rice which can be used for sake, a dozen are most important, and, like grape varietals, each provides different flavours.
Before fermentation, the rice grains are milled to remove the exterior husk and leave the starch within. Generally speaking, the more producers mill the rice, the better the sake will be. Correspondingly, with more rice milled away, the less raw material remains. It is this, combined with the additional labour required, that usually accounts for higher prices of premium grades of sake.
Though often called rice wine, sake’s brewing makes it a closer relative to beer than wine. Also, like beer, the starch of the source material must be converted to sugar so yeast can turn it into alcohol. For beer, this conversion takes place during the mashing of malted barley with warm water before fermentation begins. However, as the rice for modern sake has had its husk removed, the conversion process must occur with the addition of a mold called koji. Before and during the fermentation, this mold acts to provide the sugar necessary for yeast to make alcohol.
This process is so vital to the production of sake that sake breweries have a warm humid room, called a koji muro, exclusively used for the production of fresh koji. With modern technology, machines now automatically produce koji, but the best sake is still created with hand-made koji.
In the final stage of brewing, most sake has distilled alcohol added to it. Though this is aggressively done with lower-quality examples to increase yields, it is also an important tool when used delicately for producing premium products. Many brewers believe it increases aromatic and flavour qualities. That said, a small amount of sake is still made in the traditional manner without the addition of distilled alcohol. These sakes are referred to collectively as junmai.
After pressing, filtering and pasteurization (though a very small amount of non-pasteurized sake called nama-zake is also made), the majority of sake is allowed to rest for about six months. It’s blended with water to bring the alcoholic level down to approximately 16 percent before being bottled and sold. The source of the water is important as it will greatly affect the resulting sake’s flavour.
Three-quarters of sake is produced with rice which has less than 30 percent of its grain milled away and is classified as futsu sake. Though there are exceptions, this category of “table sake” is usually made with an eye towards quantity and not quality. Often, distilled alcohol is generously added and lower grades of rice are used. Those looking for a more compelling drink, should look to the premium levels of sake requiring milling of 30 percent and higher.
These premium levels of sake are collectively called tokutei meishoshu and have three ascending levels — from honjozo to ginjo to daiginjo. The minimum milling requirements for these levels are 30 percent, 40 percent and 50 percent of the grain removed. Also, these three levels are applied to sake which has not had distilled alcohol added to it, and they are called junmai, junmai-ginjo and junmai-daiginjo. Generally, the junmai premium levels of sake are not considered superior to their non-junmai counterparts.
When looking to purchase premium sake, look to the label for help. First, while all the classifications can be difficult to remember, look for the word ginjo. It will lead you immediately to the very top levels of the sake brewer’s art. Second, a seimibuai number on a label indicates the amount of rice that remained after milling. For example, a seimibuai of 70 percent means that 30 percent of the grain has been removed. When trying premium sake, have it slightly chilled. While warm sake has its place, particularly in winter, it’s best to explore those preferences personally to see what is best for you.
Three excellent examples of sake at the LCBO are Asamai Shuzo’s beautifully textured Heaven’s Door Tokubetsu Junmai (241752, 720ml for $29), Gekkeikan’s spicy, full and fruity Horin Junmai Daiginjo (603837, 300ml for $17) and Okunomatsu’s balanced and complex Sakura Ginjo (228684, 720ml for $38).

Pieter Van den Weghe is the sommelier at Beckta dining & wine.

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Pieter Van den Weghe is general manager and wine director at Beckta dining & wine.

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