Are you curious about sampling sake but don’t know where to start? Or you’ve enjoyed drinking it at 12/10 and are looking to expand your sake knowledge? We’re confident this guide will demystify this great beverage and/or further your appreciation of its wonders.
Sake is a traditional alcoholic beverage produced from rice, which has been consumed in Japan as far back as a thousand years ago. In Japanese, the term ‘sake’ means any type of alcohol and the rice-based ‘sake’ that we’re familiar with in English is actually called nihonshu. It has endured throughout history because of its cultural importance especially in rituals of the Shinto religion and Japanese celebratory occasions.
HOW SAKE IS MADE
The fundamental ingredients of sake are rice, water, koji, and yeast. The graphic below highlights the basic process of turning rice into alcohol by utilizing koji mold to saccharify the rice (convert its starch into sugars) and using yeast to encourage alcoholic fermentation.
SEIMAIBUAI AND SAKE TYPES
Different types of sake can be distinguished from each other based on a number of factors, many of which are regulated by law in Japan, primarily for premium sakes with special designations.
The most helpful thing to remember when you encounter a sake menu at a restaurant or shelves of sake bottles at a liquor store is the seimaibuai or rice polishing rate. The percentage you may find on a sake label indicates how much is left of the rice grain after it was milled. Therefore, a 70% seimaibuai means that 30% of the rice bran was polished off. Knowing this fact allows you to get a sense of what flavors to expect from a bottle of sake even before opening it.
A higher polishing rate conveys that a certain amount of fat and protein was left on the rice grain, resulting in a more rustic and savory sake. And a lower polishing rate suggests the opposite, producing sweeter and more refined flavors.
Another sake term of note is junmai meaning “pure rice” in Japanese. This word on a sake label differentiates from sake with added brewer’s spirit or jozo alcohol. Although “pure rice” might sound fancier than non-pure rice sake, don’t let it deter you from trying the latter. Additional ingredients like jozo alcohol can be maximized by expert brewers to increase aromas and balance out flavors in sake making it smoother to drink.
Use the pyramid above to help you navigate future sake menus (and our online store!). Just keep in mind that quality grades and pricier sakes like junmai daiginjo may not necessarily be the “best” sake out there since it’s at the top of the pyramid. The best sake ultimately depends on your own taste and preferences, and luckily, sake has such a wide range of styles and flavor profiles to experience and choose from. Kanpai!