When was the last time you had sake? Likely if it isn’t something you enjoy regularly, it was probably the type of hot sake you get served to you in little containers, at a sushi bar, or maybe in a mixed drink like a sake-tini.
Drinking sake like that, is fine, but there is so much more about sake to explore! Sake is also traditionally served cold, often in smoother and more expensive versions of the beverage. Generally when one goes out to a bar or restaurant in the United States and orders an alcoholic beverage they select from one of three general types: Beer, wine and spirits. Only when they venture to a Japanese restaurant or sushi bar do they generally even contemplate one of the myriad other types of beverages produced around the world – Sake.
The Japan External Trade Organization and the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association sponsored Sake in the City, at the Astor Center in Manhattan this February, to raise awareness about sake and it’s myriad types, and how to pair it with food (other than sushi). What I learned is that rather than being just something you drink with Japanese food, sake is a complex beverage with a wide flavor profile suitable for a wide range of foods.
Sake is a brewed product, similar actually to beer, but with a flavor profile more like a fruity white wine. As I learned from Sake Samurai Timothy Sullivan (yes they actually call sake experts ” Samurai” and no, Sullivan is not Japanese), it is both the ingredients used in sake production, as well as the modern sake brewing techniques that create this wide flavor profile. Sake is comprised of just four ingredients: Water, rice, yeast, and a mold called Koji. Much like great cheeses gain their depth and flavors from fungi, so does sake. In fact, it is this magical mold that allows turns the rice starch into sugars and eventually into alcohol. According to Samurai Sullivan much of the rest of the magic of sake comes from the water (which is why most sake breweries are located in mountainous areas with access to soft water springs) and the rice itself.
Sake is made from a particular type of fat grained rice that is milled down to just its starchy core. The more the rice is milled (in other words the less rice remaining) the finer the quality of the sake. In fact, nearly 80 percent of Japan’s sake production is of lower grade table sakes that are generally not exported. Most of the sake’s found in the US are of the higher quality honjozo, ginjo and daigijo, with the daiginjo being the highest quality. Often the term Junmai will be added to the classification. Most sake varieties in Japan have some additional rum type alcohol added to give them a more smooth feel and texture, though not necessarily to make them stronger. The junmai (or pure rice) sakes do not have this.
At the event at the Astor Center, editors who attended a seminar, prior to a larger, walk-around tasting of sake, were fortunate enough to sample seven different sakes from a wide range of Japanese producers. The first was a Junmai Daiginjo called Taiheizan Tenoko. This sake was a very high quality product with the level of rice milling far exceeding industry standards. This produced a smooth and fruity sake with a taste similar to an apple or Asian pear. Samurai Sullivan pointed out that prior to the introduction of modern milling equipment in the early 1900s it was simply impossible to produce sake with this distinctively fruity flavor. So thank technology for the highest quality of sakes.
We next sampled a Daigingo (with the rum type of spirit added) called Southern Beauty. Like the first sake, this was extremely fruity – slightly crisper than the first but it has a suppleness, a silky and almost fatty, mouth feel similar to rich ice cream. This was the effect that the brewer wanted from the addition of distilled spirits to the product and it was achieved very well in this particular sake.
The third sake was called Gassan no Yuki. While classified as a junmai ginjo (the second tier of sakes) the level of milling was the same as the higher ranked daiginjos. This sake was less fruity than the first two but was actually sweeter in terms of sugariness. It also had a real taste of vanilla similar to that which one would find on a chardonnay or a wine that was casked in oak for some time.
The next sakes were from more affordable classes of sake. Truthfully the Honjozo level brews were harsher than the ginjo and daiginjos and they began to lose the fruity notes. More of a beer than a wine in both taste and suitableness for pairing. We first tried a Junmai called Urakasumi. Again, Junmai means that no distilled spirit is added and a a milling of 65% this was a Honzozo level product. This was a very earthy sake with more mushroomy and woody notes. Interestingly it had no “nose” at all. This sake was less sweet and fruity – though still complex – and would likely be more like what one would find in their neighborhood sushi bar. The next sake we tried as a Honjozo called Hakkaisan. This was a lower end premium sake and was very mushroomy – almost reptilian in both nose and taste. It was soft and silky due to the addition of the distilled spirit but was completely different from the earlier samples. Again, more bitter and beer like than wine like the honjozo level products really demonstrated the difference that additional milling of the rice can make.
Finally, we sampled my favorite type of sake, a Nigori or unfilted sake. This Tsukinosatsura iwai-mai, Junmai Daigingo was strong (17 percent alcohol by volume) and like its filtered brethren presented a very fruity nose and super fruity palate. In this case pears and interestingly strawberries dominated. The white, unfiltered presentation is unique and I believe offers a silky mouth feel that the filtered sakes simply do not.
After the master class, Sake in the City sponsored a trade floor when many sake’s and similar beverages could be sampled (a list of the exhibitors is listed below this article). These included traditional sakes, and some flavored sakes: citrus flavored, pepper flavored and fruit flavored, many of which paired very well to Japanese cuisines. And we also tasted some classic Japanese cuisine with different sakes, focusing on the cuisine of David Bouley’s Brushstroke as prepared by Executive Chef Isao Yamada. As with wine, beer or just about any other beverage, some are more suited to a specific flavor profile, than others. It was really interesting to see how certain sakes brought out specific flavors in specific foods.
The Sake in the City event truly showed the depth of this fourth type of beverage alcohol product, one that should be considered not only for the occasional night out for sushi, but for any well stocked cellar. But drink it quickly, sake does not age like wine and should be consumed fresh and chilled.
High quality sakes are best served cold, but you can drink sake hot if you wish. The photo to the left shows the proper vessels for serving and drinking hot sake. There are basically three levels for warm SAKE: lukewarm (about 35 degrees Celsius, about 95 degrees Fahrenheit ), warm (about 45 degrees Celsius, about 113 degrees Fahrenheit ), and hot (above 55 degrees Celsius, above 131 degrees Fahrenheit ). A person’s body temperature is always a good rule of thumb.
If you want to try some cocktails using sake, here are two recommended recipes to try!
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
2 oz Junmai Sake
0.5 oz Sherry
0.5 oz Bulleit Rye Whiskey
1 dash Mole bitters
Glass: Brandy snifter
Speak Low #2
2 oz Junmai Sake
0.1 oz Matcha (fine powder green tea)
0.25 oz Kuromits (Japanese black sugar syrup)
Kinako (soy bean powder) rim
Glass: Small rock glass(tumbler)
1.2 oz Yuzu Sake
0.5 oz St-Germain elderflower liqueur
1 oz Freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
0.7 oz Bombay Sapphire
Glass: Martini glass or champagne flute
Sake producers exhibiting at Sake and the City: The 16 producers featured at the Astor Center tastings were as follows:
- Fukugao Brewery Co., Ltd.
- Gassan Shuzo
- Hakkaisan Brewery Co., Ltd.
- Ichishima Sake Brewery Inc.
- Ippongi Kubohonten Co., Ltd.
- Kitaya Co., Ltd.
- Kodama Brewing Co., Ltd.
- Masuda Tokubee Shoten Co., Ltd.
- Nanbu Bijin Sake Brewing Co., Ltd.
- Sena New York, Inc. (Niigata Sake Selections)
- Suehiro Sake Brewery Co., Ltd.
- Takeda Shuzo Co., Ltd.
- Tatenokawa, Inc.
- Urakasumi Sake Brewery Saura Co., Ltd.
- Yamamoto Honke Co., Ltd.
- Yamagata Honten Co., Ltd.
About the Japan External Trade Organization: The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) is a government-related organization that works to promote mutual trade and investment between Japan and the rest of the world. Established in 1958 to promote Japanese exports, today JETRO’s mandate includes encouraging overseas businesses to bring their operations to Japan, thereby stimulating healthy competition, providing new employment opportunities, and helping to improve Japan’s overall economy. For additional information please visit www.jetro.org.
About the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association: The Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association (JSS) is a nationwide association that works to educate and spread knowledge about Sake, as well as ways to enjoy Sake and Shochu. For more information, please visit http://www.japansake.or.jp/sake/english/.
My thanks to John Dunham for his help in putting this article together