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For Goodness Sake, It's Sake Day!

We do hate having gaps in our alcohol knowledge, it’s embarrassing, we’ll be holding court at a trade event, everyone looking at us doe-eyed, as if, as an organisation, we represent the wine reincarnate of James Dean (stop laughing, you don’t know). Then Craig, blooming Craig from an unnamed wine importer asks us “so, where do you land on the so called therapeutic use of Kombucha?” In our ignorance we must fake an outbreak of Ramsey Hunt Syndrome and hightail it out of there to save face (that’s a joke for the GPs in the house).

We swore this wouldn’t happen with saké. For too long we only thought of saké as that hot liquid seemingly served in earthenware espresso cups, at unspecified ‘Oriental’ restaurants and must be greeted by a chorus of “o for goodness saké!” So, before we could be shamed by Craig again (god damn Craig), we went on a class trip to learn all about saké!

“Right so, what is saké?” we asked our beverage guru. Saké is essentially a fermented rice wine from Japan, where the rice has been polished to remove the bran. The level to which the grain has been polished dictates the style of the saké, with nearly all falling into four distinct categories (described below). Saké rice is inherently different from rice eaten in Japan. The grain will be larger, stronger and with less starch in its core. Although there are many strains of saké rice, the most widely used is Yamada Nishiki.

Although often regarded as a wine, production of saké is much more similar to that of beer. Unlike grapes there is no sugar in rice grains so the starch must be converted into sugar, which can then be fermented. However, unlike beer where this process occurs in two distinct stages, in saké this conversion and fermentation takes place simultaneously.

Rice is first polished then milled, after which it is soaked in water, the length of time typically related to the degree to which the grain was polished. The grain is then cooked by steaming, which is carefully controlled as overcooked rice will ferment too quickly.

The fungus Aspergillus Oryzae (the same used to ferment soy beans to make soy sauce) is then added for up to a week to begin fermentation. After which yeast (normally the same strain used in grape fermentation) is added to finish the ferment. The main fermentation will typically be at 15-20°C for 2-3 weeks but more premium saké will often ferment at temperatures as low as 10°C for considerably longer. In some styles, a small amount of distilled alcohol will be added before filtration and pasteurization.

Junmai

The purest form of saké, with no fixed polishing percentage, while the addition of distilled alcohol is not permitted.

Honjozo

A minimum of 30% polishing; a small amount of alcohol is added.

Ginjo

A minimum of 40% polishing, the addition of distilled alcohol is optional, bottles labelled ginjo will have alcohol added; those labelled junmai ginjo won’t.

Daiginjo

A minimum of 50% polishing, the addition of distilled alcohol is optional, daiginjo sakés will have alcohol added; sakés labelled junmai daiginjo won’t.

There is a vast range of styles in saké; from bone dry to sweet to sparkling. As mentioned previously, level of polishing has a huge impact on style, hence it can be difficult to generalise on flavour profile. However, most sakés will have some esters that express fruit aromas such as green apple or banana. Most people describe a white flower character such as acacia or honeysuckle and saké will typically be expressive of yeasty characters such as pastry and honey.

Like grape made wine, preferable serving temperatures can vary vastly from style to style. More delicate styles like Ginjo and Daignjo do best lightly chilled, ideally around 10°C. Whereas more full-bodied sakés drink best at room temperature or lightly heated. Warmed sakés are often served at around 50°C, there are decent quality sakés that can be served at these temperatures although heating is often used to cover up faults in poorer sakés, so caution is required.

Place a saké cup on top of a pint of beer, resting on chopsticks. After shouting ‘Saké Bomb’ to the rest of the karaoke bar, bang the table until the saké sinks into the pint of beer at which time you are ready to drink your delicious cocktail. Do not let a citizen of Japan see you do this, they will probably be offended by your desecration of their beautiful native drink.