Has it been one of those weeks? Job getting you down? Boss on your case? Maybe it’s time to hit the bar and drink away some of those sorrows!! But maybe if you fancy doing it in style, you could skip the beers, discard the alchopops, turn your nose up at the spirits and try your hand at sake. Sake as we know it in the West refers only to Ninhonshu (日本酒 – Literally ‘Japanese Drink’) where as in Japan in can also be used as a general term for any alcoholic beverage.
Generally though, if you ask for sake, you will get Ninhonshu. So what is sake? Well it’s commonly referred to on our shores as ‘Japanese rice wine’ and although not completely incorrect, the term misleads as sake is fermented and brewed from rice in a style closer to beer. Despite this sake is closer in its flavour to wine. Sake is made from surprisingly few ingredients; rice, water, yeast and a type of mould called Koji. These ingredients are then taken through a roughly one month brewing process (which is detailed here) by a Toji (杜氏 – sake brewer) before it is aged for a further six months. The average alcohol content is 15-17% and it is best drunk soon after it’s bought as after it peaks at the six month period, the sake will slowly deteriorate in quality over the next year.
There are five main types of sake (Thanks to Sake World for the descriptions);
- junmai-shu (rice only; no adding of distilled alcohol) – “Generic Sake”
- honjozo-shu (a tad of distilled alcohol is added)
- ginjo-shu (highly milled rice, with or without alcohol added)
- daiginjo-shu (even more highly milled rice, with/without added alcohol)
- nama-zake (refers to sake that is NOT pasteurized and basically is mutually independent of the above four)
Sake is intrinsically linked to Japan, Chinese records speak of an alcoholic drink drunk by the Japanese as far back as the third century, and it is confirmed that the drink was present in the seventh century. After becoming a firm part of Japanese life, when the Meji Restoration occurred it was written into the law that anyone with the money and the knowledge was legally allowed to set up their own sake brewery. This lead to over 30,000 breweries being established, although the government began to tax them heavily as the years went on, staggeringly in 1898 46% of the government’s tax income came from sake! During World War II sake production was hit hard as rice shortages were rampant and substitutes for rice were made, which kept up production but lowered quality. During post-war American occupation Sake was eclipsed by beer and spirit consumption, however sake brewers used new technologies to improve the quality and brewing process of the drink, before long sake was back on top. Now sake is drunk worldwide and is a cultural icon associated with Japan as it’s national drink.
So how do you drink sake? Well generally it is drunk from a wide variety of cups made for the specific purpose of drinking sake, these cups are called choko (猪口), or if in the box form called masu (枡). Sake is held, and poured from jars known as tokkuri (徳利). The most famous, and usually most confusing thing to those not in the know, about sake is if you should drink it hot or cold? As a general rule it should be served chilled. Hot sake is seen as a winter drink and was traditionally served warm; however the heating of the drink also forces aromas and flavours to be lost. Old or lower grade sake is often served warm however there are some less common sakes that are designed to be heated. Cool sake contains all the aromas, flavours and alcohol that the drink should. Sake can be drunk at room temperature as well.
So why not try some sake next time you have the chance? Sake can be purchased in Newcastle from HiYou, 7Days and Wing Hong, Sake sets are on sale in HiYou and Wing Hong. If you don’t fancy picking one out yourself, all of the Japanese restaurants usually have at least one sake choice on the menu.