The Story of Sake

To many of us sake is something we’ve only occasionally brushed up against when dining at a Japanese restaurant. But in fact, sake is a complex and versatile drink that can be enjoyed in lots of different ways. It’s the kind of drink, that once you find out a little more about it, it can become passionate about knowing all there is to know! Just like whisky and tequila.

 Let’s break it down:

While it’s known as wine, the sake making process is actually similar to beer, with rice fermented instead of barley. Rice is polished then steamed then koji (a culture which converts starch to glucose, also used in soy sauce and miso) is added, then yeast to start fermentation.

Rice polishing is key. The more the rice is polished the clearer the finished sake tends to be. Less polishing results in a muddier finish and a more pronounced rice flavour.

The rice polishing ratio is shown as a percentage on the bottle. The lower the percentage, the less of the original brown rice remains, and the clearer the sake.

Some sakes also have distilled alcohol added. Though this wasn't how sake was traditionally made, adding distilled alcohol is considered a standard part of making high quality modern sake.

As general rule, clean, clear lighter bodies sake are best served slightly chilled. Fuller bodied, more savoury or aged sakes are best served warm.

Those without it added have ‘junmai’ (meaning pure rice) in their name and a more savoury taste.

 Sake styles to know:

  • Daiginjo - super premium sake, less than 50% polishing ratio. Small amount of added distilled alcohol. Serve chilled.
  • Ginjo - premium, less than 60% polishing ratio. Some added distilled alcohol. Serve chilled.
  • Honjozo - lighter, slightly fragrant, less than 70% polishing ratio. Often some distilled alcohol added. Serve chilled or room temperature.
  • Junmai - made from just rice, koji, yeast and water. No minimum polishing ratio. The word junmai means ‘just rice’ and can be added to the other styles above to indicate no distilled alcohol has been added.

Ways to try it:

  • Mix 1 part sake with ⅔-part ginger ale and a twist of lemon peel
  • Replace the vodka with sake in a Bloody Mary.
  • Just add a couple of drops of lemon to a small cup to make your sake sing

Fun facts:

Sake dates back to before 8000 BC when rice farming was introduced to Japan

Before modern sake-making methods, sake was made by chewing steamed rice and spitting it out. The saliva converted the rice starch to sugar. It was then fermented with wild yeast.

Sakes to try:

Gekkeikan sake; a junmai style that can be enjoyed warmed or chilled.

Gekkeikan Nigori Sake; a cloudy junmai style with a creamy texture.

Gekkeikan Junmai Skye Blue Sake; dry, fresh and lightly fragrant.