Twice we bought sake in a Belgian supermarket. And just as many times you’d find us rinsing our mouths as quickly as possible afterwards with something we did like. So when we left for Japan, we weren’t planning on becoming a fan of this precious Japanese drink. Turned out we were in for a big surprise…
What is sake?
First things first: the Japanese ‘sake’ is actually a collective term for all kinds of alcoholic beverages. In the Western world, however, we use it as the name for alcoholic fermented rice wine, which the Japanese call ‘nihonshu’. Sake is also often – mistakingly – compared to wine, while the brewing process is actually much closer to that of beer. Still following?
In theory, sake is not a very difficult product to brew. It’s made of a special type of rice, water, yeast and koji, a kind of mould that’s often used in Japanese cuisine. There are different types of rice grains that can be used, each one bringing its own characteristics to the process.
Often more important than the grain itself, is the degree of polishing used for the rice grains. The polishing process helps to get rid of the outer layer which is rich in protein and fat, both features that would give the sake a bad taste. Simply put, the more you polish the grains, the better the quality of the end product. On average, 50 to 70 percent of the rice grain will be left after being polished. It won’t come as a surprise to learn that prices will go up according to the level of polishing being done.
We won’t go into details of the complete brewing process. In a nutshell, it comes down to the rice getting washed and steamed. After going through different stages of fermentation in which the sugars are converted into alcohol, the rice undergoes a pressing and riping period before reaching the end result: sake. The percentage of alcohol is averaging around, but certainly not limited to, 15-16%.
What does sake taste like?
In terms of taste, you cannot really compare sake to wine. It consists of 80% water and will never have any tannins. As wine lovers, however, we were immediately impressed by its subtle and refined flavours.
Good sake can be really dry or very fruity, but is above all an explosion of complex odours and flavours. In the nose, you can distinguish flavourings such as nuts, grass, honey and citrus. Characteristics which will also come back when you taste a well made sake. If you’re going for the sweeter types, you might recognise pear, melon or even banana.
But what differentiates a good sake from a bad one? Sake made from unpolished rice grains that undergo a fast brewing process will merely result in an exaggerated alcoholic taste. If you want to stay away from that, we’d recommend you look out for the types mentioned below.
Different types of sake
Each sake can taste differently of course, and unlike wine, it’s difficult to fall back on regional characteristics or specific tasting styles. In that sense, you could compare it to beer in that it’s primarily the brewer who determines the ingredients and style. Fortunately, there’s a few regulated styles on which you can fall back:
Junmai (純米): the Japanese word for ‘pure rice’, indicating sake that is made without any added alcohol or sugar. Junmai sake rice is also being polished up to 70% which results in a full and intense (acid) taste profile.
Honjozo (本醸造): for starters to the sake adventure, Honjozo is a safe first choice. The grains are polished just like the Junmai type but the brewer will have added a tiny amount of alcohol.
Ginjo (吟醸) or Junmai Ginjo: belongs to the better kinds of sake, with rice grains being polished up to 60% and undergoing a special fermentation process. It makes for a light but intensely tasteful version.
Dai Ginjo (大吟醸) of Junmai Dai Ginjo: the crème de la sake, for many. After the polishing process, only 50% of the grain remains. Brewing Dai Ginjo demands blood, sweat and tears. Hold your MasterCard ready when ordering this one at the counter.
Nigori: the general name for unfiltered sake, which has a sweeter taste to it. Not bad, but very different from all the rest.
Just a more few tips…
Not too long ago, sake was something to drink as fast as you could and quickly forget about, even for Japanese people. Quantity trumped quality, something which could be covered up a bit by drinking your sake hot. Lately, however, artisan brewers have been taking over, making (cold) sake hot and trendy. The result? They cannot keep up with demand at the moment in Japan, let alone in the rest of the world. However, it’s not impossible to get your hands on some good sake, just pay attention to what you’re buying. There’s plenty of specialised sake shops in Japan of course, so make sure to follow the following tips when you’re planning to take some home.
Many sakes have been pasteurised twice. There are also artisanal (and much nicer) varieties which haven’t had any pasteurisation (Nama-zake) but need to be cooled at all times. Remember this when you want to buy sake and take it back to your home country. Big chance you’ll have to throw away the entire bottle if you don’t. Luckily, there is a solution: sake that has been pasteurised once, combining the best of both worlds!
Where to taste and buy sake in Japan
There are plenty of Japanese places to buy and taste sake. Feel free to use our tips, or go explore some others (and please tell us if you find some good ones :))
- Unosato (Tokyo): at crawling distance of busy Shibuya, you’ll find this hidden gem serving delicious food and a wide (and affordable) range of good sake.
- Ise-gohonten (Tokyo): modern sake shop in fancy Nakameguro with plenty of different sakes on offer. Google translate might come in handy since they don’t speak a lot of English, but they’re more than willing to help pick out your favourite sakes at an affordable price.
- Suzu-Den (Tokyo): a shop and bar near Shinjuku Station where you can easily try out some (unique) sake bottles and take them home afterwards.
- Kikyo Sushi (Kyoto): While the father is cutting some fresh sashimi in the background, the son will let you try out some bottles out of his beloved sake selection. As a sake sommelier, he knows what he’s talking about and he’ll be more than happy to practice his – already quite fluent – English.
- Sake Bar Yoramu (Kyoto): A small sake bar owned by an Israelite who moved to Japan a couple of decades ago. He can come across as quite pedantic, but if you’re willing to see through it, you’re in for a good tasting here.
- Kaza Craft Pub (Takayama): Atsushi, the friendly owner of this new place, is sake sommelier and will be more than happy to surprise you with some excellent sake. So when you’re in Takayama, don’t miss out on this place!
Want to read more about Japan?
- Discover our 10 hotspots to eat in busy Tokyo