You’ll often hear the word ‘rice wine’ being thrown around since it has a similar alcohol level to wine but sake is in fact made in breweries not wineries and closer to beer in its production process. Also in Japanese, the word sake is actually a generic term meaning ‘alcohol’ and you’re better off sticking to the word nihonshu if you’re ordering the rice based tipple in the land of the rising sun.
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage like beer and wine with an average alcohol content of 15% to 17%. Not to be confused with the other Japanese alcoholic beverage, Shochu, which is a distilled beverage like whiskey, gin or vodka. Steeped in history with its roots in Shintoism, the brewing process of sake has remained largely unchanged for centuries and you’ll also see it being served at weddings and other ceremonies in Japan.
But how do you navigate that menu with all the terminology?
Firstly, sake can be categorised into table sake, futsu-shu or premium sake. Of the premium sake there are 8 grades known in Japanese as tokutei-meisho-shu. Sake’s main ingredients are rice and water and before the rice is added to the tank to be fermented, it is milled removing the outer portions. The percentage you find on a bottle is the rice polishing ratio and it will fall into one of these 8 grades.
Contrary to popular belief, the lower the number does not equate to higher quality sake, it’s simply an option to the brewer and an indication of the style. Highly polished sake (60% or less) tend to have a cleaner and lighter style and lower polished ones lean towards fuller body with more acidity and structure.
The other way premium sake is graded is whether a small amount of distilled alcohol is added (up to 10%). This is optional and if not added, the sake will be labelled as either Junmai, Junmai Ginjo or Junmai Daiginjo, depending on the rice polishing ratio. The ones with distilled alcohol added are said to be lighter in body and more aromatic but the difference is subtle and there are a number of other components that can come into play also. I heard that one brewer said that adding distilled alcohol is a fast track method not too dissimilar to adding chicken stock cubes to a broth.
Does it taste like rice? Sake can have savoury and cereal notes such as…wait for it, steamed rice but also more delicate aromas ranging from fruity to floral. It has around one third the acidity of wine with more lactic as oppose to tart acidity present. It has minimal astringency but can be regularly abundant in the elusive fifth flavour, umami, which makes it another reason why it really is its own drink.
And hopefully this answers the question what is sake?