Kanpai! A Beginner's Guide to Sake
In English, “sake” refers to the alcoholic fermented rice beverage from Japan that you’ve probably had at your local Japanese restaurant or favourite sushi bar. But ask for “sake” in Japan and you may be met with a look of confusion.
Why? Because in Japan, “sake” refers to alcoholic beverages in general. This includes wine, beer, liquor, and the actual rice wine we call “sake”. In Japanese, the word used to refer to Japanese “sake” is nihonshu which translates to “Japanese alcohol”. Ask for this at an izakaya and you will almost always be greeted with a smile.
With only two ingredients and various regions across Japan perfecting their own types and variations, selecting the right one to try can be a bit overwhelming. Here are some key concepts and terms to help you get started on enjoying this delicious beverage.
The ingredients for a good sake are simple—pure water and rice. But with simple ingredients, the quality of each plays a huge role in the quality and taste. One of the first steps in making sake is the polishing of the rice. Prior to the actual sake making process the rice kernel has to be “polished” or milled to remove the outer layer of each grain, exposing its starchy core. For example, to get from brown rice to white rice you need to polish the rice to approximately 90% (polishing off 10%). Good sake is polished to 50–70% which means 30–50% of the kernel has been polished off. So if you take a look at the label and read that sake has been polished to 70%, it simply means that 30% of the original rice kernel has been polished away, leaving 70% of its original size. Opposite is a convenient table of sake classification terms for you to use as a reference.
*Note: The more rice has been polished means the classification level is higher. However, it does not mean the sake will be better. Ginjo and daiginjo sakes are generally considered higher end and are often more sought after by sake experts but as with wine, the cheaper local stuff is also loved by experts. Just as long as it is made from quality ingredients and by good brewers. It’s always best to trust your own palate and preferences.
All sakes are not created equal and in addition to many variations, the serving temperature also plays a role in how your sake may be enjoyed. Different tempera¬tures will draw out specific characteris¬tics, aromas, and flavours, which makes this a fun and interesting experiment for someone who is new to the world of sake or considers themselves an expert.
To warm your sake, pour it into a heat-safe receptacle (we recommend a sake carafe, called “Tokkuri” 徳利). Prepare a pot with hot or warm water and place the carafe in the pot. Gradually bathe the carafe but do not let the water come to a boil. You may also heat up your sake in a microwave instead of hot water bath however some of the flavours and aromas may be lost.
Don’t be afraid to ask the shop or restaurant staff for their recommendations or visit The Niseko Supermarket and Deli which carries a variety of local and imported sakes. Still unsure? Ask their knowledgeable staff or stop by during one of their sake tastings. Kanpai!