The Rice Stuff
It's fragrant, it's
complex, it's layered and delicate. It's light and tasty, and there has never been a
better time to drink it. Yet sake continues to be little-known, written off as hot, bland,
hangover-causing stuff that could never be considered a premium sipping beverage - could
it? While true that most of the sake brewed and consumed is of the less expensive and
less-than-awe-inspiring variety, there exists a realm of premium sake, diverse and
fascinating, that is almost certain to win you over. John Gauntner takes
time out from his sipping schedule to guide you to the right brew.
Good sake, though brewed from a grain, is not unlike wine in its potential for
appreciation. There are a range of styles and grades, with flavor profiles and fragrances
that are varied and interesting. Over the last thirty years or so, technology and
experience have come together to make sake better than ever.
What is the difference between cheap sake served piping hot and decent sake, usually
served cool or chilled? Just about everything, really. The quality and type of rice
(sake-brewing rice and table rice are different), how much handmade effort is put into the
brewing procedure, additives or the lack thereof, and care of the product are all
One major factor is how much the rice has been milled before brewing. Removing the outer
portion of the rice grains by grinding eliminates fermentation-inhibiting ditties like
proteins and fats. Starches that ferment are concentrated in the center of the rice grain.
Most table rice is milled so that the outer 10-12 percent of the original size has been
removed. Some sake rice is milled so that only the inner 35 percent remains. That means 65
percent has been ground away.
Wasteful? Not when you taste the final product. Sake is much, much cleaner, lighter and
more fragrant when highly milled rice is used. This can, however, be taken too far,
leading to sake that is too "clean," in the opinion of some. Some brewers end up
literally grinding away character and distinction.
FOUR LITTLE WORDS
How can one tell the
difference between a good sake and a bad one? Naturally, recommendations and word of mouth
are the fastest. But what if you're on your own? One way is by price, cop-out though it
may seem. Sake in general is fairly priced. Spending a few more yen will usually get you
better sake. The other way is to leap the language barrier and learn a few terms.
All it takes is four. Four words referring to how a sake is brewed that are indicative of
at least a certain level of quality.
Junmaishu is sake to which nothing has been added but rice,
water, and koji spores, the enzyme-producing mold that turns the starch in rice into
sugars that feed the yeast.
Junmaishu often has a richer, fuller flavor, sometimes with a nicely bolstering acidity
The rice used must be polished to 70 percent (i.e. so that at least the outer 30 percent
of the grain has been removed).
Honjozo is sake to which a very small amount of distilled
alcohol has been added. In cheap sake, relatively massive amounts are added for economic
reasons. In good sake, though, the reasons are different: a small amount of alcohol added
at the right time in the process brings out fragrant components in the final product. The
milling requirements are the same as those for junmai-shu. Honjozo is generally lighter in
flavor than junmaishu, and often suited to gentle warming (more on this later).
Ginjoshu is the beginning of the realm of very good sake. It is
generally light, complex and fragrant, often with fruity overtones. Although the only real
requirement for calling sake ginjoshu is that the rice be milled to at least 60 percent,
the term implies a lot of handmade care at each step in the process. Amongst ginjoshu (and
the same holds for daiginjoshu) there is ginjoshu that has no added alcohol, and ginjoshu
that has had a bit of alcohol added to it. However, ginjoshu with added alcohol (i.e.
non-junmai) is called simply ginjoshu, not honjozo ginjoshu as some might expect.
Confused? Have a glass of sake and re-read. It'll be clear soon enough.
Daiginjoshu is really a sub-classification of the above
ginjoshu. Here, the rice is milled to at least 50 percent, although it is often taken as
far as 35 percent. More importantly, special, painstaking techniques are used in each step
of the brewing process to bring out specific qualities in the sake. Daiginjo as well comes
in junmai and non-junmai versions.
An optional fifth
term: namazake. This is simply sake that has not been pasteurized. Namazake is fresher and
zingier, often seeming sweeter to many. Sometimes, these qualities can overpower the finer
aspects of a sake, so namazake is not always better sake. But in general, namazake has a
universal appeal that always brings a smile. (If you do buy it, it must be kept
refrigerated or it will likely go bad.) Any sake that does not qualify for one of the
above categories is known as futsu-shu (regular sake). It is important to keep in mind
that there is plenty of perfectly palatable futsu-shu out there. Try not to fall into the
snobby trap of thinking that only the special designation sake described above are worth
tasting. True, futsu-shu is a bit more hit-and-miss, but there is still lots of fine sake
in this stratum as well.
Along the same lines, it is good to be careful to avoid a bias against the big boys. It is
too easy to assume that all sake made by all the large breweries is rotgut. It isn't. Many
of them make entirely drinkable sake that, if preconceptions were taken out of the
picture, would compare quite well.
Most people have a tendency to lean romantically toward jizake, sake from small kura
(breweries) in the countryside, favoring them to the exclusion of larger kura. It is
likely true, however, that more variety and character are to be found in sake from smaller
Another stereotype to steer clear of is that no good sake should ever be served warm. Most
good sake, indeed, is meant to be served cool. But a lot of excellent sake of the special
designations above goes quite well gently warmed (not too hot, though!). Experiment.
Recommending meigara, or labels, is a bit precarious: It's all a matter of preference.
Even first-time tasters of good sake, exposed to several different types, know immediately
what they like best - and it's different for everybody. There simply is no one best type
or best meigara.
Having stated that caveat, here are a few brands of differing types, most of which are
also relatively easy to find in stores - or at least sake pubs - around Tokyo. This is not
meant to be a list of the best, and not all may be your style, but here at least are some
names to call out. Note that these are just brand names; there may be several grades of
sake for each, i.e. a junmaishu and a ginjo-shu. (For a significantly longer list of
recommendations - some 200 selections - refer to the Sake
Biwa no Choju (Shiga)
Tsukasa Botan (Kochi)
Eiko Fuji (Yamagata)
Ume no Yado (Nara)
Sake no Hitosuji (Okayama)
Azuma Rikishi (Tochigi)
Mado no Ume (Saga)