Sake remains a mystery to many consumers in western countries, but why not give it a try? Anthony Rose is your guide in this introduction to Japan's national drink.
Scroll down for Anthony’s top sake recommendations
If sake is an acquired taste, then the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have acquired the taste and those yet to acquire it.
Once bitten by the sake bug, you’ll never look back as a world of unalloyed drinking pleasure opens up before you.
Part of the process is getting to grips with how sake is made and its various different grades, but while a little learning can prise the gates to sake heaven ajar, only the taste will fling them open and convert you to the delights of Japan’s national drink.
Sake just means alcohol in Japan, whereas the rice-based drink that we know as sake is in fact called ‘nihonshu’, Japanese alcohol made from rice. It has been made in Japan for over 1000 years but and in the form of premium sake such as ginjo, only around 50 years.
There are, for example, around 70 rice varieties used for sake production, with three main varieties, yamadanishiki, gyohakumangoku and miyamanishiki making up nearly three-quarters of the total sake rice cropping area of around 15,000 hectares.
Sake generally weighs in at around 15 – 16% ABV, although, of course, there are exceptions to every rule. It has just a fifth of the acidity of wine. What it lacks in wine’s crisp, refreshing acid bite however, it more than makes up for in texture, subtlety of flavour and diversity of style.
Sake’s quality grades are determined by the polishing ratio. i.e. how much of the rice grain is milled away before the starchy core is ready to be converted by the koji mould to fermentable sugar. Grades and accompanying prices are a guide to quality but, as with wine, it can often pay to find a lower grade, premium example from a top brewery.
Perhaps the most significant contribution to the style and flavour comes from the aims and techniques of the ‘toji’, the master brewer. At the brewery, the rice is washed, steamed and cooled before before roughly a fifth of the rice is spread out on wooden tables where the starch is broken down into fermentable sugar by the addition of koji mould spores.
Sake styles to know
Daiginjo – Super premium, fragrant sake with minimum 50% polishing ratio and a very small amount of distilled alcohol added to enhance flavour and aroma. Often best served chilled.
Ginjo – Premium fragrant sake with minimum 40% polishing ratio, similar to daiginjo.
Honjozo – Light, mildly fragrant premium sake polished to a minimum of 70% with a small amount of distilled alcohol added to extract aroma and flavour.
Junmai – Sake made with nothing other than rice, water, yeast and koji with no minimum polishing ratio. When appended to daiginjo and ginjo, no alcohol has been added.
Broadly speaking, daiginjo and ginjo, with their beguiling fruity and floral fragrances, tend to be popular as chilled drinks while honjozo and junmai can often offer a broader range of value and versatility, especially when drunk with food, and can be served at a wider range of temperatures.
Updated 05/10/2016: To clarify some of the descriptions of different sake types and to state that ‘nihonshu’ has been made in Japan for more than 1,000 years.
Anthony Rose’s recommendations:
From Japan’s far west beyond Hiroshima, Dassai produces only junmai daiginjo in three main styles; 23, 39 and 50, reflecting…
Philip Harper, Japan’s only English toji, or master brewer, is known for championing the cause of the traditional yamahai and…
This stylish, moderate junmai (at 15% alcohol) doesn’t quite scream fruit like a Sauvignon Blanc - the clean, fresh aromatics…
This sake is made from a combination of half Dewasansan and half Haenuki rice polished down to 50%. It has…
This characterful pure rice sake from Gifu is made from Miyama Nishiki rice grown in Nagano Prefecture. It is described…
The fragrant Kaze no Mori (meaning ‘winds in the forest') is made from Hattann Nishiki rice from Hiroshima Prefecture polished…
Made from Dewasansan rice polished to 50% at Gassan Shuzo in Yamagata Prefecture in north Japan...
This is a ‘fun, funky, exciting’ sake according to its enthusiastic importer...
This reasonably priced honjozo may weigh in at less than 15% alcohol, (14.8%) but is certainly doesn’t lack character...