JAPANESE LIQUOR : 日本酒 SAKE
From wine to beer, vodka and gin, whisky, brandy and tequila, when it comes to alcohol varieties, it is impossible to list them all. Amongst this endless list of drinks, when we think of Japan, it is rice wine or ‘sake’ that comes to mind. Throughout the ages sake has been an important part of Japanese people’s lives. But these days, sake, with its surprising richness and depth and simple, yet complex, character, has gained the same worldwide recognition awarded to wine. Whether you drink sake or not, love it or hate it, let’s take a moment to learn a little about it. By glancing at the world of sake, it is possible to learn a lot about Japanese culture and history.
With assistance from Masahiko Iga
Round One: SAKE INGREDIENTS
Just as your car cannot run on petrol alone, sake cannot come into being from rice alone. There are three main ingredients: rice, water and rice malt (a substance found in stale bread etc. and acts as an agent to convert the rice starch into glucose). The tens of thousands of different types of sake yeast transform the glucose to alcohol and provide the key to the variety of flavours, fragrances and qualities found in sake.
Round Two: SAKE TASTING AND SOMMELIERS
Just as the wine world has sommeliers, the world of sake, too, has sake sommeliers. ‘Kikizakeshi’ as they are known, have a history dating back as far as the 15th century, and hold a qualification that can be obtained only within Japan. A sake sommelier, qualification can be gained after participating in The Sake Service Institute seminars and taking both a written and practical exam.
Round Three: SAKE VARIETIES TO KNOW
‘Tokutei Meishoshu’, specially designated sake chosen by the government, is divided into eight varieties, comprising 30 per cent of Japan’s sake. The remaining types are known as regular sake.
Ginjoshu: Ginjoshu is brewed with less than 60 percent of the polished white rice milled away, using rice malt and water, as well as distilled alcohol, giving it its unique flavour and excellent color.
Dai Ginjoshu: Dai Ginjoshu is brewed with less than 50 percent of the polished white rice, rice malt and water, as well as distilled alcohol, giving it its unique flavor and divine color.
Junmaishu: Using white rice, rice malt and water as a base, this sake has a good flavour and colour. It is made without only distilled alcohol.
Junmai Ginjoshu: Junmai Ginjoshu is brewed with 60 percent of the polished white rice milled away, rice malt and water giving it its distinct flavour and color.
Junmai Daiginjoshu: This sake is made with less than 50 percent of the polished white rice milled away, rice malt and water. It is known for its unique flavour and particularly nice colour.
Tokubetsu Junmaishu: Made from white rice, rice malt and water, this sake has a particularly nice flavour and colour. It is made with 60 percent of the polished rice milled away, and involves special manufacturing techniques.
Honjoshu: This sake is made with less than 70 percent or less of the white rice milled away, rice malt, distilled alcohol and water. It has a good flavour and colour.
Tokubetsu Honjoshu: Made with white rice, rice malt, distilled alcohol and water, it has a particularly good flavour and color. It uses white rice milled away 60 percent or less and also involves special manufacturing techniques.
Round Four: OK, NOW LET’S MAKE SOME SAKE
Polishing : Regular sake rice is polished about 70 percent, Ginjoshu 60-50 percent and Daiginjoshu less than 50 percent. Once polished, it is sealed and cellared for 3-4 weeks for water and temperature regulation.
Washing and soaking : As each rice grain is very delicate, the job of making sake is also delicate work. Regular sake is usually soaked for one day and night; however Ginjoshu can take as little as a few minutes.
Steaming and washing : After soaking the rice for one night, just the right amount of water to grow a type of mould ‘koji’ is added. Steaming rice makes the outside of the grains hard, the inside soft, and helps koji to grow.
Making Koji : To create the right environment for koji mould to grow, the temperature of the koji room is set to about 30 degrees and the humidity is raised. After the moisture has evaporated from the rice, the koji seed is planted. The koji seeds are sprinkled over the steamed rice; it is covered with a cloth and incubated for about 12 hours. The rice is then pressed down and after 6-8 hours, it is put into a special box called a ‘koujibuta’ The koujibuta is then changed, and to remove the carbon dioxide from the koji, it is kneaded by hand. After two days, grain by grain, the rice turns completely white.
Shubo : It is important to cultivate as much yeast, in the purest condition, in the steamed rice, koji and water mixture as possible. The main point of making ‘shubo’ is to encourage the growth of lactic acid and avoid the growth of bad bacteria.
Unrefined sake : Known as ‘moromi’, this sake is created by a mixture of the shubo, steamed rice, koji and water. Alcohol fermentation takes place in it. To make moromi, a mixture of steamed rice, koji and water is added once daily, over three consecutive days. After fermentation, the mixture is left for a set amount of time, then the unrefined sake is pressed and divided into sake and sake extract.
The upper layer : The matured moromi is then pressed and divided into the sake and sake extract. At the unrefined mixture stage, it has an alcohol content of 20 per cent. The moromi is put into a cloth bag and stacked into a vat called a ’fune’. Pressure is applied from the top down and the sake drips through a hole in the vat. Sometimes with Ginjoshu, the bag is also hung to drip.
Removing dregs : Once the aforementioned processes have been completed, the sake is cloudy, with flecks of rice and yeast, and is filtered in a cool place.
Heating and cellaring : The sake is left to mature for 2 months, the acid is sterilized at 65 degrees, then it is stored in a tank for half a year.
Bottling : To maintain the sake quality when shipping, the sake from many tanks is blended. After that, the sake is filtered, the color and taste impurities are removed, water is added, the alcohol level is set and it is heated once more to sterilize it.
Round Five: LET’S DRINK SOME SAKE!
Just as you drink wine out of a wine glass, you drink sake out of a sake glass called a ‘choko’. The special glass used by sake connoisseurs, ‘a kikichoko’, has picture of a blue bulls-eye on the base, to help judge the richness of flavor and quality. Sake is pale yellow in colour, so the contrasting blue makes the sake color easier to judge. If the sake is even a little cloudy, the boundary of the white and blue bulls-eye looks blurry, and if the sugar content is high, the pattern will change with the refraction of light.