Understanding Sake Starts With The Rice

We drink it in sushi bars, where it's served in ceramic cups at tea-like temperatures under samurai swords and kimonos on the wall. Rice wine, as we erroneously call it, does seem to go well with raw tuna and nori rolls, no? Ladies and gentlemen, this is what most Americans know about sake.

But that's changing now as a growing number of specialty bottle shops and sake tasting bars across the country spring into business and reveal the huge diversity of flavors, colors and styles to be found in this favored table tipple of Japan. Sake, which is brewed from rice by methods similar to those of brewing beer, is often stunningly aromatic. Many sakes smell of tropical fruits, melons, flowers and citrus—and the fact that such a sensory storm is born in a kettle of pure white rice may be mind-blowing. In the mouth, sake is often smooth, soft and seductive, without the acidic bite of wine or the bitterness of beer, and the flavors are as sensual as the smells.

Enjoying sake, then, may be the easy part. Understanding it is less so – though sake's history is fairly straightforward: It was first made in China about 4,000 years ago and eventually found its way to Japan. Only here did brewers hone the making of sake into an art, a science and a tradition—over time a wide variety of sake styles emerged through the use of varying regional techniques, and many still remain.

There is sake fortified with a punch of distilled ethanol and tarusake, which is kegged for a short time in fragrant cedar barrels. There is koshu sake, aged for years to develop nutty, chocolaty, buttery flavors. And there is nigori, or unfiltered sake, sparkling sake and fresh seasonal sake, unpasteurized and usually consumed immediately after brewing, called namazake, and many more.

Not just any rice will do for brewing sake. Special varieties, treated much the way vintners do their wine grapes, are grown in Japan exclusively for use in brewing. The rice is always milled prior to brewing (brown rice sake is virtually nonexistent because, frankly, it tastes funky), and, generally speaking, the more the rice is milled, the better the sake – or at least the more expensive. Junmai-shu grade sake is at the lower end of the ladder. It's made from rice kernels polished to about 70 percent their starting size. Ginjo-shu grade uses rice polished to about 60 percent the starting kernel size. And the finest sakes of all are daiginjo-shu, made from tiny pearls of rice polished away to half their starting size or smaller.

While an increasing number of sake breweries are appearing in America, the best sake still comes from Japan. Prices can be steep, with most standard 720 ml bottles going for at least $20, though mini bottles are common and provide a more affordable opportunity to taste one's way across the spectrum. Still, walking into a bottle shop can be daunting. Bottles – as well as cans and foil pouches – are crisscrossed with the ornate lettering of the Japanese language, and with so many sakes to choose from, where does one start? It's hard to go wrong, as virtually no imported sake will put you off. Certainly, though, some are more interesting than others, and here are a few suggestions to help ease you into the world of rice wine. Sake, that is:

  • Kiku-Masamune Brewing Company Taru-Sake. 300 ml ($6)

Soaked in cedar barrels for just several weeks, this tarusake is redolent of a mossy forest floor and freshly cut lumber. Beneath the wood scent is complex blend of vanilla, nougat, and fruit flavors.

  • Kamoizumi Brewing Company Red Maple Namazume Unpasteurized. 720 ml ($33)
  • Although a "fresh" and seasonal unpasteurized brew, this 18-percent ABV namazake has been aged for two years, in which time it has developed delicious scents of chocolate, raisin, and hazelnut. The taste is of fudge and caramel, and it goes down as smoothly as butter.

  • Choryo Shuzo Brewing Company Sawa Sawa Sparkling Sake 250 ml ($6)
  • Just 8- to 9-percent ABV, this sparkling sake is unfiltered, and a dusting of sediment hugs the bottom of the bottle – so shake before drinking to get all the good stuff. The Sawa Sawa smells fruity and musky – but in a good way – and with a familiar but vague aroma that is, simply put, "ricey."

  • Ichishima Ginjo Koshu, Aged Five Years. 720 ml ($75)
  • Solitary confinement in steel tanks will do dramatic things to a sake, and in this ginjo-shu grade brew there remains only a faint whisper of the clean and perfumey fruitiness of youth. More prominent are the rich aromas and flavors of pine nuts, chocolate, chestnuts, and wood smoke, all layered upon each other through five years of aging.

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