Looking for a new summer drink? Consider Japanese sake. If you think sake is warm, rough and something to avoid, you’re in for a surprise!
One common misconception is that sake is a rice wine. Actually, wine is fermented fruit, whereas sake is made with grain using a process similar to brewing beer. In Japan, producers are referred to as sake breweries. Only natural ingredients are used, the most important being water and rice.
Another myth is that sake is better served hot. In reality, lower-grade varieties are heated, and most Japanese never touch the stuff. Most fine sakes are served at the temperature of white wine, 45 to 50 degrees. Scott Bernas, general manager of Ra Sushi Bar Restaurant, dispels these myths daily. “Not many people know that the best sake comes cold or chilled, which is perfect on a warm summer day,” he says. “Sakes come in various styles with completely different flavors. Something else that makes sake really appealing is that it is all natural and won’t give you that dreaded hangover.”
To understand sake one must first understand the three main categories that are listed on the bottle and define its purity, taste and elegance. The first step in making sake is to polish off the outer shell of the rice, which may add rougher, harsher flavors to sake. The categories define how much the outer shell is polished off; the more the rice is polished the lighter and more fragrant the sake. The three main categories are as follows:
Junmai (juhn-my) sake must be polished to at least 70 percent, i.e., a minimum of 30 percent of the grain is polished away. It is characterized by a full, clean and solid flavor.
Jumai Ginjo (juhn-my Geen-joe) is brewed using traditional handmade techniques, which polish away at least 40 percent of the grain. Junmai Ginjo sake is fermented at lower temperatures and for a longer time. The result is a lighter, fruitier and more refined brew.
Junmai dai Ginjo (juhn-my die-Geen-joe) represents the crème de la crème in sake. This sake is brewed with ultra-polished rice (at least 50 percent) and even more precise production techniques— virtually nothing is left to machinery. Junmai dai Ginjo sake is light, incredibly fragrant with elegant flavors.
Like wine, the quality of sake ranges vastly. Paired with the right dish, it is the perfect addition to a summer gathering. Sake is not just the perfect pairing for sushi, however; there are countless dishes that can benefit from a sake pairing. The guidelines for pairing sake and food are similar to pairings with wine: Match fuller, more powerful Junmai sake with heavier, more powerful flavors, and lighter Gingo and dai Gingo styles with lighter fish, salads, etc. —Laurie Forster
Laurie Forster, The Wine Coach®, is a wine educator who creates corporate events, group tastings and team-building seminars. She is the author of “The Sipping Point: A Crash Course in Wine,” and can be heard each week on WBAL 1090AM. thewinecoach.com.