Japanese sake can seem complicated, but in this month’s Premium Wine Club from WTSO.com, we’ll break it down for beginners and experts alike. With the help of our resident wine expert Marc Supsic and special guest sake expert John Gauntner, you’ll be sake-savvy in no time!
The Origin of Japanese Sake
The first alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice was produced in China over 5,000 years ago. 2,500 years later, the libation emigrated to Japan, where it was fully embraced and perfected – sake!
In order to release fermentable starches in the rice, the outer layer of each grain is removed. Sake rice is “polished” down, in a process called Seimaibuai, to 50-70% of its original size to get to the starchy center. Generally speaking, the more the grain is polished, the higher the quality and flavor of the wine.
Much like grape wine, sake is classified by several factors, including the type of rice used, where it was produced, the degree to which the rice has been polished, brewing processes, how it was filtered, and more. Almost all premium sake will mention the Prefecture (region) where the wine was produced and the type of rice used.
What is Sake Made Of?
The “magic” ingredient that made Japanese sake different from its predecessor was koji, a naturally-occurring fungus that grows on damp rice. Koji breaks down the starches in rice and alters the flavor too. It’s so fundamental to sake production in Japan that it’s actually called the “National Fungus.”
Anywhere high quality rice and clear, fresh water can be found, so can sake. Unlike wine grapes, climate plays less of a role in the flavor profile. A sake’s character is more a result of the rice (with over 120 regional strains), water composition, and the brewer’s technique – in many cases, secrets of tradition that have been guarded for centuries.
Sake Styles and Food Pairings
In the last decade, sake has really become an artisanal craft and is now as nuanced as craft beer and wine, too. It’s not just for sushi or seafood anymore, opening up a world of possibilities for enjoying it.
What Does Sake Taste Like? Flavors in Premium Sake
High quality sake may be made from rice, but the flavors and textures can be very similar to white wine. Sake can range in style from light and sparkling, dry and sweet, heavy and rich.
The most common notes you’ll get out of sake are those of flowers and of fruit like green apple, pear, citrus, and tropical fruits, especially banana and pineapple. And always, there will be some level of nutty umami from the rice.
There are so many ways to enjoy today’s high quality sake, you don’t need to be traditional anymore. Think outside the (bento) box and you’ll be rewarded!
How Sake Pairs with Everyday Food
Since sake is lower in acidity than white wine, it benefits from dishes that go big on flavor. Anything with extra salt, lemons, limes or vinegar, is likely to be a great pairing. In every pairing, try to counterbalance the weight of the dish with the sake, light with heavy, or tart with sweet.
Sake is great with white meats, especially pork and chicken. A slightly sweet, more full-bodied sake, like a cloudy Nigori can be paired with Easter ham or Thanksgiving turkey.
Sake’s floral notes go great with herb dishes like lavender and citrus chicken or with a cold white bean and thyme salad. Sometimes you can get a slightly green quality in sake, similar to the rind of a watermelon. Grilled asparagus, green beans, or peas with mint would be an excellent match for that.
Of course, sake is made with rice, which often gives it a creamy taste, a nuttiness or even light coconut vibe. Toasted bread crumbs, seeds or nuts would pair well here. Try something like this sesame crusted ahi tuna recipe.
And lastly, the koji fungus that is used in the sake making process adds a slightly oily and savory umami feel in the mouth. That makes it a great match for balsamic vinegar and mushrooms.
The Health Benefits of Sake
Although the alcohol content is similar to wines, sake has very low amounts of the acids and sulfites that cause headaches and hangovers.
Sake is gluten free and contains probiotics to aid in digestion. Its compounds are also known to prevent allergies from pollen, house dust mites, and foods.
Other sake health benefits include:
- Contains amino acids and antioxidants, such as ferulic acid that is a powerful UV absorber. This promotes healthy skin and helps to prevent aging.
- Strengthens skeletal muscles from amino acids, as well as enzyme inhibitors from koji.
- Reduces bad cholesterol for heart-healthy benefits by inhibiting the production of enzymes that are known to contribute to high blood pressure.
- Low in sugar, plus low calorie content compared to other alcoholic beverages.
- 80% water and contains substances that hinder the absorption of starch and promotes proteins.
These statements are not intended and should be used as medical advice. Of course, the health benefits of sake do not apply to heavy drinkers. Please drink moderately to discover the natural benefits of Japanese rice wines.
Serving Premium Sake: Drink Hot or Cold?
Sakes are served at different temperatures depending on the quality and style. Drinking it cold will accentuate fruit and acidity, whereas gently warming it (to about 100°F) will bring out the nutty, savory characteristics and deliver the heat of the alcohol. The sakes in our five-level collection are refreshing and quite similar to white wines, so we recommend serving chilled.
Where to Buy Sake Online?
Want this tasting set of five premium sakes delivered to your door? Join the Premium Wine Club! Every month we’ll take you on a new wine adventure, which includes premium bottles delivered, tons of tasting tips and notes, and a live virtual tasting with our wine expert leading the way.
Order this sake tasting set – Premium Sake For Beginners and Experts – currently 20% off retail by March 27, 2023 to discover various levels of Nigori, Junmai and Daiginjo. On April 20, 2023, join us and special guest Sake Samurai John Gauntner along with host and wine expert sommelier Marc Supsic as they take us on a journey online to some of Japan’s most prestigious sake breweries and uncover extreme umami flavors!