Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Saké is a beverage that has always fascinated me. I do not claim to be a true connoisseur of sake, yet I have always enjoyed the drink from afar, if that makes any sense. Until recently, this beverage made from fermented rice, has really been an anomaly in the spirits world, yet that has changed with a bit of a sake renaissance.

The history of sake goes back to around the third century in Japan, when during the advent of wet rice cultivation, farmers soon discover that rice left out uncovered after harvest would be apt to exposure to natural, airborne, enzyme-producing mold spores. The result would create a euphoric elixir for anyone who consumed it, and sake was born.

Saké is actually a very generic term used to describe all alcoholic beverages in Japan. In 1973, the Central Brewers’ Union (the governing body of sake producers) started to use the term nihonshu, which literally translated, means Japanese sake. Legally, sake is known as seishu, which loosely means “refined sake.

There are generally 9 types of saké:

Futsuu-shu, or regular sake. 2/3 of total production of sake falls into this category.

Honjozo-shu is made from rice that has been milled to 70%, meaning 30% of the outer grain has been removed. A small amount of alcohol is added to this blend. Junmai-shu is the same except made only with rice, koji (the mold that breaks starch into sugars), water and yeast. This makes the sake lighter and more fragrant.

Tokubetsu Honjozo-shu is made from higher quality rice or above average polishing of the rice grains. Tokubetsu simply means special. Tokubetsu Junmai-shu is again, made only with the rice, koji, water and yeast.
Ginjo-shu is a slightly more fragrant grade of sake, more complex and more delicate. The grains are milled to at least 60% but often higher than that. Again, with the Junmai Ginjo-shu, there is no added alcohol, which lends to a more sturdy, more acidic beverage.

Daiginjo-shu represents the pinnacle of the brewer’s craft. Made from the best sake rice, milled down to at least 50% (and as far as 55%) and results in a typically clean, fragrant and very delicate beverage. Junmai Daiginjo-shu usually tends to be a fuller-bodied sake, more complex and more intricate. This is often the highest designation of sake.

Some terms to remember:

Nama-zake – Unpasteurized sake.
Genshu – Undiluted sake.

Nigori-zake – Cloudy sake, with a good amount of the fermenting mash still inside.

Funa-shibori – Pressed from the lees in the old manner, by filling meter-long canvas bags with moromi (fermenting mash of water, rice, koji and yeasts), laying them in a large wooden box or fune, and cranking down the lid to squeeze out the liquid.

Shizuku – sake that has been separated out from the lees by allowing the sake to drip out from the bags, with no pressure applied.

Tobin-gakoi – sake separated into 18-liter bottles upon pressing, usually produced through the funa-shibori or shizuku methods.

Ko-shu – Aged sake.

Nama-chozo – saké that has been stored for 6 months and then pasteurized right before it is shipped.

Hiya-oroshi – Similar to nama-chozo yet this saké has been pasteurized before the 6-months in storage.

Yamahai Shikomi and Kimoto – Centuries-old techniques for creating the moto yeast starter mash.

Shiboritate – Younger than most sake, this has been brewed and pressed, and bottled without the customary 6 month maturation period.

Saké is made beginning with the key ingredient: rice. Only sake rice can be used for making sake. There are dozens of varieties of sake rice, yet they must meet the best of standards for the toji, or head brewer. The other major components of sake are: water, koji (a mold – the technical name is Aspergillus Oryzae), and yeast.

This weekend, I hope to post some tasting notes from some of the sakes we carry here at LDWS. It, like many other members of the wine and spirits world, offers some amazing aromas and flavors, characters to your senses that you should experience. I haven’t really even begun to scratch the surface of sake, yet plan to add to this “primer” if you will, over the next few weeks.

Cheers, or声援.

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