Sake is the traditional rice wine of Japan. When first produced over two thousand years ago, it was revered and used as an offering to the various gods and deities of Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion, known as the “drink of the gods”. For quite some time, sake production in Japan was carried out mainly within the Imperial Court, only being consumed on festival or celebration days.
Now, however, sake is widely available and relatively inexpensive while still playing a large role in many aspects of Japanese culture. Whether being sipped by bride and groom during a traditional wedding ceremony, or consumed to celebrate a victory, sake has deep seated and widely known symbolic value.
Sake (pronounced “sah-keh” not “sah-kee”) essentially refers to any alcohol in Japan, though in the west commonly refers only to the Japanese rice wine, or Nihonshu. Sake is served in a small, typically ceramic flask called a tokkuri. It is usually bulbous with a narrow neck, however other styles are available such as katakuchi, which looks something like a tea kettle.
The cup used to drink sake is typically in an ochoko, a small, handle-free cup. Other styles are the sakazuki, a flat saucer-like cup or the masu, a wooden box-like cup. A win glass, though non-traditional, is technically the best vessel from which to drink sake. Designed to allow the drinker to see the color and experience all facets of the aroma,which have a huge impact on flavor, the wine glass allows for complete enjoyment of sake. In most restaurants, however, the traditional ochoko cup is used.
Regular sake, honjozo-shu (at least 30% of rice polished away; a tad of distilled alcohol is added) and junmai-shu (pure rice wine; no adding of distilled alcohol) are usually warmed to room temperature, while ginjo-shu (at least 40% of rice polished away; with or without alcohol added; if bottle is labeled Ginjo, it means distilled alcohol was added; if labeled Junmai Ginjo, it means no alcohol added) and namazake (special 5th designation for unpasteurized sake; incorporates all four above) are chilled. Sake Flavor Profiles Honjozo is sake wherein a small amount of distilled pure alcohol is added to smoothen and lighten the flavor, and to make the sake a bit more fragrant. Honjozo often makes a good candidate for warm sake. The flavor is lighter, and magically the fragrance becomes much more prominent.
Junmai refers to pure sake, pure in the sense that no adjuncts (starches or sugars other than rice added to the fermenting mixture) were used, and that no brewer’s alcohol was added either. Junmai often has a fuller, richer body and a higher-than-average acidity. The nose is often not as prominent as other types of sake, nor are other parameters dependent on whether a sake is a junmai or not.
Ginjo sake is much more delicate and light and complex than the above two. A special yeast, lower fermentation temperatures, and labor -intensive techniques make for fragrant, intricate brews. Here is a typical ginjo chart. Namazake is sake that has not been pasteurized. It should be stored cold, or the flavor and clarity could suffer. Namazake has a fresh, lively touch to the flavor. All types of sake (junmaishu, honjozo, ginjo-shu, and daiginjo-shu) can be namazake, or not. Some ginjo-shu and daiginjo-shu are also junmai-shu. So a junmai ginjo-shu is a ginjo-shu with no added ethyl alcohol. If a ginjo or daiginjo is not labeled junmai, then the added alcohol is limited to the same small amounts as honjozo.
At Tona, we serve the Regular Sake warm. For best enjoyment, we offer different kinds of chilled sake. They are categorize into three kind:
1. Filtered Sake – Junmai Ginjo and Jumai Sake. Characteristics include dry, silky smooth and clean. This kind of sake goes well with delicate dish like our sashimi and traditional sushi. The sake we carry are Sho Chiku Bai and Tozai – Living Jewel.
2. Unfiltered Sake (Cloudy Sake) – Nigori sake. Characteristics include creamy, sweet and smooth. This kind of sake goes well with spicy dish. The sake we carry are Sayuri and Snow Beauty.
3. Sparkling Sake – naturally carbonated sake. Characteristics include refreshing light and slightly sweet. This is the lightest sake we carry. Choose this sake if you enjoy Champagne. The sake we carry is Zipang.
When drinking sake, it is considered polite to serve your guests first & yourself last. If making a toast, you can say “Kanpai” if you’re in a Japanese restaurant (Kanpai means cheers, toast, quite literally, to drink a glass dry.). Touch your cups together & enjoy!