Japan, Sake

May 1, 2004
2004 / May 2004

Cool sake is hot. Once thought of as a traditional, ceremonial Japanese beverage served warm in small ceramic cups, today’s sake is more often chilled to a temperature almost as cold as white wine, poured into a wine glass and sipped with fervor. Microbrews? Been there. Single malt scotch? Done that. Looking for the latest chic among connoisseurs of drink? Make it sake.

Neither wine nor beer nor distilled spirit, sake is made from a rice called sakamai, pure water and koji (steamed rice cultivated with a special mold). The sakamai is milled to remove bran and exterior solids. The more the rice is milled, the finer the sake it produces. Of the three main types of sake, Junmai-shu has about 30 percent of the rice’s exterior removed; Ginjo-shu has about 40 percent removed; and Daiginjo-shu has at least 50 percent removed. (Since these terms are transliterated from Japanese, spellings on labels may differ slightly.) The rice is steam-cooked, mixed with yeast and koji and fermented.After about a month, the mash is pressed, filtered and blended. It then rests for about six months before being released to market.

There are no vintage dates on sake. Stored well (in a cool, dark place), it should remain fresh for at least six months.As for color, sake ranges from almost transparent to golden amber for the fuller-flavored versions. If it is dark amber or brown, it is past its prime. Sake’s alcohol content is generally between 15 percent and 17 percent, compared to 11.5 percent to 14 percent for most table wine. Like wine connoisseurs, sake enthusiasts talk about the drink’s fragrance, balance and acidity, as well as its range from simple to complex, from light- to full-bodied, from dry to sweet.

A number of Japan’s breweries import sake to the United States, and there are some fine sake breweries in this country. A standard 720 milliliter bottle of sake (wine’s standard bottle is 750 milliliters), averages about $20 to $40 for the Junmai-shu type. Other types cost more.

Chill it, or warm it as most Japanese still do. Drink it with seafood, hors d’oeuvres, light
dishes and, of course, with sushi and other Japanese foods. Use it in mixed drinks.Try a saketini (vodka and sake). Best of all, drink it neat. Enjoy the unique qualities and savor the flavors of this new and old epicurean delight.

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