Sake is Japan’s national beverage and plays an important role in Japanese culture. It’s often used in Shinto rituals, sipped on special occasions such as New Year’s Day and these days it’s also experiencing a growth in popularity overseas. Here’s a quick primer to help you navigate your way around this quintessentially Japanese libation.
In Japanese, the word sake means “alcohol,” but here we’re focusing specifically on nihonshu (Japanese rice wine), which is actually closer to beer in terms of its brewing process.
Sake’s main ingredients are rice and water. The higher quality the rice and the purer the water, the better the sake is meant to taste. A special brewer’s rice called sakamai, which has larger grains than other types, is most commonly used — particularly when making premium sake.
First, the rice is milled to remove the outer husk, as the bran can spoil the flavor of the finished product. The polished rice is then soaked and steamed before being combined with koji (a mold used in the production of fermented foods like miso) and yeast to ferment. After fermentation, the resulting mixture is pressed and filtered to remove any undissolved ingredients before being left to mature.
It sounds simple so far, but as anyone who has bought sake in Japan will know — it gets more complicated! There are a number of different classifications of the beverage, the most basic distinction being between futsushu (ordinary sake) and tokutei meishoshu (specially designated sake).
Within the “specially designated” classification, there are eight different sub-categories that were specified by the Japanese government in the Liquor Tax Act. These relate to factors such as the addition of brewer’s alcohol and the degree to which the rice it was made with was polished. All sake that falls within these categories can be considered premium sake and of higher quality than the more common futsu, or ordinary, variety.
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