What is Sake?
Many people ask this very simple question: Just what is sake anyway?
Great question! Most people think of sake as a kind of rice wine, but really the production method is more like beer than wine. The brewing process is multilayered (and definitely worth researching if you are interested), but the most important thing to remember is: Koji!
Koji is what makes sake special. It is the microorganism that turns starch into sugar, which in turn is consumed by yeast to make alcohol.
Now about the categories. The most common category I see is Junmai. Junmai simply means there are only three ingredients in the sake: Water, rice and Koji.
Yuki Otoko is one of our best sellers here at Kuraichi. This bone-dry sake is a great introduction to the wonders of sake for wine lovers.
Junmai can be put in front of many other category names (Junmai Genshu, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo) but if you see any Junmai sake you know it has no added alcohol, sugar or anything besides water, rice and koji.
When alcohol is added we call it Honjozo. Adding alcohol at the end of the brewing process can help smoothen the sake and help keep the quality for longer.
Kenbishi Kuromatsu, wow what an experience this one is. A super classic Honjozo sake from perhaps the world's first sake brewery.
Now on to the next two "big" categories: Daiginjo and Ginjo. To explain these we need to learn a little about rice.
Picture a grain of rice. The core is made of starch which is then surrounded by proteins, fats, minerals, etc. Generally, but not always, when more of stuff that's not starch is milled off the rice grains, the smoother, more elegant and delicate a sake is, while the more that is left un-milled, the more a sake is generally "funky" (but not always, sake is more an art than a science, this is just a rule of thumb. Other things affect the "funky-ness" of a sake, like the brewing method, water and more).
Ginjo sake is a premium sake where the rice has been milled or polished down to at least 60%. One can generally expect a ginjo sake to have lighter, fruity tastes, often quite aromatic. Again, there is a wide varitey of flavors and profiles within the category of Ginjo, however as a rule of thumb they tend to be fruity sakes.
Daiginjo sake is a super premium sakes where the rice milling is past 50%. Daiginjo sake is usually very elegant and smooth, the way I describe a daiginjo sake is they are so smooth the flavor of the sake hits your palate, and then is vacuumed out!
Here we have a great example of "Ginjo" flavor. Joto Ginjo is an excellent introduction Ginjo for those who have never had the privilege.
What a cute bottle! This Daiginjo sake is by the Tatenokawa brewery, one of my favorites. This is a light but flavorful and elegant sake, great for sipping or as a gift.
Both Ginjo sake and Daiginjo sake are meant to be kept chilled, lest the flavor and quality start to change. Best practice is also to keep them away from sunlight.
Just a few more important categories to learn and then you should be set to start your journey to sake-pro! Now let's discuss a very unique category: Nigori.
Nigori sake is unfiltered sake, literally rice is left in the bottle! Well, rice lees. This gives Nigori sake that unmistakable "cloudy" look and creamy texture. There is no real comparison drink to a Nigori, save maybe an alcoholic milkshake.
This is a must try Nigori for New Yorkers and those beyond. Brewed in Bushwick, this is a super elegant Nigori that perfectly balances creaminess and sweetness.
Finally let's get on to my personal favorite: Nama.
Nama sake is unpasteurized sake. Pasteurization is a process of heating the sake for an amount of time to kill any harmful bacteria and ready it for trans-Pacific travel. It can take three months for sake to sail from Japan to the United States, so sake is usually pasteurized once after brewing, and then once more before bottling. This allows the sake to make the trip to the States and then sit on a shelf until you pick it up.
While pasteurization is wonderful for keeping sake up to snuff for long periods, it does remove some of the fresh nama-flavor from sake. Nama sake is very special because it still has a delicious "fresh" flavor, true Nama sake even feels bubbly on the tongue after sipping, this is because the yeast is still alive in the bottle (the secret of Nama sake in the US is almost all of it is pasteurized once, making it Nama Chozo sake. This is the only way it can survive the journey overseas, however do not despair! Both Brooklyn Kura and Kato Sake Works have TRUE Nama sake on tap at their breweries. It is a must-try!).
Both a Nama and a Genshu! If you've ever been to Kuraichi there's a good chance I recommended this sake to you. Tamagawa White Label is the best! Full stop!
One more extra thing to know: Genshu.
Genshu sake is undilluted sake, meaning no water is added at the end of brewing. Usually water is added to lower the ABV of sake down to about 14ish%. Genshu sake is usually around 18-22% ABV. Be aware when drinking a Genshu!
If you can remember these few categories of sake, you will have no trouble navigating the World of Sake! But of course, the best way to learn is by trying, so try to your heart's content.
We have well over 300 sakes here at Kuraichi and our Beverage Director Sam is always on the hunt for a new and exciting sake. Please come over to Industry City and visit us in store or order online and find your new favorite sake today!