Sake has been considered a “novelty,” and perhaps for some time it was so. However, it should not take a back seat to wine, beer, distilled spirits or even cocktails – it truly is a legitimate libation that has a myriad of food pairing possibilities as well as pure sipping pleasures. In fact, any restaurant that has a wine list should offer sake as well. For years we have considered sake an exotic beverage that was best served nuclear-fission hot and known for producing epic hangovers! This is not the case with today’s premium brews – they are solid, balanced, and extremely dependable in the kitchen, dining room, or at the bar.
Sake is a strange word.
If you go to Japan and ask for a “sake bar” the cab driver will take you to a club or a regular bar. If you ask him to take you to a sake store, you’ll find yourself standing outside a run-of-the-mill liquor store. Why? Because the word "sake" does not mean sake as you know it! We know it as the fermented rice beverage from Japan served in those little cups at sushi bars. But in Japan it means something quite different – sake simply means alcohol – beer, wine, shochu, whiskey etc.
Sake is considered more of a category than a single libation. The generic word for sake in Japan is nihonshu or “Wine of Japan.” Tell the cab driver that you want to go to a bar or store with nihonshu. Lastly, the legal word for“sake” aka nihonshu is actually Seishu. This is the term used in official government documentation like taxes or in other formal contexts. Basically in the west we refer to nihonshu as sake – but technically we should be using the proper terminology when we speak about this beverage.
Sake is best when fresh.
Yes – it’s true – the fresher the better! Sake is perishable – make no mistake! Every Toji brews sake to taste like something for a reason, and that reason is best captured between 12-15 months after bottling date! That is why SakeSocial.com works so hard to ensure that you are drinking the freshest brew each and every time that you order. The more balanced a sake brew, the longer it will last. Simply put, good sake lasts! Poorly crafted brews will slowly decline in the bottle and will not taste the same after about 15 months. Most jizakes will put their shipping date on the bottle – so check it!
Dates are important!
What's in a date? Nothing and everything! If sake is supposed to taste the way a Toji intended, then when is the best time to enjoy all the hard work put into a brew? Most labels will have a date or code that represents one. If you see a date that you can read then you are in luck. If the label has a combination of letters and numbers, it will be impossible to ascertain the date as the brewer has encoded the date to prevent exactly this. It's quite sneaky and usually indicative of a large brewery trying to protect the fact that their bottles will sit on shelves for quite some time.
The actual date listed on a label is usually the date the bottle ships from the brewery. Many think that this date is a bottling date, but in most cases it is not, because many breweries "bottle age" a portion of their brews and to list the bottling date would be erroneous in regards to the desired time period of “drinkability.”
Not all bottle dates are the same!
Is your country “ruled”- in theory- by an Emperor? Some may say yes, but most will probably say no. Why is this important with sake? Because in Japan, the calendar revolves around the time when the last Emperor began his reign. The current Emperor took control 21 years ago and you may very well see this date on the bottle in your hand. For example 21.01 would translate to January 2009 for us in the west. 20-7 would be July 2008. Likewise the Japanese will always place the year before the month in dates on a label – as in 08.12 means December 2008.
Sake is extremely clean.
There are not many “cleaner” or simpler alcohols than sake. Rice and water that has been fermented and then pasteurized – pretty darn clean! No need for preservatives like sulfites as found in wine. Many people are sulfite intolerant which is why wine smacks them in the skull the morning after. Sake also has 1/3 the acidity of your typical glass of wine (red or white), and this is incredibly appealing to those who have acid reflux and or other digestive issues. Another positive aspect of sake is that it is very low in histamines, which is incredibly important to those who are afflicted by allergens. It’s pretty simple to see the strengths of a beverage that has no preservatives, low acidity levels, and very low histamine levels.
There is a lot of sake out there.
For years it seemed like the US and the west in general had about ten choices when it came to selecting sake. Sadly that was pretty much the case! This is doubly sad considering that there are roughly 1,400 breweries in Japan that carry between 15-30 different product offerings. There is a lot to choose from in Japan, and the good news is that more and more of these brews are becoming available in the States.
However, because of the laws in the US – one cannot just import any sake that they find in Japan. There is a lengthy process for registering sakes with the TTB (formerly the ATF) and other governmental bodies which includes submitting each brew to the FDA for chemical analysis. Today there are roughly 900 different sakes that have been registered in the US, of which 300-400 are actively used at any time. Thankfully, this number is growing due to its increased demand.
Not all Sake is hot.
In the west we were first introduced to sake served piping hot. The brews that were imported were not high-quality and the resulting instructions from breweries was to serve them hot. To this day most people will say that sake is meant to be served hot. In the past, heating low quality brews might mask some of the bitter qualities but it also set expectations that this was the only way. Not all hot sake is bad sake, and not all sake should be served hot. The happy medium is the fact that the more premium the brew, the better it is served chilled (in most cases). A general rule is that Daiginjo and Ginjograde brews should be served chilled while Junmai and Honjozo brews do better at room temperature or slightly chilled. Just remember that hot sake is not bad sake – if you heat up bad sake then you get bad hot sake. Many brews are superb when warmed, and that is a comforting fact in Japan where temperatures are frigid during many parts of the year.
I can never remember the name!
Stop complaining and start writing things down! If you can’t recall an amazing sake that you drank then hit the pad of paper or the napkin or ask the waitress to write it down. Remembering a sake brew is on you! We recommend that you start a sake journal that may be a small booklet that accompanies you to each and every sake destination that you frequent. FYI, SakeSocial actually tracks your brews that you purchase, comment on, and its all kept in your profile -- call it your online sake journal. Or break out that cell phone camera and shoot! Bottom line is that the next step in understanding sake is to come to grips with names, brands and prefectures. It’s easy to know Napa or Bordeaux, but slightly more difficult to grasp Yamagata or Akita sakes. That said the name of the brew may not be the actual name of the brew. Huh? In the sake world there are at least three names for each sake – the brewery name, the brand name, the specific sake name and of course the “street” name. For example there is a brewery in Nagano Prefecture called “Masumi,” which is owned by the Miyasaka family and their sakes each have a translated name. In the West they offer a Junmai called Musumi “Okuden Kantsukuri” or Mirror of Truth from Miyasaka Brewing Co.– three names … same brew!
Don’t go looking for "terrior" just yet, but maybe one day!
Historically all sake tasted like home! Your water, your rice, your special ingredients, and your style of brewing to make your locals happy! But with the advent of mass transportation the sake industry realized that certain regions produced better raw materials than others. For example, Yamadanishiki brewing rice grows very well in the Hyogo prefecture, so many brewers sought out this rice varietal forgoing their locally grown rice. Then they realized that they could buy koji-kin and kobo from other regions to produce even more appealing sake. But appealing to whom? To the big cities of course, and therein rests the reason that sake lost its once dominant terrior. The good news is that many breweries and prefectures are coming home and using only local ingredients. Is terrior as pronounced in sake as it is in wine? The answer is, not really. Rice is grown in standing water as opposed to vines in soil, and although there are specific “varietals” for both rice and grapes – grapes are far more important to the wines final product as rice is to sakes.
Sake brewing has no good years versus bad years.
Ask any sake brewer what the “good” years were and he will never say. Ask him the bad years and he will very reluctantly tell you the few years that storms damaged the rice crops producing a poor yield. Meaning the sake industry is unlike the wine making industry in which 80% of the final product is dictated by the quality of the grape that season. The wine scenario is basically 80% grape quality and 20% technique to achieve each year’s wine. Sake making is practically the inverse – 20-40% of the final product is dictated by the quality of the rice that season – the other majority is brewing technique. And therein rests the reason why sake has a consistent quality ratio that is not possible in wine or beer production year in and year out.