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What I’m Drinking Now: Sake

rihaku wandering poetAs noted, the top sommeliers in Texas converged in Dallas at the Four Seasons a few weeks ago.  The best sommelier in Texas was tested and selected, and public and trade seminars were held for over 200 attendees. 

One session in particular opened my eyes to flavors that I was familiar with, but hadn’t ever really taken the time to get to know.  Master Sommelier Keith Goldston led a Sunday morning session explaining the origin, nuances and uniqueness of sake, with its Korean roots, and unchanging Japanese production, and almost ceremonial enjoyment. 
Sake, known as Nihonshu in Japan, is as important to the Japanese culture as Bordeaux and Burgundy are to the French. 

Some of the basics that surprised me were that there are over 200 varieties of rice that the Japanese use in their culture, but only 28 are used in sake.  Each of these 28 offer different flavor profiles, some with floral notes, some with mineral flavors, some with earthy richness.  All in all, much like wine grapes…just with rice. 

There are over 1300 Kura (sake breweries) in Japan making sake that ranges from15%-22% alcohol levels.  Most breweries are located near water.  The water can add as much to a sake’s flavor profile as the rice.  Water is a key element especially when diluting the sake.  Most sake’s are produced with upwards of 18%+ alcohol; water is used to lower the alcohol levels prior to bottling.

Most sake is consumed within 6 months of bottling.  If you find older sake enjoy it, because it is rare…and expensive….  Sake is an appealing option for those of us who love wine, but sometime can’t drink it due to high acid levels.  Sake is known for its low acid, zero sulfide pureness…and it tastes so good.

We tasted a variety of sake, looking at several different kinds from the same breweries and production: Hot vs. Cold; Filtered vs. Unfiltered; Pasteurized vs. Unpasteurized.

Here are some to try:

Rihaku “Wondering Poet” Junmai Ginjo vs. Rihaku “Wondering Poet” Junmai Ginjo (Nama) - Pasteurized vs. Non-Pasteurized.  I was a fan of the non-pasteurized with a round, complex flavor.  The pasteurized had a cleaner flavor, but a bit more pungent.  The non-pasteurized requires refrigerated storage, unlike the pasteurized, and has a shorter shelf life. 

Mantensei “Star Filled Sky” Junmai Ginjo - Warm vs. Chilled.  I like warm sake, it has comforting qualities to me, and is very easy to drink.  The chilled version really shows off the beauty of the sake though.  Chilling the sake allows the elegant floral and defined mineral characteristics to shine.

Mukune “Root of Innocence” Junmai Ginjo vs. Mukune “Shadows of Katano” Junmai Ginjo - Filtered vs. Unfiltered.  Loved the unfiltered (I love unfiltered wine as well like Newton’s Claret….leaving the wine unfiltered maintains depth of the wine with intense aromas and flavors.)  The Unfiltered had smooth, clean, and approachable richness that was easily consumed at this mid-morning tasting.

3 comments on “What I’m Drinking Now: Sake

  1. I was very, very gratified that the Court of Master Sommeliers saw it fit to devote an entire session of its excellent conference (BIG thanks to all the organizers, especially Master Sommelier James Tidwell, who has asked on this very blog, “Why aren’t people drinking more sake?”). I learned a lot on both days, including at the outstanding Texas wines session and the “Running a beverage program” panel.

    Thank you so much for writing about sake here, as well!

    Because I love sake and work daily with it, I feel compelled to offer a few points to augment your post (else one of Dallas’ five–of 150 worldwide–other certified sake experts will, LOL):
    – the roots of sake are vague: China, Korea, Japan itself. Sake in its current form has a thousand-year history in Japan. Modern, pristine sake has been brewed in its form for about 40 years. For all intents and purposes, refined sake is Japanese in origin. The US has five breweries.
    – Japan grows hundreds of types of rice, of which, about a hundred are used for sake brewing, with 87 being officially registered strains, as of 2007. 12 are “important”.
    – Rice is the chief determinant of flavor, while yeast type (hundreds, approx. 16 “important”) is chief contributor to the nose. Water contributes hugely to both flavor and mouth feel. Koji-kin, which breaks rice starches into yeast-consumable sugars, vitally affects everything.
    – Japan currently has 1,600 licensed breweries, of which about 1,400 are active. Virtually all, as you noted, are located on a suitable water source. Thousands of sakes are made (dashing forever, I hope, the notion that there’s just one hot rotgut cup served by all sushi joints). Several hundred are exported to the US.
    – Sake alcohol ranges 8% – 23%. Out of the fermentation tank, alcohol is typically 18% – 23% and is diluted with brewing water (heightening the importance of suitable water) to, typically, 14% – 17%. Low alcohol as well as full strength versions exist and have their own charms and application.
    - Most sakes should be consumed within 1 year of release. Sake may have been stored in the bottle (in fact, bottle storage, vs. traditional tank storage, is a trend) for up to two years by the brewer, who release the sake when it’s time. There are all manners of “resting” methods used, including cave-aging. Many breweries also custom-age sake for customers, although aged sake is very much an acquired taste.
    - The various types of namazake (unpasteurized or once-pasteurized, vs. the normal twice pasteurized), should be kept cold always and be drunk as soon as possible after purchase. A specific type of sake, called shiboritate (just, as in very recently, pressed) should be drunk yesterday to enjoy its unique fresh, brash character.
    - Most brewmasters tell me that they brew their sakes with slightly chilled service in mind. They do brew specific sakes for room temp or warmed (to no more than 110F) enjoyment.
    - I wish folks would stop using the term, “unfiltered”. The fermenting rice mash is the consistency of porridge. Nigori (the Japanese term) sake is indeed filtered, but using a less fine media, so that some rice solids are allowed to pass through, remaining in suspension, and, in the case of completely unpasteurized sake, continue fermenting in storage or in the bottle. I prefer the terms “cloudy” or “lightly filtered” sake.
    - I, too, enjoyed the tasting, but should point out that the “Root of Innocence” and “Shadows of Katano”, while from the same Osaka brewer, are made with different rice mixtures and with different yeasts. Indeed, Andrew Chalk had asked during the tasting, “Why do they smell completely different?” Quite a nose and palate on that guy. Both are very good sakes, in their own right, made by an incredibly interesting, articulate man.

    He’s the guy with the vest in this rough video, taken by my sake classmate and friend Bruce, while we watched rice for Root of Innocence being washed and dried (precision timed to the second, changing day to day). I have to, sheepishly, confess that the top of the head which kept intruding into the frame is that of yours truly.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0skZY49kdVU

    Thank you again for writing about sake and for for D Magazine’s incredible support of sake in Dallas. I really appreciate it. Sake is pure, elegant, and incredibly versatile, with food or for sipping with friends. Please continue discovering it.

  2. It must be a Trend we attended a trunk show last night at Tootsies SIP Cocktail Catering was serving Sake & Soju Martini’s

  3. Have a friend who is completely immersed into the sake revolution (he even ventured to New York and achieved his Level 1 Sake Sommelier Certification) I have come to appreciate sake much much more now that I know some of it’s history. If anyone is interested, they started a blog about homebrewing, and they’ve also worked with some local restaurants to provide sake tastings. http://www.sakepirate.com, i believe the first one is September 19th at Tei Tei. I think the blog site is http://www.closetsake.com