Guide to Japanese Sake
Things you want to know about Sake
-Sake is gaining popularity in the United States. But you will be surprised of how little you about it. Here are some of Sake’s variations and characteristics-
Depends on the ingredients, and the way it is processed, sake can be categorized into several kinds. Basically, there are four kinds in Japanese sake, Ginjoshu (premium sake), Junmai-shu (pure sake), Honjozo- shu (brewage sake), and Futsu-shu (standard sake). Among these four kinds, three — Ginjo-shu, Junmai-shu, Hon-jozo-shu — are categorized as Tokutei-meisho-shu, specially designated sake.
Ginjo-shu (Premium sake)
Ginjo-shu has 70 years of history, which is comparatively shorter than other kinds. This kind of sake requires brewer’s experiences and high skills. Ginjoshu was originally brewed just for the sake contest that was held for brewers, so the sake was not commerciallydesignated. To show how much skill the brewers have, they compete each other by submitting their best. Since it was intended just for the contest, the amount they brew was very small and it rarely reached to ordinary consumers. Somehow the sake became known to sake connoisseurs, and started to be drunk outside of the contest. Gradually its production was increased to come onto the market.
Junmai-shu (Pure sake)
It is made from only rice, no distilled alcohol is added at all. This is why Junmai-shu is translated to “pure sake”. Recent popularity toward health-conscious is affecting to the turnover of Junmai-shu. I think almost all breweries in Japan brew Junmai-shu now. Having no other addition, this sake is greatly affected by the rice. And it is also not so easy to brew, since it depends much on the quality of the ingredients.
Hon-jozo-shu (Brewage sake)
This sake has a small mount of distilled alcohol, which is usually added at the final stage of the process. The addition of the alcohol makes the sake lighter, little bit drier, rich flavor, and easy to drink. Now, Hon-jozoshu is quite popular, and it has largest brewing amount among Tokutei-meisho-shu. Big sake brewing companies in Japan have trend toward increasing Hon-jozo-shu production instead of decreasing Futsu-shu.
Futsu-shu (Standard Sake)
This is the most common, and the best-selling product, which holds a share of 80% of whole sake selling in Japan. When you order sake at Japanese restaurants, you usually get this Futsu-shu. Because of the recent growth of Tokutei-meisho-shu, especially Hon-jozo-shu, the sake’ s share might have gone down little bit. However it still has well-founded reputation.
Smoothness of Sake
What make us feel sake’s smoothness? Water is the answer. It works as a barrier, and prevents toughing tongue directly by covering alcohol molecules. If you take pure alcohol, your tongue gets burning pain, just like putting antiseptic alcohol on hurt skin. Bound up alcohol lessen irritation, and it makes sake’s smoothness.
However transforming sake into the state is not so easy. It needs be set down to ferment in a very quiet place. Leaving it to age, water and alcohol molecules gradually joins together, and water molecules covers alcohol at the end. When water covers alcohol completely, it tastes very smooth, and this is what people call matured sake.
The theory goes for whiskey and brandy, too. Depending on the brand, some are very smooth, and some stings even they have same alcohol percentage. Generally, the more expensive one has the more smooth taste. It means the higher quality ones were spent longer time to make it, and it is very understandable that the one that used more time is sold expensively.
Recently, there is a high-tech way to make alcohol mature in short time by the infrared light. It is surely an epoch-making invention, but I prefer naturally fermented one. The one spent actual time to mature has elegant taste, and it definitely differs from high-tech processed. But just laying aside doesn’t make good sake, ether. It has to be left and treated in a certain way, and patience is needed to let sake mature in good way.
When sake is matured and got smoothness, it also gets crispness. Expression of crispness is often used for sake taste, and it has very deep meaning. How to express sake taste is very difficult and complicated, so people often use unusual saying for that. Usually crisp sake has very pleasant aftertaste that never get stuck in the throat. But I am not saying it is like water. Because it gives off wellbalanced aroma in the mouth before it goes into throat. A word ‘drinking’ might not be appropriate for good sake. As if melting away, good sake disappears into throat. Good sake also leaves moderate aftertaste on tongue. It keeps sending off good flavor with good tension.
On the contrary, the one, which is not matured well, has bad aftertaste. It doesn’t go into throat smoothly, and makes feel like something is slightly stuck. Most of non-matured sake has weird bitterness, astringency, and roughness on the tongue as well as its poor taste. It is not easy to taste slight difference, but if you compare several kinds, you will find difference.
To know each sake’s character before you buy, you can check indications on the bottle. “Houjun Karakuchi”, “Houjun Amakuchi”, “Tanrei Karakuchi”, and “Tanrei Amakuchi” are the typical type of indication.
• Houjun Karakuchi:
Full-bodied and sharp sake with strong sourness and sweetness
• Houjun Amakuchi:
Full-bodied and mellow sake with strong sourness and sweetness
• Tanrei Karakuchi:
Sharp and dry sake with moderate sourness and sweetness
• Tanrei Amakuchi:
Sharp and mellow sake with moderate sourness and sweetness
Actually, there are many other expressions for sake taste. Besides it is not easy to know what its taste like by those words. But those words are still helpful to classify, and indicate. If you know those words, it is going to be very useful hints, and advantageous for you.
Looking for your favorite one by checking label is very fun. But unfortunately, most of indications are written in Japanese. It is great if you could memorize those Kanji characters. But if you think that is too difficult, just ask the sales clerk in the shop. They will help you to find your favorite one.
A Small Universe in a Bottle
Do you think that sake will taste better if you keep it a long time? Just because some wines or whiskeys, which are often stored for long periods, are considered precious, many people think that all alcoholic beverages follow the same logic. However, alcohol that can be preserved for a long time is in fact a minority group, and in the case of sake, taste cannot be improved by merely holding on to it. In this issue, I would like to talk about methods of maintaining sake and its taste.
Japanese sake is very sensitive, so it is important to know how to store it. People sometimes say, “Japanese sake has a bad smell.” However, that is not the true flavor of sake, rather it has been influenced by the way it was stored. There are three hints to keep sake’s taste: 1. Keep it in a dark place, 2. Keep it in a cool place, and 3. Drink it as soon as possible after opening.
Keep in a dark place: In the way that the sun is not good for our skin, sake is also susceptible to ultraviolet light. This includes not only direct sunlight but also fluorescent light. If you store sake in a bright room, sake will get discolored and its flavor will get spoiled. Like wine bottles, sake bottles are usually brown or green, because ultraviolet light has a harder time passing through them. These days, we can find bottles specially made to block ultraviolet and it says so on their labels. Yet there is no bottle that can cut 100% of ultraviolet rays, so it is better to store them in a dark place.
Keep in a cool place: At the change of the seasons, when we have a huge range in temperatures, we find we are susceptible to sickness. Similarly, sake is not good at dealing with temperature differences. At high temperatures, the essential amino acids that constitute flavor in sake are changed. Thus, sake matures too quickly and produces an unpleasant flavor. Also, the components of aroma decrease. Direct sun exposes sake to not only ultraviolet light, but also high temperature. If possible, it should be preserved in a place that is under 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degree C ) and does not undergo much temperature difference. Sake is not sealed with a cork like wine is; so there is no need to lay them down. It is OK to stand them up. (After opening, if you store them lying down, you should watch for leaking. Don’t waste sake!)
Drink soon after opening: I know we want to enjoy drinking a luxurious sake, such as Daiginjou-shu, little by little. However, in that case, I recommend sealing it tight and keeping it in a dark, cool place. Once sake is opened, it has a high probability of having contact with air (oxygen), gradually becoming damaged. Occasionally, sake gets exposed to unwanted bacteria, causing it to become muddy. This is a kind of lactic acid bacteria. It reproduces within sake and creates lactic acid, making it taste sour. An expensive, delicious sake would lose its original flavor, so it is the best to drink it as soon as possible once you open it. This can be said of all sake.
Is there an expiration date for sake?
For Japanese sake products, the manufacturing date is printed, but there is nothing to indicate expiration date. Sake drinkers sometimes ask, “Can we drink sake after 1 year?” A rule of thumb, for an unopened bottle is:
General Sake: 365 days, Special Name Sake: 300 days, Raw Sake: 180 days
If unopened and properly stored, sake should be consumed in about 1 year. If it passes 1 year and its taste and flavor is lost, however, it is not bad for your health. Special Name Sake, such as Dai-ginjo, Junmai-shu and Honjouzou-shu, and raw sake that has not been heat pasteurized, have to be consumed earlier in order to enjoy their fresh flavor and taste.
If sake is over-matured, it becomes bitter and astringent. Almost all sake is kept 3 to 6 months before shipment and is adjusted to be best consumed when it arrives in consumers’ hands. Thus, when you buy sake, it is the best time to drink it.
Tuna that has been tossed about by rough seas would have plenty of fat and be very tasty.
A Strange Little Ball
— Sake’s Sugidama —
However, young fish is tasty in its own way. In the same way, sake that is new and fresh has a refreshing taste while mature and balanced sake has a graceful taste. How about drinking a freshly brewed sake then some Daiginjo and experiencing the difference?In front of every Japanese sake brewery, there hangs a round bushlike bundle of sugi or Japanese cedar branches. This object is called sugidama (“cedar ball”) or sakabayashi (“sake forest”) and is used as a kind of store sign for sake breweries.
The connection between Japanese cedar and sake is very old, and the wood is used in various capacities, such as for easing the sake-making process or for its inherent antibacterial properties. For example, it is used for sake-making buckets, barrels and for masu, the square wooden cup that sake is traditionally served in. Also, when water needs to be removed from a bucket of soaking sake rice, the fine leaves of the cedar is employed as a kind of strainer, preventing the rice from falling out.
The origin of sugidama traces back to the Edo Era (1615 -1868). There are two leading theories as to where it came from. One is that, when a new batch of sake became ready, the brewer would line up cedar branches in front of the store to signal that fresh sake was for sale. From that, it simply evolved into hanging a bundle of those branches. Others trace the origin back to a cedar tree that is worshipped as the personification of the sake god at the Miwa Shrine in Nara. Which theory is the true one is not known, but in either case, the sugidama took on the role of being the store sign for breweries.
When new sake is ready, a fresh, green sugidama is hung. This not only symbolizes that the sake is well made, but it also calls for the blessing of the gods. At the end of the year-when that new sake is usually ready-a new, fresh green sugidama is usually hung, giving a kind of thanks for the previous year’s production. Then, as the sake-making process is begun again, the sugidama gradually withers and turns brown, mirroring the fermenting process that is occurring in the workshop. So the sugidama, which is a symbol for the sale of sake, becomes a symbol for the sake itself.
In Japan, the brewery’s symbol is the sugidama. In the West, there are equivalents. The pine tree in Greek mythology was considered the sacred tree of Bacchus, the wine god. And a tavern associated with an Austrian winemaker called Heulige features a kind of fir tree branch as its sign, and it is said that they serve newly available wine. This is certainly a remarkable resemblance between East and West. Perhaps because folktales and customs are spread through migrations of people over time, ideas can be exchanged across continents.
Today, we still see sugidama in front of breweries, but, while things change every year, they say this happens less and less, and because people who understand its meaning decrease, it loses its effectiveness as advertisement, so those who make sugidama become fewer and fewer.
However, sugidama have been making a comeback recently. The survival of old but good traditions is something to be happy about. We hope that as long as there are sake breweries, we will see sugidama.
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