For the Sake of Sake
Most people have only experienced hot sake as an accompaniment to sushi, but you don't have to go to Japan to become a bona fide sake connoisseur!
First- what really is sake? How is it made?
Sake is an alcoholic beverage produced using the multi-parallel fermentation of rice, where the rice starch is broken down into sugar which is then in turn transformed to alcohol. The sake is then filtered (to remove solids) and sometimes diluted (with water), with the resulting liquid being clear and displaying characteristics similar to that of a wine.
Like wine, there are categories of sake. But instead of breaking out in terms of different varietals of grapes such as Chardonnay or Cabernet, sake is broken down in terms of how much each grain of sake brewing rice is milled. Thus, categories of sake are established by polishing/milling percentages irrespective of the rice varietal.
So never mind that there are roughly 70 different sake brewing rice types including the very famous Yamadanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Miyamnishiki, and Omachi. Instead, think in terms of how much each grain of rice is removed from the outside husk in the attempt to get at the starchy core inside of each grain the brewing rice.
There is a practice in Japan that calls for the adding of small amounts of distilled alcohol to the brewing process, which amongst other results brings out different flavors, aromas, and textures in the sake. The reasons for this are purely up to the breweries' desires and discretions, and these types of sakes create new categories also based on milling percentages.
Sake is classified by how finely milled the rice is before brewing. The more polished the rice, the higher the grade of sake. At the bottom: Futsu-shu (or just futsu—shu simply means “sake”). Honjozo is a mid-grade sake, followed by ginjo and daiginjo (both premium). These all include additional distilled alcohol. Junmai sake, on the other hand, is brewed only with rice and no extra alcohol is added.One of the most important terms in the sake lexicon is Junmai. This term means the milling percentage of each grain of rice no less than 30% with 70% of each grain remaining. But dont forget, Junmai also means the absence of any distilled alcohol. Thus when you see the word Junmai Ginjo you can know that this sake is made from rice and water only and has been polished 40% with 60% of each grain remaining.
And in case you are wondering, there is very little chance that you could differentiate between a sake that has a bit of distilled alcohol in it and one that does not. Some purists argue against added alcohol. However, sake is a different thing to different people, and there is no right or wrong as long as rice and water are the vast majority of the components.
The Japanese word Seimaibuai (say-my-boo-eye) is the most poignant word that you will need to know to order your sake by grade and category. Seimaibuai is the actual term for how much a grain of brewing rice is polished or milled. For example, a Seimaibuai of 50% means that each grain of rice that makes up that particular sake has been milled or polished 50% leaving a remaining value of 50% (Dai Ginjo grade sake). Likewise a sake that has a value of 60% means that each grain of rice was polished or milled 40% and this constitutes a Ginjo grade sake.
So when connecting the two key words Junmai and Seimaibuai, you will be able to distinguish the various commonly accepted grades of sake: Junmai meaning the absence of distilled alcohol, and Seimaibuai meaning the milling value for each sake.
Sake can be served both warm and cold and ranges in sweetness and style. If you're looking for a bottle to try or have a meal pairing in mind, we're here and happy to help! Check out some of our favorites sakes below!
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