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Sake

Monday, 17 August 2009 | Tags: ,

Served piping hot or chilled, Japanese sake has become a hip drink at happy hour, and a must-have beverage when enjoying Japanese cuisine. We find out what you need to know about this interesting libation.

The Basics

  • In Japanese culture, sake is typically imbibed to mark important ceremonies like weddings and celebrations.

  • Sake is neither wine nor beer, and yet it is both. Made from grain, it tastes better fresh (characteristics of beer) yet it’s consumed by connoisseurs in wine glasses and its alcohol content ranges from 12-16% (similar to wine).

  • Sake is often called rice wine since it’s made by fermenting rice and spring water, along with a special mold called koji and yeast, but experts agree it’s in a class of its own.

  • There are four basic types of premium sake (non-premium or normal sake often contains a lot of added alcohol):

    • Daigingo is made with highly milled rice and has a lighter, more fruity and fragrant taste than ginjo sake. Can be found with or without added alcohol; called Junmai daiginjo when no alcohol is added. Junmai Daiginjo is considered the best premium sake.

    • Ginjo is made with highly milled rice (less milled that Daigingo) and can be found with or without added alcohol; called Junmai Ginjo when no alcohol is added. The taste is layered and complex, light and fragrant.

    • Junmai is premium sake containing only water, rice, yeast and Koji. It is less milled than Daigingo and Junmai, and has a heavier, more full-bodied than other types. No extra alcohol is added.

    • Honjozo sake is lighter than Junmai and has a small amount of distilled alcohol added. It is nice served at room temperature or warmed.

Buying Tips

Check the label:

  • If it just says “sake” on the label, it’s the equivalent of table wine – very generic. It’s also likely to have distilled grain alcohol added to it, especially the cheap stuff.

  • Ginjo is not a brand of sake but a category; ginjo sake is to sake what a single malt scotch is to regular scotch.

  • Some Ginjo and Daiginjo are also Junmai (i.e. a Junmai Ginjo is a Ginjo with no added alcohol); if a Ginjo or Daiginjo is not labeled Junmai, then the added alcohol is limited to the same small amounts as Honjozo.

Other Considerations

  • Although sake has a higher alcohol content than wine or beer, it contains no congeners – by-products found in many other alcohols and are the primary cause of hangovers.

  • There are between 180 and 240 calories in a 5.5 oz glass of sake, compared to about 100 to 130 calories in a glass of wine.

  • The top-selling brand is Gekkeikan, followed by Ozeki and Shochikubai. It’s safe to stick with one of those brands when you’re on your own. In a restaurant, consult with the sommelier or ask your server for his or her recommendation.

  • You can usually equate quality with price – the higher the price, the better it tastes, typically.

  • Sake presents a wide variety of flavors and can be served in various ways, depending on the season and the cuisine. It’s often served at French, Italian, and other restaurants, so don’t just enjoy it with Japanese! Sake’s many flavours can also be used as a base for cocktails. (Saketini, anyone?)

TEST CRITERIA

We recruited some sake connoisseurs-in-the-making to help us taste a variety of sake wines. We tested:

  • Gekkeikan Draft (American-made normal sake): $6.95 per 375 ml
  • Kagatobi Gokkan (Junmai): $17.50 per 300 ml
  • Yoshi (Junmai Ginjo (Organic)): $17.99 per 300 ml
  • Koto Sen Nen Super (Junmai Daiginjo): $45 per 300 ml

Note: when it comes to price, remember that one cup is typically about 250 ml.

Taste Test

  • Kristina like the nutty and buttery taste of the Kagatobi Gokkan.

  • Most of us didn’t care for the overpowering alcohol taste of the Gekkeikan Draft on its own, but perhaps mixed with something, it could redeem itself.

  • We didn’t find anything extra special about the premium-priced Junmai Daiginjo sake and we all found the two mid-priced sakes much more pleasing.

OUR TOP PICK

Half of us prefered the Kagatobi Gokkan (Junmai) and the other half liked the higher grade Yoshi (Junmai Ginjo); both had a lighter, very pleasing floral taste.

But we say try as many as you like because there are so many out there to enjoy, and depending on the type of food you’re eating with the sake, different brands may suit your meal better than others.

Kampai!

 

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