Wine, as we all know, is made from grapes. Wine can also be made from other fruits and berries – strawberries, pears, apricots – pretty much anything that can be fermented to create alcohol from sugar. Sake, or Japanese Rice Wine, is technically more of a beer than a wine because it is brewed from rice rather than just fermented, but it is appreciated and consumed more like a wine. The extent of most people’s knowledge of sake is the warm drink served in tiny cups at Sushi Bars and Asian restaurants, but there is much more to know and appreciate in sake.
Our next Wine Down Wednesday on April 28 (tickets on sale here) will take place at beautiful Shiro Restaurant in Novi. The cuisine at Shiro is Asian and French-oriented, so we thought we would step out of the ordinary a bit and feature Sake and French Wine – a unique combination that will, hopefully, allow you to an opportunity to experience something different. To prepare you for the experience, we thought we would give you a little primer in sake.
The Japanese have been making sake for centuries and the technique has varied over time, but the basics remain the same. The fundamental ingredients in sake are rice and water. Steamed rice and koji (which is rice cultivated with koji mold) are mixed with yeast to make a yeast starter. More rice and koji are added over a 4 day period then the mash is allowed to sit for 8-32 days. It is then pressed and filtered. Filtration is where much of the distinguishing character of various sakes occurs. After that, it is aged for about 6 months and blended with water just before shipping to bring the alcohol concentration down from 20% to about 16%. Obviously, there is a much more to it than that, but you can see the process is both similar to and different from the process of making wine.
While the production process differs from wine, the way in which Sake is appreciated is very similar to wine. Like wine, sakes vary in color, aroma, flavor and finish and the techniques used by sake brewers impact the end result of their efforts tremendously.
Sake can be served warm or cool. Better sakes are often served cool to cold because heating is often used to mask inferiorities in the product and can make a fruity, complex sake turn dull and lifeless, depending on the flavor profile. Certain aromas and flavors are more apparent when cool or warm, so the flavor components will determine which serving method is best for a particular sake. Some sakes indicate on the label if they are better served warm or cool, but generally it is personal preference. Try your sake served at various temperatures to determine which way suits it, and you, best.
When tasting sake, you generally want to observe 7 things about the beverage, keeping in mind that sake is a much subtler beverage than wine, so distinctions will be subtle as well:
- Fragrance (none to fragrant): Some sake has a very prominent fragrance. This fragrance can be floral, fruity or grainy. Others have no fragrance at all. Neither is considered better than the other, but rather a reflection of the region, water, rice and cuisine. Whatever the fragrance, you can assume it is what the toji (head brewer) wanted to achieve.
- Impact (quiet to explosive): This is your initial impression on tasting the sake. Some sake is soft and gentle, others are highly acidic or sweet and wake your senses immediately.
- Sweet/Dry: Like wine, sakes can vary in their sweetness level. Keep in mind this component will vary with the serving temperature of the sake.
- Acidity (soft to puckering): This generally makes its presence known at the beginning and the end. More acidic sake generally works better with oiler foods like tempura.
- Presence (unassuming to full): This is similar to the “body” element in tasting wine. Sake is generally a very light beverage compared to even the lightest wines, but it still has a distinct presence or mouthfeel to it.
- Earthiness (delicate to dank): Aged sake often has a more earthy, dank flavor to it.
- Tail (quickly finishing to pervasive): Like the finish on a wine, the finish of a sake can be short or long.
And those are the basics… Now it’s time to taste!
Tidbits to Amaze and Delight your Friends and Family
The history of sake brewing is extensive and varied. One step along the development process was the brewing of kuchi-kame sake. The brewing process was simple, if rather disgusting. Rice was chewed up (most desirably by virgins) and spit into large vats. Enzymes from the women’s saliva and natural yeast combined to create alcohol. There are no records as to the taste of this concoction, but I’m betting today’s choices are much more appealing.