Introduction to Sake: 3 Steps to Choosing and Drinking Sake
While you are visiting Japan you will definitely want to spend some time drinking sake. There’s nothing in the world like good, authentic sake, near its source. For some reason, like Guinness in Ireland, it just tastes better in Japan. It could be the fact there is so much available locally (there are around 2,000 brewers who make sake in Japan). It could also be how it is often paired with good food (from snacks to haute cuisine) that makes it special, much like with good wines. Or it could also be the fact that in general, sake is meant to be enjoyed much sooner rather than later – in general fresher is better. In Japan there are many different sakes, with quite distinct flavors, styles and tastes. It can be hard to know what to drink, but we offer three simple steps to choosing sake by understanding what you might enjoy and luckily there is a lot of help – on the label, if you know how to read it.
In short, ask yourself three questions:
1. Is it a “namazake” (fresh) or pasteurized?
2. Is it dry or sweet?
3. How polished is the rice?
First, is this a namazake?
Nama is “fresh” or unpasteurized sake. It needs to be kept cool throughout its short-life (and is never consumed warm) until it finds itself in your happy belly. It generally has a bolder, stronger flavor than pasteurized sake which is heated during the brewing process to kill off unwanted bacteria that interact with remaining koji (yeast) that could impact the flavor and quality of the sake.
Namazake (the “s” in sake becomes a “z” when combined with another word) is not better or worse, it is just different, quite different. It makes up about 10% of the overall production of sake in Japan and has a wonderful boldness and zip about it.
Pasteurized sakes can have very refined, elegant and subtle flavors, textures and aromas that would be very unusual to find in namazakes. We make this distinction first because the two types are usually quite distinct and you could probably tell which sake was which in a quick taste test fairly easily. This will be indicated on the label [see diagram] or more simply ask whomever is selling or serving the sake if this is namazake (“Kore wa namazake desuka?”)
Is it sweet or dry?
To answer this question we look at something called the Sake Meter Value (SMV). A higher value means a dryer sake, whereas a lower value means a sweeter sake. The scale goes all the way from +20 (very dry) to -20 (very sweet) and compares the density of the sake to the density of water.
A sake with “0” measure has the same density as water. The value is measured with a floatation meter. The more sugar is in the sake, the denser it will be, and the more the meter will float in it. (The label may also tell you the acidity of the sake, which is another indication of how dry it is. Dryer sake will be more acidic.)
The SMV may not be on the label or the label may itself describe the sake as sweet or dry. Once you have tasted a few sakes with different SMVs, particularly at the outer ranges of the scale, you will quickly get a sense of the type you tend to enjoy most.
How polished is the rice?
Finally, look at the degree to which the rice has been polished. This is also known as the sake grade, and its labelling is governed by Japanese law since it is so important in establishing the quality of the sake. In the process of making sake, rice is first polished. The more a rice is polished, the purer the rice, and generally the cleaner and more elegant the flavor of the end sake product. Sakes with the most heavily polished rice are referred to as “Daiginjyou”. Daiginjyou sakes are made with rice polished down to 50% or below from its original weight. These are generally quite easy to drink, but also the most complex and fragrant. These are the top end sakes and usually the most expensive, given the amount of rice required in production and the typically the high level or craftsmanship associated with such sakes.
The next level is sake made with rice polished to at least 60% or less of its original weight. These are referred to as “Ginjyou” sakes. In practice it can be difficult to distinguish between Daigingyou and Ginjyou grade sakes. A very good and easy rule of thumb is that if your sake has the word “Ginjyou” in it somewhere, then it is a very safe bet that it is a good sake.
The next level from there is sake made with rice polished to at least 70% or less of its original weight. These are referred to as “Tokubetsu” (special) sakes. And anything above 70% is classified as “Futsu” (standard sakes). These sakes are typically produced in larger quantities, and many are wonderful to drink. You can find a lot of very interesting and intense favors since so much of the rice is used in the process. These are generally less expensive than ginjyou sakes.
Once you have learned the three questions, the different types and tastes of sake can open whole new worlds of enjoyment and matching with food. There are many other subtle variables and others will convincingly argue that other measures or characteristics are more important, like whether distilled alcohol was added during the brewing process, the type of yeast used, whether the sake was aged, how it was aged, and on and on. In a separate blog post we will go into much more detail on the sake making process. But here we are focusing on our experience as sake drinkers and we find these three steps to be the most helpful in selecting a great sake.
There is, however, one method we haven’t yet mentioned that is probably by far the best and easiest way to obtain a great sake. Simply ask your host, restaurant owner or chef (not necessarily the wait-staff), or liquor shop proprietor to recommend one for you. They are almost always extremely knowledgeable and proud of what they are serving, and want to help. You’ll almost never go wrong with that approach.