Having stayed in the shade of wine varieties for many decades, this Fall sake burst into the minds of all self-confident wine critics. The reason for the interest in Sake was revealed via the publication of known Wine Advocate Robert Parker, who finally drew attention to the untapped source of information about Japanese alcohol and stuck his nose into a glass of Sake. Of course, it has not been without scandal. Thanks to it, the story gained poignancy since readers rushed to stock up on Sake and finally showed distinction in the phenomenon of the exotic drink.
I propose to start with the theory, and the fresh scandal will be for dessert.
In Japan, October is considered to be the month of Sake, because during this month about two thousand years ago the Japanese started the first production of the beverage. You can feel a touch of mysticism here. It must be said, that by a strange coincidence an ancient Chinese character for the tenth month, which is October, is similar in the manner of writing to another, no less ancient Japanese hieroglyph denoting Sake. Is it coincidence? I think not.
Sake. Theory and Practical Peculiarities of Production
Insaku, or the technology of rice growing in the marsh area was brought from China to Japan earlier. That happened about five thousand years ago and later, about three thousand years ago, the first distant (very distant), ancestor of the modern sake appeared.
The Sake of the bygone era is a “sake, chewed in the mouth” – in some Shintoism temples, young religious girls, naturally virgins, were engaged in that chewing rice, chestnuts and millet. They spat all that into the vat where the whole mass began to ferment reaching the highest percentage of alcohol. Subsequently, all that was eaten more as food than drink.
In the early Middle Ages, Sake was produced five times a year. Finally, through frequent trial and error they concluded that Sake produced in the cold season has a more pleasant flavor than Sake produced in the summer. Around the same time, manufacturers began to use the “Hi-ire” procedure. This was the process of heating sake for 5-10 minutes at the temperature of 50-60 degrees. In other words, it was pasteurized. By the way, Louis Pasteur offered to apply the same method for the decontamination of food only 300 years later.
In the 18th century, the production of Sake started to acquire modern features. In these times, it was based in three cities: Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo). Later, the production of the mixture started in the center of the city of Nishinomiya, and later they distributed it throughout Japan.
At the end of the 19th century, the era of the famous “Sake Renaissance” began. Thanks to new technologies, it became possible to obtain a yeast fungus in pure form. Different types of fungi gave different taste and aroma characteristics of Sake. Thanks to that, the control of temperature and all other production processes was improved and the beverage became healthier.
In 1981 in Japan and some other countries, the use of a premium type of Sake, Ginjo, grew into fashion. Its production takes place at lower temperatures, resulting in a more subtle product with aromas of green apples, melon, pineapple, cherry, strawberry, anise, roses and lilies. At this time, the manufacturers started more or less stable exports of Japanese Sake. Especially, the popularity of the anise beverage around the world began to grow.
Sake is a fermented (affected by fermentation) alcoholic beverage made of rice. Yamada-Nishiki rice is considered the king among the varieties of rice breeds used in the production of Sake. Another important element is water. It is 80 percent Sake and very often experts draw a parallel between the water quality and the result. So, from hard water (water hardness is determined by the levels of calcium and magnesium) they get a stronger, “masculine” Sake, while soft water gives “women’s” Sake, which is more subtle and delicate.
The fungus is among the most important things too, which protrudes its magic wand to transform the starch into sugar. The next step is the addition of yeast, which plays a major role in the formation of tastes and aromas. The most commonly used yeast fungus is a type of yeast fungi №7.
Sometimes, just before the filtration, alcohol is added; it is not for making Sake stronger but for improving the concentration of flavor. The word “Junmai” inscribed in the label means that the Sake is produced without the addition of alcohol.
Nowadays, Sake is produced in America, Brazil, Spain, New Zealand and Australia, but it is traditionally a Japanese drink. To my mind, the quality of Japanese Sake is certainly superior to its competitors.
90 Points for Elegance!
Sake is a very special kind of beverage that cannot be compared to a hard drink (Sake is not distilled and the alcoholic content is 15-17% on average). Besides, you should not compare it with wine (the produced material does not play such a dominant role, as grapes, and does not contain sugar ready for fermentation). Of course, it is far from beer where the manufacturers usually add hops since in the production of Sake foreign materials are prohibited.
Taking into account the incredible rise in prices for premium wines, an interest in Sake, a very elegant but not overvalued drink, is quite reasonable. However, no one was surprised when at the end of August 2016, the Wine Advocate, the first time since 1998, gave an assessment of Sake by selecting 78 kinds of drinks and assigning each of them a grade not less than 90 points. The audience went crazy! Within forty minutes after the publication of the ratings, warehouses of the lucky finalists producing Sake were devastated.
It is worth mentioning that if Sake manufacturers produced hundreds, sometimes thousands of bottles, most premium wines produced tens of thousands of them. The prices of premium wines rated 90 points range from several hundred to several thousand dollars per bottle. On the other hand, the cheapest Sake Liwen Hao, which won the Wine Advocate award, costs about 15 dollars.
Therefore, it is high time we went back to a couple of months ago, in June 2016, when Japan quickly registered The Taste of Sake Company. By the end of August, the Company offered customers a catalog of 78 types of Sake. Prices on the site were markedly different from the producer ones. They rose dramatically! For example, $160 versus $45, and a week later the same bottle was $5,000.
Many of the awarded 78 types of Sake were so rare that their pictures could not be found on the Internet, but The Taste of Sake put showed on the pages of its site all 78 images of this beverage. An amazing coincidence, isn’t it? At the same time with the release of the acclaimed rating, an independent company bought up all 78 items awarded 90 and more points. The representatives of the Wine Advocate denied any hint of involvement in this strange story. Although, now a thorough investigation of the incident is being carried out. As they say, nothing is stolen without hands.
We are Looking for an Accompaniment to Sake
If you think that Sake is perfect only for Japanese cuisine, you are wrong. More and more restaurants in the world offer sake to Italian, Spanish, Thai, Indian, and Mexican cuisines. You can try the spicy dishes with Honjozo Sake, Junmai Ginjo Sake is perfect with seafood, hard cheeses are the best combination with Koshu Sake. Besides, Indian and Thai dishes are accompanied with Junmai Sake and steaks fit of Sake produced with the use of the ancient Kimoto method … The list can be continued but we are sure that everyone is able to find a unique combination for themselves.
If you don’t know where to start, trust us and try:
Sho Chiku Bai Junmai
Classical sake with a soft texture has flavors of ripe banana, peach, and oatmeal. The ideal serving temperature is 40-50 C, perfect with meat and mushroom dishes.
Umenishiki Ginjo Tuuno
Premium Sake with classic aromas of melon, plum, banana, pineapple, apple marshmallow and rice pudding. Perfect with oysters of Belarusian or Italian cuisine, in which there is basil. Drink is chilled in a wine glass.
Hakushika Junmai Daiginjo
Sake is made on the basis of the famous water “Miyamizu” from the Nado region. Hard water allows for Sake of “masculine style”. It is fresh, with the classic aromas of green apples, bananas, and plum yogurt. The finish is dry but well balanced. This Sake is perfect for seafood dishes of Mediterranean, Indian and Thai cuisine. Drink is chilled in a wine glass.
It is better to drink premium Sake using a wine glass, than ochoko / choko, which are traditional tiny cups that provide the procedure with Japanese colorit, but does not allow you to enjoy either the color or aroma of the beverage.
Sake serving temperature depends on the selected kind. For example, premium types Ginjo and Daiginjo are advised to chill to 6-8 degrees in wine glasses, while Futsu-shu (table sake) is best to serve warmed to 40-50 C in small cups.