Saké 101

Written By: Mark Thrift, Director of Wine, Spirits and Beer

My first taste of saké was in 1973, I was just starting out in the wine industry with my family’s wholesale distribution company. It was Kiku-Masamune saké and while it was not love at first taste, I did continue to learn more about saké and have been an aficionado for decades.

The origin of saké is unclear, but certainly dates back over 1,200 years in Japan. Saké is made with rice, water and koji mold. The fungus is used to saccharify, the process of converting carbohydrate molecules in rice to a simple sugar so the rice can then be fermented to produce alcohol.  The brewing process is different from beer as the conversion from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol in in two distinct steps.  When saké is brewed these conversions are simultaneous. In Japanese the word saké refers to any alcoholic drink.  In English the term Nihonshu, meaning Japanese liquor is more closely associated with saké. Let’s explore the components of Nihonshu more closely.

Rice – The rice used for making saké has a larger, stronger grain so it will not break during the polishing process and is not palatable for eating. The core is rich starch and is converted to sugar for fermentation.

Water – The mineral content of the water used plays a large role in the final product. Too much iron or manganese is not good, whereas potassium, magnesium and phosphorus serves as nutrients for yeast during fermentation and is desirable. Soft water yields sweeter saké while hard water is known for producing drier saké.

Koji-kin – the spores are another important component of saké and are also used to make other fermented foods like miso and shoyu (soy sauce). The spores are scattered over steamed rice to produce the conversion from starch to sugar so the rice can begin fermentation.

Fermentation – Saké fermentation is a three step process. First step called hatsuzoe where the steamed rice, water, koji and yeast are mixed together. Second step called nakazoe involves the addition of a second batch of koji, steamed rice and water to the previous day’s mixture. On the fourth day tamazoe takes place where the third and final batch of steamed rice, koji and water are added to complete the three step process. After fermentation is complete the fermented moromi is pushed through a press to remove the saké lees and then pasteurized and filtered.

The Different types of saké and recommendations:

  • Junmai – Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto saké has a rich full-bodied earthy flavor. This Well balanced saké can be served hot, cold or room temperature, best paired with pork, smoked salmon, tempura and yakatori.
  • Honjozo – Ban Ryu Honjozo saké is light and fruity in its aroma with undertones of black currant. The finish is crisp and clean. Ban Ryu Honjozo is a very versatile saké to pair with a variety of foods from a green salad to ramen or spicy curry.
  • Junmai Ginjo – Kikusui Junmai Ginjo saké is light and balanced with aromas of fresh cantaloupe and banana followed by a medium bodied palate with mandarin orange overtones. This nice white wine alternative pairs well with lighter dishes like chicken, white fish, or pork.
  • Ginjo – Narutotai Ginjo Nama Genshu saké is a big, exuberant saké.  A perfect Sushi/ Sashimi saké to pair with Hamachi, Tai or maki rolls as well as simmered and grilled seafood. With flavors of pear, white grape and melon and a hint of citrus, it is crisp, brisk and zesty.
  • Junmai Daiginjo – Mu Junmai Daiginjo is fruity, dry, delicate with a brilliant aromatic character. This saké carries an aroma of green apples and Asian pear with a hint of anise on the finish. Serve chilled with vinegar-based salads, fruits, white fish, shrimp, or fried chicken.

Here are other terms that may help with your understanding of saké.

  • Masu – The traditional square wooden box used to drink saké.
  • Mirin – Sweetened wine made from glutinous rice with rice malt and mixed with 5% alcohol.
  • Nama – Unpasteurized saké that contains the live yeast cells from the brewing process.
  • Nigori – Saké that is unfiltered, “cloudy” with sediment that settles to the bottom of the bottle.
  • Shochu – A distilled beverage similar to vodka made from sweet potatoes, rice, corn or barley.
  • SMV – The Saké Meter Value, the value is either positive or negative, the higher the value the drier the saké.
  • Taru – Saké aged in wood barrels.
  • Toji – The master brewery.
  • Tokubetsu – A special designation for either Junmai or Honjozo brews.

While saké has been brewed for centuries it is still not well understood or consumed. If fact, saké is only 7% of all alcohol consumed in Japan and 0.1% of all alcohol consumed in the US. Mollie Stone’s Markets are committed to bring you the widest variety of saké available from well-known producers to artisanal craft saké makers.  I hope you take some time and explore our saké selections on your next trip to one of our stores. Kanpai!