June 3, 2006 | Episode 22

Rice: the primary ingredient in sake.
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Understanding Sake

Japan's national drink made easy

What Is It?

Sake is a fermented beverage made from four ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji (an enzyme that radiates fermentation), with an average alcohol content of 14 to 17 percent. Although many people call it a rice wine, sake is actually closer to beer because it is made from a grain (not a grape) and it is brewed (not distilled). Within the last few years, sake has become increasingly popular in the United States.

The Most Common Types of Sake

• Junmai-shu: This standard, non-premium sake has the earthy flavor of rice, says sake sommelier Eric Swanson, who has consulted on the sake lists at the restaurants Masa, in New York City, and Shibuya, in Las Vegas. Junmai-shu is great to drink with sushi because its uncomplicated flavor doesn’t mask the delicacy of raw fish, says Swanson. “A heavier, sweet sake would overwhelm the nuanced experience of eating sushi,” he says.

• Junmai Ginjo: This is premium sake, with some added alcohol. It tends to have a slightly sweeter, more fruity and floral flavor than junmai-shu, and it’s less acidic than junmai. Those characteristics particularly pair well with lightly seasoned seafood, says Swanson.

• Junmai Daiginjo: This is ultra-premium sake (also with some added alcohol).  The rice is highly milled before brewing, resulting in a smoother, cleaner, and more refined flavor.  "It has more pronounced fruity and floral characteristics than ginjo,” says Swanson. Swanson recommends daiginjo sakes with meats, especially steak, because its refinement pairs nicely with heartier flavors.

What to Look For on a Sake Label

• Date: “The most important thing is the date of production. I always look for sake that’s less than a year old,” says Rocky Aoki, founder of the Benihana restaurants and the RKA Saké Club. “Sake is not like wine, where it gets better with age — the fresher, the better.”

• Category: Ginjos and daiginjos are particularly popular in the United States, says Swanson, because their fruity and floral elements resemble those of wine more than other types of sake. “So a basic rule is always look for the word ginjo on the list or label, whether it be ginjo or daiginjo, because it will be something fairly light and smooth and somewhat fragrant and interesting, and most likely something you will enjoy it,” says Swanson.

• Region: As a rule of thumb, sakes from the north of Japan are clean and light; sakes from the southwest of Japan are a little richer and more flavorful; and sakes from the south of Japan tend to be a little heavier, says Swanson. “So if I’m having a lighter cuisine, I like to pair it with northern sakes. If I’m eating something that’s a little oily, I pair it to the southern sakes,” he says.

How to Drink It

Hot, warm, or cold? “There is no correct temperature for drinking sake,” Aoki says. “So go with what you like.” He does recommend keeping the season in mind. “During the hot temperatures in the summer, nothing is better than chilled sake to freshen up,” he says, adding that hot sake is a great winter warmer.

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