If Sake is an acquired taste, then the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have acquired the taste and those yet to acquire it.
Once bitten by the bug, you’ll never look back as a world of unalloyed drinking pleasure opens up before you.
Part of the process is getting to grips with how it is made and its various different grades, but while a little learning can prise the gates to Sake heaven ajar, only the taste will fling them open and convert you to the delights of Japan’s national drink.
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Sake just means alcohol (?) in Japan, whereas the rice-based drink that we know as Sake is in fact called ‘Nihonshu ???’, Japanese alcohol made from rice. Derived from ancient China, rice-based alcohol beverages have been made in Japan for over 1,000 years.
Many (some say 100) varieties of rice can be used for Sake production. The most widely used Sake rice include Yamadanishiki ???, Gohyakumangoku ???? and Miyamanishiki ???. These are deemed most suitable for making Sake due to the large percentage of the ‘white heart ??’ – or the starch in the core.
Sake generally weighs in at around 15–20% abv, depending on the style and production method. It has just a fifth of the acidity of wine. What it lacks in wine’s crisp, refreshing acid bite, however, it more than makes up for in texture, subtlety of flavour and diversity of style.
Quality grades are determined by the polishing ratio, or ‘Semai Buai ????’. This ratio indicates how much of the rice grain is milled away, removing the protein and fat on the translucent exterior, before the starchy core is revealed and ready to be converted by the koji mould to fermentable sugar.
Generally speaking, Sake gets more expensive when more rice is milled away (at a lower polishing ratio) and tends to showcase a more delicate, fruity aroma profile. However, it’s worth noting that the milling ratio isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality. The savoury, punchy rice flavours from protein and fat, which are considered an impurity, may well be the desired style for some producers.
Perhaps the most significant contribution to the style and flavour comes from the aims and techniques of the ‘Toji ??’, the master brewer.
For the most common production method, the rice is first washed, steamed and cooled. A small proportion of the rice is then spread out on wooden tables, where the starch is broken down into fermentable sugar by the addition of koji mould spores. Subsequently, more steamed rice, yeast, and beneficial bacteria are added, allowing the simultaneous transformation of starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol.
By the end of fermentation, the brewer has the option to add alcohol to refine the flavour profiles or keep the Sake ‘Junmai (purely rice or ??)’.
Decisions at the bottling stage, such as whether to pasteurise, when to do so, and how many times, can also shape the flavour and the longevity of the final product.
Sake styles to know
Daiginjo ??? – Super premium Sake with a 50% polishing ratio. Usually showcasing elegant fruity, floral perfume with great purity and finesse. If there is no indication of ‘Junmai’ on the label, it means the Sake is polished by a splash of distilled alcohol.
Ginjo ?? – Premium fragrant Sake with a 60% polishing ratio, can have a slight hint of savoury complexity. Also contains additional alcohol if no mention of Junmai on the label.
Honjozo ??? – The entrance to the premium category – made using rice polished to 70% and up to 10% alcohol – tends to yield an easy-drinking, ‘ricey’ and less aromatic Sake.
Junmai ?? – Literally, it means ‘purely rice’. It refers to Sake made with nothing other than rice, water, yeast and Koji fungus. Junmai Sakes, compared to styles made with added alcohol, tend to exhibit a richer mouthfeel and more…
Source : https://www.decanter.com/wine-reviews-tastings/sake-beginners-guide-top-recommendations-332318/