Beautiful sake barrels stacked high. Source: Shutterstock.
HIP HIP HOORAY, it’s World Sake Day!
Sake, also know as Nihonshu, is an alcoholic rice-based Japanese beverage. It’s brewed in the same style as beer but impersonates wine.
Every year on Oct 1 since 1987, sake is celebrated around the world, providing the perfect time for enthusiasts to whip out their best bottle.
October also marks the start of sake brewing season in Japan. The sake rice harvest has just been completed and the cold winter months, perfect for fermentation, are about to begin.
Sake hopped onto Japan’s boozing scene at least 2,000 years ago when the practice of wet rice cultivation (rice paddy fields) was introduced to the country.
Traditionally, sake was made by villagers who chewed rice kernels and nuts into a paste then spat them into a communal tub where water was added.
This chewing process produced the enzymes needed to start the fermentation process to make sake.
Fortunately, by the 14th century, sake producers had discovered that naturally occurring koji mold also contained the same enzyme as spit and replaced old methods with the new sanitary ones.
Sake brewing has come on a long way since the days of chewing and spitting.
Nowadays, sake rice is milled until it mostly contains starch. Then the mold and water are added to the rice to help convert the starch into sugar.
Once this stage is complete, the ingredients are left to ferment in the presence of yeast and eventually turn into silky sake.
While sake remains a traditional Japanese drink, steeped in history and found in every corner of the archipelago, it’s original simplicity has been adapted to pique the interest of a wider audience.
In the mid-2000s, the drink’s popularity pushed producers to reimagine sake and provide consumers with types of sake they didn’t know they needed.
Flavored and even sparkling versions have been added to sake menus in the last decade, giving the centuries-old drink a new appeal to younger urbanites.
But no matter your age, it’s important to try as many sakes as possible to find the right one for you.
By reading the bottle’s label, you’ll get a good idea of what to expect from the drink.
If it’s your first time sipping sake, avoid drinking Ryorishu as it is reserved for cooking.
Seishu is the one you should look for as it’s fresher and smoother.
When ordering sake, people usually get stumped when their server replies to their request with, “What kind?”
That’s why it’s essential to understand the Sake Meter Value (SMV).
The SMV indicates the sugar acid level, for example, +5 is moderately dry, while -2 is much sweeter.
If you know your palate, you can request a plus or minus bottle and look like a sake connoisseur.
Sake is traditionally poured from a tall bottle called a tokkuri and drunk from a small porcelain cup known as a sakazuki.
However, on special occasions or to mark someone’s generosity, sake is served in a saucer-like dish inside a small wooden box called a masu.
The sake is poured in a way that fills both the saucer and the masu.
While many people think of sake as a spirit, it contains far less alcohol than vodka or whiskey.
It’s wine-like characteristics and silky texture means it can be paired with plenty of Asian and Western foods.
Also, sake’s versatility allows it to be served chilled, at room temprature, or warm depending on the season. But never serve the best sake warm as it loses flavor and aroma as it heats.
Lastly, the best way to experience every flavor in your sake is to take small sips and hold it in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.
And always remember to cheers with a “Kampai!”
There is plenty of tasty, moderately priced sake on the market but if you’re looking to impress at your Japanese-themed dinner party, these are the ones to get.
Juyondai From: Yamagata, Japan Price per bottle: US$140 Juyondai is one of the highest-ranking sake brands in the world.
Its woody smell divides opinion, but the sweet fruity taste is a favorite among many seasoned sake drinkers.
Koshi no Kanbai From: Niigata, Japan Price per bottle: US$53 Brewed in the heart of Japan’s most established sake region, Niigata, Koshi no Kanbai has a one of a kind taste.
Its uniqueness comes from the shochu liquor (made from sweet potato, barley and sugar cane) which is added before the bottling process.
Unlike other sake, Koshi no Kanbai is only available at the end of summer and is very rare. So if you get the chance to try some, do!
Shichiken Mori No So From: Chubu, Japan Price per bottle: US$80 The relatively new trend of brewing sparkling sake is perfectly displayed in Shichiken Mori No So.
Sake brewers Shickiken partnered with the whiskey distiller Suntory Hakushu to create a sparkling sake with notes of vanilla that come from the oak whiskey barrels.
Ichinokura Suzune From: Miyagi, Japan Price per bottle: US$59 Ichinokura Suzune is a sparkling sake with a smooth finish.
Much like champagne, Ichinokura Suzune is rich and complex in its flavors that offer an initially sweet taste, followed by a lingering dryness.
Isojiman From: Shizuoka, Japan Price per bottle: US$50 According to the brewers, Isojiman has natural and gentle aromas of white peaches, muskmelons, LaFrance pears, ripe bananas, and passionfruit.
It may sound like a fruit cocktail, but it’s a delicate-tasting drink that pairs well with Japanese and French dishes.
Holly Patrick | @HollyMaeVogel
As a recent graduate of Journalism from Westminster University, Holly is keen on exploring the stories that hide in the most curious of places. She enjoys discovering new cultures, and has strong opinions about women's rights and how modern technology is influencing the globalized world. She also has a healthy inquisitiveness to find stimulating content… and the best pad thai in town.