Koji Sake, Japan
Gekkeikan Black & Gold Sake, Japan
Cost: $11.99, 15.99
M ost of the time I use this column to write about traditional Western wines, but occasionally I like to branch out and examine other drinking options.
So today we will look at saké, the rice wine that has been enjoyed in Japan for centuries.
I don’t think I would give up wine to make saké my daily drink, but it does have its charms. What got me thinking about it was Augusta University’s upcoming production of “The Mikado,” by Gilbert and Sullivan, February 9-11 in the Maxwell Theater.
Despite the fact that I am in the chorus, the cast includes some very talented adult and student performers. This production has updated lyrics reflecting modern events, making the show even funnier than usual. It is going to be a blockbuster show. You won’t want to miss it.
So spending all this rehearsal time as a resident of the fictional town of Titipu has had me trying to think Japanese. And what’s more Japanese than saké? It has been made in Japan for more than 2,000 years.
If you have tried saké you probably have had it at a Japanese restaurant, especially if you had sushi. That seems to be the most common pairing, but like wine, saké has a wide range of tastes and a wide range of pairings.
It can be served hot or cold, and all temperatures in between. Chilling it is supposed to bring out better characteristics, but during this cold weather we have been having, hot saké seems more appropriate. Most Americans seem to pronounce it SAH-kee, but in Japan I only heard the people say SAH-keh.
The drink ranges from very dry to sweet, though most of the ones I have had have been slightly sweet or neutral. The traditional way to drink it is neat, from a small clay cup or wooden box. But now it is acceptable to drink from a white wine glass, and some people are even using saké in cocktails.
I recently tried three sakés and liked two of them, Gekkeikan Black & Gold and Koji Saké. I got them at the Vineyard in Evans, which has a large selection. You can find saké at many restaurants, most wine shops and some liquor stores because saké can have a high alcohol level.
The Black & Gold was full-bodied with some hints of tropical fruit and roasted nuts. Although it is only 15.6 percent alcohol, it still had that alcohol taste typical of saké. I loved this warm and cold, and on a chilly night it really hit the spot. It is Junmai-shu class (More about that later.), and has a saké meter value of 0. It actually is a blend of two sakés made with rice milled to 60 percent and 70 percent. And it comes in a great bottle.
The Koji Saké came in a 1.5 liter bottle, so I’ll be drinking that for quite a while. Unless you are in Japan having dinner with Japanese businessmen, saké usually is a drink taken in small doses.
The two great things about this saké are its price ($12 for 1.5 liters) and the fact that it is made to match the hot weather in the South. It is the brainchild of Koji Aoto, who developed his own line of saké while working in Atlanta. He travels around the country informing people about saké and is the only saké sommelier in the Southeast.
The Koji Saké was light and refreshing, and it was good chilled, but I really liked it when it was warmed up.
If you try saké and decide you like it, you can explore the many different brands available in the Augusta area. Many of them sell for less than $20, so exploring saké doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition.
Here are some things you might want to know about saké as you start your voyage of discovery:
Saké is made from rice, water, yeast and koji, a fungus that breaks down the starch into fermentable glucose, and influences the aroma and flavor of sake. The process is a little more like brewing beer than making wine. The high mineral content of Japanese water is supposedly what makes their saké so much better than that made in the United States and other countries.
After steaming the rice, koji is kneaded into it, helping convert the starch to sugar, which the yeast will then turn into alcohol during a two-step fermentation process. The second stage lasts 25-30 days, during which brewers keep an eye on the batch day and night. The rice is then pressed and the saké is bottled.
It is made from rice, but that rice has more starch than the rice we eat. The rice is milled to take off the outer bran. The more that is removed, the higher quality the rice becomes. The lowest grade has 30 percent or less of its grain polished off, while the highest grade has 50 percent polished away
The main styles of saké are:
Junmai-shu is pure rice wine without adding distilled alcohol, often has a fuller, richer body and a higher-than-average acidity. At least 30 percent of rice polished away.
Honjozo-shu, at least 30 percent of rice polished away, a little alcohol added. Often a good candidate for warm saké. Usually a lighter, more fragrant drink.
Ginjo-shu, at least 40 percent of rice polished away, with or without alcohol added. If the bottle is labeled Ginjo, it means distilled alcohol was added; if labeled Junmai Ginjo, it means no alcohol added. Lighter, more delicate and more complex.
Daiginjo-shu, at least 50 percent of rice polished away; again with or without added alcohol. The pinnacle of the craft.
Namazake, special fifth designation for unpasteurized sake; incorporates all four above. Fresh, lively flavor. Should be stored cold.
Instead of classifying saké by the area where the rice is grown or the type of rice (there are 70), it is classified by how much of the bran is polished away.
Drier and lighter varieties are increasingly popular, but sweet and full-bodied sake also has a large following. Most breweries adhere to a numerical system rating sweetness. That can range from -5 (sweet) to +12 (very dry). The label is supposed to include the saké meter value, but I have found that many labels don’t have it.
The lore is that saké will not give you a hangover because it doesn’t lower your body temperature like wine or beer, and the ions in the water provide energy. I don’t know if that’s true, but I did have a memorable dinner with some Bridgestone-Firestone executives in Hikone, Japan, where Aiken’s sister plant is located. We drank an awful lot of sake over a meal of several hours, drinking out of traditional wooden saké boxes. The next day I felt great.
You should drink saké young. It is not meant to be aged. When tasting it, treat it much like you would wine. Sniff it, take a sip and swirl it around your mouth and tongue before swallowing. You can pick up various characteristics, but I find the differences much more pronounced in wine. There often is more of an alcohol flavor in saké.
Saké has a higher alcohol content than either beer or wine. Beer comes in between three and nine percent, while wine is 9-16 percent. Saké can go up to 18-20 percent while hard liquor is 24-40 percent.
Centuries ago Japanese villagers would meet to chew on the polished rice and then spit the mash into a communal tub. This aided fermentation before the koji fungus was deemed a better option. Another cultural leap forward.
One of the customs in Japan is that you don’t pour your own saké. You bring the bottle to the table and pour for each other. It is meant to be an act of bonding. A generous host would fill the cup or box to the brim, perhaps even overflowing a little.
As saké has grown in popularity in the United States and around the world, Japanese drinkers have turned more to beer, wine and whiskey. In the last 30 years the number of saké breweries in Japan has dropped from 4,600 to about 1,000. Sake breweries have opened in places like California, Oregon, Texas, Minnesota and North Carolina.
Goes with: My son Michael and I tried three sakés as after dinner drinks, and while we liked them both cold and warm, I much preferred the warm versions. Saké has a little more alcohol taste than wine and warming it seemed to take away some of the bite.
The two favorites were the Gekkeikan Black & Gold and Koji Sake. The Black & Gold probably tasted a little better cold, but when we warmed them up in the microwave, I really liked the Koji.
Saké flavors are a little milder than wine, so it would pair best with fish and seafood, especially sushi, but I think it would be fine with meat. It would be tasty with roast chicken or duck, and I think it would be great with grilled ribs or pulled pork. It should pair well with all kinds of Asian food, including Chinese takeout, and rice bowl meals or noodle dishes.
Chilled saké should be good with slightly sweet or sour foods. It has much lower acidity than wine, but higher concentrations of the amino acids that translate to umami on our palates.
Author Dennis Sodomka