Sake, a Japanese tradition

A 36 year old aged sake, Junmai Koshu
“What the hell is this?” That’s what I imagine a lot of people are thinking when seeing a bottle of sake… However, in the time that I discovered this drink I learned that it really is a fantastic drink with a wide array of different types and flavors.

First of all, what is sake exactly? Well, sake is a Japanese rice wine, but the method of making it is closer to brewing than wine making. The main difference with beer brewing (besides another fermentation process) is that sake is made with rice instead of barley and that in most cases it has more ABV than many beers (not including barley wines and quads of course).

Sake is a pure Japanese tradition, but as you’ll read breweries are popping up all over the world. One of these examples is the Sequoia sake brewery in San Francisco. They make Junmai sake with glacier-carved Yosemite water, rice grown in Sacramento Valley and an heirloom Koji (yeast). Combining the Japanese craft with local ingredients!

Like in a lot of beverages sakes has tons of varieties. Going from a table wine sake (Futsu-Shu) to a premium sake (Tokutei Meisho-Shu). As most decent sake you can buy in Europe or USA is mainly premium sake I’ll stay with this type.

Premium sake can be classified in 6 main classes:
No added alcohol
Junmai Daiginjo-Shu (Pure rice, no added alcohol, super premium brew) – rice polishing below 50%
Junmai Ginjo-Shu (Pure rice, no added alcohol, high premium brew) – rice polishing below 60%
Junmai-Shu (Pure rice, no added alcohol, premium brew) – rice polishing below 70%

Alcohol added
Daiginjo-Shu (Pure rice, distilled alcohol added, super premium brew) – rice polishing below 50%
Ginjo-Shu (Pure rice, distilled alcohol added, high premium brew) – rice polishing below 60%
Honjozo-Shu (Pure rice, distilled alcohol added, premium brew) – rice polishing below 70%

The difference in these classes is that the first 3 are brewed in the original sake brewing method, whereas the last 3 are made by adding a small bit of distilled alcohol. Cheap sake has a lot of added alcohol as well, but in this premium segment only a small bit is added to balance aromas and enrich flavor.

Tasting a Junmai Kimoto Daiginjō muroka nama genshu kiokezake
Just like a lot of beer brewers, sake brewers are experimenting with different finishes. This can go form clean and clear sake (Seishu) to undiluted sake (Genshu) and even barrel aged sake (Taruzake).

A while ago I had a sake with one of these special finishes, the Omiji Kijoshu sake (aged for 36 years) by brewery Omi Shuzo. It’s a Junmai Koshu (aged sake) with an ABV of 17%.

This aged sake is not specifically barrel aged, it’s aged like we age our ports.
The aroma does have a few similarities with old port. Ranging from a nice caramel and Madeira finish to a coffee burn feel in the mouth, not something I expected from a sake to be honest. This matches great with chocolate and blue cheese, just a flavor bomb of food pairing.

As you can read, it’s a whole different world of drinks I’ve just started to explore. Tell me, what are your experiences with sake? Do you have any must tries?

Btw, If you want to know more about sake, definitely follow this blog: www.desmaakvanjapan.be (Dutch only)

Trying a Junmai Ginjo with some Okonomiyaki pancakes

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