All sakes are delicious (depending on personal taste). The labels are always pretty and give some indication of style, aroma and taste. Sometimes the label indicates the sake meter value, a measure of how dry or sweet a sake is. The sweeter the sake, the more negative the value. -15 would be a rather sweet sake whilst +15 a very dry sake. Most sakes are less acidic than wine. Beware that sweetness can mask the acidity of a sake. Sake does not have any chemicals added to stabilise nor clarify it. A very clean drink that cannot be kept under the bed in hope of increasing its value like vintage wines. Sake has to be drunk fresh. Of course, there are special aged sakes called Koshu that are made to be stored and drunk many years later.
Futsushu and “low polished” Junmai are “relatively” cheaper but just as tasty. Drunk hot or cold, Futsushu and Junmai are readily available and keep pretty well for a about a week or two after opening in the refrigerator. They tend to be pasteurised and more flavourful. Futsushu will have added alcohol and possibly other ingredients such as sugars, amino acids and sometimes a fourth addition of rice added in the fermentation for added flavours. Junmai will be made purely from rice, water, koji and yeast. NO added alcohol. Fresh, aromatic, spicy, much richer and full of umami. These sakes are wonderful with not just Japanese food but also with stronger flavoured foods like spicy curries and well grilled meats, fish and vegetables. For creamy dishes like pastas, casseroles and pies, choose a basic Junmai. The most versatile sakes to drink with or without food. The beginners sake. Delicious and so full of aromatic melon, pineapple and tropical fruits. Yes, banana too!!! Spices like white pepper can be found. The basic Junmai may also bring out creamy steamed rice flavours.
Junmai is a very special type of sake with bucket loads of umami. Hints of cereal like steamed rice notes on the nose. This sake is more creamy and sometimes almost yoghurt like with hints of lactic-ness in the nicest possible way. This sake pairs beautifully with cheeses, creamy dishes and spicy ones too. Currently one of the most drunk sakes in the world.
Honjozo, some Junmai, Ginjo, Junmai Ginjo, Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo are probably more expensive. The rice grains are milled to at least 70% of its original size. Milling is a long process done perfectly so as not to crack nor break the grains. With this, a lot of vitamins, proteins and minerals are removed giving the sake a more delicate flavour.
Honjozo and Junmai, being the lesser premium sakes are still delicious on their own, warm or cold. These work very well with spicier, bigger, heavier dishes like hamburgers, turkish grills and even Persian rice. Stews and Casseroles. Richer and oily Chinese food works well too.
The higher premium sakes of Ginjo and Daiginjo (polish rates of below 60%) tend to have what is known as “ginjo-ka”, a more floral, fruity style of sake. These delicate sakes are more sensitive to temperature and have to be stored in a cool place. They need to be drunk within a couple of years from purchase and once opened to be drunk within a week. They must be keep refrigerated at all times. Premium sakes are better drunk cold with more delicate dishes like sushi, sashimi and clear clean broths, rice with delicate fish. And the most popular drinking of premium sakes would be with otsumami (a pinch), ie. little dishes of tapas like morsels served at sake bars and izakayas.
Serving sake can be tricky. Generally, you get to pick the preferred vessel of your choice. The cup or choko can be made of glass, porcelain, clay or even wood (masu). Pour each other sake throughout the evening, serving each other regularly and often, enjoying each other’s company.
Sake can be drunk at different temperatures depending on the type and style of the sake. From a very cold 0-5 degrees in a glass to hot 55 degrees in ceramic choko.
Faults in Sake
No one is perfect. Not even the best of the best sakes. Most sakes bought in reputable stores will be fine but occasionally, due to unforseen circumstances, the odd faulty sake can be found. This could be due to temperature, light and oxidation. Sakes biggest enemies.
Rule of thumb: Keep sake cool, in the dark and drink within two years of purchase.
written by Marie Cheong-Thong, BSA