Maria’s Introduction to Sake
We just wrapped up our trip to Japan and what drink are they known for there? Sake!
Sake is very easy to find all over the country, in restaurants, breweries and in the grocery store. For those of you who don’t know, sake is made from fermenting rice but more on that later. So how do you tell the difference between one bottle and the next (especially when you’re reading unfamiliar Japanese characters)?
At the beginning of our trip, we really didn’t know that answer. Neil decided he liked it so he’d pick up a small bottle or two at the grocery store and made his way down the aisle. I’d have it every now and then and only knew that it’s not really a swirl and sniff kind of beverage. Every time it just kind of smelled like alcohol to me.
One day Neil decided to spend a little more and got one of the bigger bottles of sake. I gave it a try and could tell that it was easier to drink and didn’t quite smell like alcohol. Still we didn’t know what made that specific bottle more to my liking. I did compare it more to a gin than any other alcohol I could identify because it seemed to have herbal notes.
Then we had the chance to go out for drinks with someone in Japan and we got a mini introduction. The first drink I had that night was shochu, a korean drink similar to sake but made from potatoes. As with sake, you can warm this one up, which I did and it was pleasant. My next drink that night was sake, poured into one of the famous ceramic bottles you have all seen. When given the option of which sake to get, our friend asked us if we prefer the more refined version or the less refined version. There was my first clue, more refined, meant easier to drink. I don’t know more of the specifics on that one but I think it might have been local to Kyoto. We all toasted our cups and yelled out Kanpai! We had a few of those ceramic bottles that night and it all went down pretty easily.
We traveled to Osaka after that and met up with other friends. This time it was homemade sake poured into a bowl with a spout. I don’t remember much about the flavor but there was wine that night too so I was more into that.
Another night, we went out to dinner and saw a new way to drink your sake. The server came over and put down a little box with a glass in it. They poured the sake until it overflowed into the little box. I wasn’t quite sure of the etiquette so I only drank what was in my glass. I’m pretty sure there were tasting notes on that menu and I chose the one that sounded most pleasing. I do know that Neil and I chose different ones.
I’d say up to this point, I still didn’t know too much about the differences in sake, other than how everyone drinks it out of different vessels.
We moved to a new part of Japan called Chizu, a small mountainside village in the Tottori Prefecture. On one of our first nights in town, our hostess invited us over for dinner and offered us some of the local sake. It was made by the brewery in town and our rental house was surrounded by fields of rice. It seems this sake was really local!
There was warm sake and cold sake that night and it was all really easy to drink but I still wasn’t picking up any specific flavors or aromas. We did learn another part of sake culture though, your host will continue to refill an empty glass until you announce you are done. Also you are not supposed to pour your own sake at a dinner party, someone will pour it for you. I became the one pouring it for Neil and he held his glass while I poured it. All kinds of things to learn about sake culture!
Once we knew the brewery was in town, we had to take a trip over there to see what I could learn. I was so anxious to figure out the whole story. And I was hopeful that there would be a tasting area so I could compare one versus another.
It took us a couple weeks to get over there but finally we did go to Suwa Sake Brewery. And once it was established that we walked and didn’t drive (Japan has a zero tolerance drinking law) we were able to begin our tasting. There was a tasting bar area with many options to try. I was so excited that there were tech sheets for each bottle, but of course, it was all in Japanese. No matter though, we used our trusty Google Translate app to read through as we went. The app also came in handy to tell the lady what our thoughts were, while I quickly jotted down notes for each one.
Here’s what we tasted that day:
1. Mantenboshi Midori
2. Junmai Ginjyo Suginosizuku Mushroom Bouquet Label 2021
3. Junmai Daiginjyo Ootori Silver 2016
4. Junmai Ginjyo Suginosizuku Mushroom Bouquet Label 2021
5. Junmai Ginjyo Suginosizuku Mushroom Bouquet Label 2021 “raw”
6. Junmai Ginjyo Yakamihime Sweet
7. Yakamihime rose-Pink wine (uses black rice)
Being the #winenerd that I am, I really wanted to get the flavors that were listed but sadly I just kept noticing the same smell through the list and it didn’t seem all that appetizing to me. Neil was the star student that day though and could tell that the green bottles with the mushrooms (Suginosizuku ) on them did taste like mushrooms. Also both of us noticed that the brown bottle with the mushrooms had a distinct flavor and aroma that reminded us of root beer or sarsaparilla which was really surprising!
Still to this moment, I don’t know the difference between the three bottles with the mushrooms on them other than the fact that the final one we tasted used raw rice, which I translated on the label. Once I read more about the process of making sake, there’s a step where they steam the rice, I guess that doesn’t happen in this one?
We finished out our tasting with a couple sweet versions of sake, with one of them having a pink liquid instead of clear. The hostess told us that was achieved by using black rice. Neil and I both picked out a bottle to purchase and strolled around the gift shop area to see if there was anything else we wanted. While I was looking around I found the photographs describing the sake making process.
Here’s what I translated for the steps involved:
- harvest rice
- polish the rice
- wash the rice
- steam the rice
- koji room (where the mold lives, similar to cheese cave?)
- wine mother (starter culture?)
- shi komi (sake mother, steamed rice, water, koji)
- separation of sake and wine grains
- final filter
There’s definitely so much more for me to learn but at least I’ve been to an official sake tasting now!
I did some more reading on their website and found out that this specific brewery is in association with the local Suwa shrine. And according to my other sake research, many of them are linked to the local shrine. Also lots of the names on Suwa’s sake bottles are from local folklore like Ootori, the imaginary bird from Chinese text, and the princess Yakamihime.
My online research also helped me figure out a little bit more about the flavors too. Different sake, uses different rice, depending on the region. Chizu mainly grows Tama Sakae so these bottles had a similar flavor profile. And after looking through those sake making steps briefly I picked out a word “koji”. Koji is a mold that gets mixed with salt and water. Then the cooked rice is inoculated with it and fermented to make sake. Koji is also the flavor you’re familiar with when eating miso.
I took another quick read through the tech sheets at home, and found out that different sake should be drank at different temperatures. I should have realized this from my wine knowledge but I didn’t. The tech sheets also had food pairing ideas. Now I was starting to get a little more comfortable with all of it.
Once I had a better idea of how to drink sake, I picked out two of the small bottles at the grocery store to do my own tasting. I tried to remember some of the sake terms in order to choose them. The first one was called Daiginjo and the other was Yamada Nishiki. I checked which temp they should be served at and also tasted them with dinner and without.
I paired the Daiginjo bottle with a tomato curry salmon. I was delighted when I smelled fruit in the sake. This was the first one that I enjoyed the aroma! I later found out that “Daiginjo” refers to the rating or level of sake and that this is the top of the list. The article I read about the different grades of sake stated that “highly polished rice and even more precise and labor intensive methods are used in order to achieve this level of sake. “ I guess this also points to the level of refinement I had heard about in the beginning of my journey. It seems this is where I should start back up my tasting when I have lots of sake to choose from again.
The second bottle I picked out was Yamada Nishiki made from the same rice used for Ootori Silver that we purchased at brewery. I knew there was something familiar about the name. Although it’s not the specific rice grown in Chizu it must come from somewhere nearby, because I was in a region about an hour away during this tasting at home.
After a dinner of butter yuzu scallops, I decided to compare these two bottles and write some more notes. The first bottle, the Diaginjo, didn’t smell like the fruit anymore but it did seem more pleasant than the Yamada Nishiki.
Then when I swirled and sniffed the Daiginjo again, it seemed kind of toasted and then an aroma of fruit loops appeared. The flavors were clean with a more bold lingering flavor. The Yamada Nishiki’s aroma seemed like glue at first, which unfortunately is the main aroma I kept getting in the beginning of my sake journey. After a bit more swirling though it reminded me of butterscotch and the flavors seemed more mild with a note of dandelion.
I think the butter in my meal was really influencing these flavors and aromas! Well that’s interesting, even after I’ve finished eating, it’s still there. So now I’ve proven that the meal I’m pairing with the sake will definitely affect it.
I still don’t feel like I’m any kind of expert in sake but I do have a little better idea about it now. And yes it is rice wine so I can keep in mind that I should follow some of my wine tasting rules when I come across it again. Glad I had a chance to get some more wine experience under my belt while I was in Japan!
One of the last shochu drinks that I tried was the one that is made from wheat and it tasted like whiskey. Whoa, I wasn’t expecting that, luckily I had mixed it with soda water and that helped it go down a little more easily. There’s so many new drinks for me to try in Japan!