Vino: Varieties of Saké

The mass popularization of sushi and other Japanese cuisine in America has led to a great rise in the popularity of saké as well. Saké is an alcoholic beverage from Japan and it can be found in pretty much every sushi bar - sometimes even mixed up in "saké-tinis."

This however, obscures the fact the term "saké" in Japanese technically means any alcoholic beverage, whereas "Nihonshu" is the proper name for the beverage we commonly think of as saké.

Like the rice wine from Laos that we talked about last week, saké is made from rice that is fermented in an amylolytic process.

Are you new to saké? A quick survey around the office revealed that we are too. Read on for definitions of the primary saké styles...

The first step of saké production starts with polishing the rice grain. Removing the outer layers of the grain strips impurities and focuses flavors. As a general rule of thumb, the more polished the grain the more premium the saké.

Here are the four major classes of saké, running from least expensive to most expensive:

Junmai: Junmai means "pure rice". There are only four ingredients in Junmai: rice that has been polished to 70% of its size, Koji enzyme, spring water and yeast.

Honiyozo: During brewing alcohol is added in one of the final stages, which brings out aromatics and flavor elements producing a rich, yet mild tasting saké.

Ginjyo: Ginjyo rice must be polished to 60% of its original size. Ginjyo saké generally possesses more finesse than Junmai. It is usually more aromatic and has hints of fruit flavors in the mouth.

Dai Ginjyo: The rice in Dai Ginjyo must be polished to at least 50% of its original size. Dai Ginjyo flavors are both delicate and complex, resulting in an overall impression of great harmony.

Though not regarded as one of the major saké styles, Nigori is another fun type of sake. Nigori is unfiltered, resulting in a milky & cloudy beverage. Before modernization and industrial production processes all sake was Nigori.

Saké is like fine wine; bottle prices can run from a few dollars up to hundreds and even thousands for very high-end saké. Here are a few modest varieties from Wine.com:

Tozai Living Jewel, $10.29. A junmai variety.
Kanbara Bride of the Fox, $16.79. A junmai-ginjyo blend.
Tozai Snow Maiden, $17.29. A cloudy, thicker nigori.

I love sake, though don't have enough experience with it. I'm on a mission to try more. Learning about the different styles has whet the appetite. Turns out that Faith has been enjoying hot saké lately and says that sipping it with house-made dumplings before a good bowl of soup and some sushi is a winter delight.

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