Sake: Rice Wine

Darcy O'Neil :: August 21, 2006 9:40 PM

SakeSake is a traditional spirit from the East, most notably Japan, but China had it’s part in the creation of this drink. Now sake breweries are popping up all around the world. Yes, sake is more like beer than it is wine, even though it is referred to as “rice wine.” More on that later. When I went on my recent summer “booze cruise” looking for unique spirits and beer, sake was one of the items I picked up (Momokawa Diamond Sake, from Oregon). Trying new things is part of the fun of being a bartender, and knowledge is power, so the more I know about spirts the better off I am. So, let us see what sake has to offer!

The history of sake goes back thousands of years to China and Japan. The discovery was most likely accidental. First a pot of rice is left outside as a monsoon rolls in and douses everything with water. The warm, damp climate is great for mould growth, especially Aspergillus oryzae which just happens to break down the starch in rice into simple sugars. These simple sugars are great food for the rather abundant yeast organisms that are everywhere. So, the yeast drifts into the mould infested pot of wet rice and starts to eat the sugar, producing the waste product of ethanol. After the monsoon, food and clean water are rather hard to find, so some hungry soul probably stumbled across this mouldy pot of rice flavoured water and decided it was better than drinking dirt flavour water. Down the hatch it went, and with it the bonus effect of being inebriated. In all the misery of the monsoon devastation, this one happy sole can’t stop smiling, so everyone partakes in the mouldy rice water and gets happy! And that’s how sake may have been discovered.

Sake is brewed like beer, using a mash of rice instead of barley or other grains. The rice is “polished” and the better the quality of sake the more polishing the rice has had. The polishing of rice is done to remove the layers of oil and protein in the rice grain. The core of the rice is mostly starch and produces the best sake. The cheaper varieties have less polishing and more protein and oils that add off flavours to the sake. This may explain why sake does not produce much, if any, head when poured. The oils and proteins in the beer brewing process account for head formation in beer.

As I mentioned the best grade of saki is junmai ginjo. This is because they mill away 50% to 60% of the rice before creating the fermentation mash. Obviously this creates a better product, but it also increases costs because you are tossing out half your product before you start. Junmai Gingo means “pure rice wine” since no additional alcohol is added, unlike other grades of saki.

You can serve sake in a number of ways, including cold, warm or room temperature. The serving temperature generally follows seasonal time lines and since it is summer, I’m trying this sake cold, which is about 8°C.

For regular beer and wine drinkers, sake may have some alcohol burn, but if you drink whisky or vodka straight, then the sake will be smooth and mellow. I find it smooth, but other reviewers noticed the alcohol (14.8% for Momokawa Diamond sake).

On the nose there is a slight rice maltiness.  There isn’t much acid associated with this spirit, but it does have hints of sweetness like honey or fruit. The start is light in flavour with the alcohol pleasantly hitting the back of your throat. The sake has a subtle wine like taste and then develops flavours of straw, rice and subtle fruit. The finish is more flavourful than the start and the subtle fruit flavours linger for a while. The finish is more sweet than dry.

While I was doing this review, I was eating some fresh cantaloupe and made the awesome discovery of how sake and fruit go well together. After a little research, melons seem to complement sake the best. I could see honeydew going better with this than cantaloupe, but either or will do if you get a chance.

According to Momokawa, the highest grade of saké, Junmai Ginjo, is a great match for what you would expect, sushi but it's also terrific chilled with any of the following: Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, coconut-crusted shrimp, braised short ribs, smoked fish, proscuitto and melon or crab cakes.

I was pleasantly surprised with how good sake was. I would like to experiment iwth it more and try it with some traditional Japanese cuisine. I would recommend picking up a bottle of Junmai Ginjo grade sake and trying it if you haven’t already.  

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