Sake

UNDERSTANDING SAKE – A GLOSSARY

What is sake?
Native to Japan and with a history of at least 1300 years, premium sake is brewed from rice, water, yeast, koji (rice inoculated with a mold that makes it sweet), and sometimes a touch of distilled alcohol. Since it is made from grains it is brewed like beer but has an alcohol content and delicacy closer to wine.

Why distilled alcohol?
Centuries ago sake makers discovered that by adding a touch of distilled alcohol not only would the sake last longer, it focused the aromas and created a smoother texture. Premium sake can only have a limited amount of added alcohol which produces those pleasing affects but doesn’t shift the resulting alcohol content very much. Most sake has some water added to it to bring it to a food friendly 14-16% ABV. Any sake with junmai (literally “pure rice”) on the label means that there is no added alcohol.

What is Koji exactly?
A staple ingredient in East Asia, koji is rice inoculated with the mold aspergillus oryzae or koji-kin that turns the complex starches in the rice into simple sugars, making it the rice sweet and crunchy. Making koji is one of the most delicate parts of the sake process, and good koji gives sake depth, body and umami. In addition to sake koji is also an essential ingredient in making miso and soy sauce.

So what is a Toji then?
Koji rice should not to be confused with the toji, which is the title of a brewmaster who is responsible for all operations within the brewery. Toji train and coordinate teams to produce sake and will often do many of the most delicate and complicated task themselves. While the toji may also be the owner of the brewery, more often they are brewing professionals hired by owners to execute and improve on the brewery’s house style.

Should you choose sake based on the rice it’s made from?
Most premium sake is made from special sake rice which is larger and more delicate than regular rice. The type of rice used gives you a potential for certain qualities but it’s not as big a factor as grape varietals on wine. A more reliable indicator is grade listed on the label, the milling rate of the rice, and most importantly just being familiar with the producer and their house style. Common premium sake rice types include Yamada Nishiki which produces fragrant, fruity and flavorful sake, Gohyaku Mangoku tends light, clean and smooth, Omachi the only sake rice discovered in the wild makes layered sake with herbal qualities and Hattan Nishiki yields earthy and slightly rich sake.

Where is sake made?
The name for a sake brewery is a kura. There are currently about 1200 active sake breweries in Japan, 17 of which are massive high volume producers, and the rest of which are medium to small producers, almost all of which have been family owned and operated for decades or centuries. Premium sake requires a high degree of hands on craftsmanship and doesn’t lend itself to automation.

Why is the sake name different from the brewery name?
While they are sometimes the same, often the legal name of the brewery is different from the brands they produce. One brewery may produce a few different brands to differentiate their different styles and types of sake they are making. For example Aoki Shuzo has been run by the Aoki family for generations. Their classic brand Kakurei has a refined and elegant flavors in classic packaging while their new Yuki Otoko ‘Yeti’ brand has distinctive modern packaging, an accessible price, and a clean, direct flavor.

What is the word Shuzo in so many brewery names?
Shuzo literally means “alcohol maker” and is commonly used in the legal names of breweries.

How should sake be stored?
Same as you would for fine wine: out of direct sunlight and preferably in cool temperatures.

How long can sake be kept before opening?
While there are a few aged sake out there almost all sake is meant to be enjoyed as fresh as possible to preserve its vitality and subtle notes. Generally under one year is ideal, past that the sake will still be good and drinkable but will have lost some of its life and pop.