Chasing the Sun (Part 2) – The Diversity of Sake: Rice Wine from the Country of the Rising Sun

Yoi Sho, a Fitzrovia-based Japanese restaurant, got my interest in sake when I was sitting a table close to the chilling cabinet holding a good number of sake bottles. The labels displayed seemed as pieces of art to the unknowing European eyes. A sense of uncomfortable lack knowledge about sake formed a strange melange with the thought of reassurance that it was only our table with non-Japanese guests, thus I could safely order a glass of sake, they had to have the right stuff. A minute later a glass in the masu – a box that used to be used for measuring rice – appeared on our table with Kiku-masamune being poured so that it was overflowing the rim of the glass, a sign showing the generosity of the host. The smooth and silky texture of this sake was a great accompaniment for our dinner after which I felt like a kid in a candy shop: I tried only one and what a wide world there is to discover. Let me share some of my discoveries of sake through adventures here in London and the Wild East: Budapest.

Sake is often simply called as the Japanese rice wine so as to explain the meaning to more novice consumers. Technically incorrect, as a process similar – but not identical – to that of brewing beer is involved in the production of sake in order to facilitate fermentation. The base material is shuzo kotekimai, a special group of sake rice, which contains less protein and lipid than the types of rice used for eating. The group itself contains some 80 different kinds, of which most commonly used are Yamada Nishki, Gohyakumangoku, Miyamanishiki and Omachi, all of them brown rice.

This base material is polished in mills so as to remove proteins and oils. After polishing the rice rests to reabsorb water from the humidity of the air in order to prevent the rice splitting in the process of washing, which precedes cooking or steaming. The appropriate degree of steaming is key to quality, as a too low level will result in the partial and a too high in a quick fermentation of the rice. Once the steamed rice is ready, part of it is inoculated with koji mould, which grows for 2 days before it is used for the preparation of the base mash, the shubo or moto. This base contains not only the steamed rice and koji, but also yeasts and, in some cases, lactic acid too in order to inhibit unwanted bacteria, which would cause what is regarded as off-flavours. The fermentation of the main mash, called maromi, takes 2 to 6 weeks. Once completed, the mixture is pressed to separate the solids from the liquid. At this stage the brewer may add spirit to extract more flavours. Interestingly on labels it is earmarked in the reverse logic, as the word junmai stands for the lack of added brewer’s spirit. The pressed sake is carbon filtered, pasteurised and let rest. Before bottling the 18 – 20% abv strong drink is diluted with water to approx 15% abv.

The making of sake seems relatively simple, however, there is a myriad of decisions that the brewer can take and each will affect the style of the final product. The two most important ones for the classification and labelling seem to be the degree to which rice is polished and the addition of brewer’s spirit.

Honjozo-shu signifies sakes where the polishing ratio of the rice is less than 70% and distilled alcohol is added. Some say that this is used for a lower category of sake in order to extract more flavours. In London, I tasted two examples for this category.

Yamahai Honjozo Yukinobosha
Made with the addition of lactic acid
Light lemon, very fragrant and floral nose with rose petals followed by chicken skin. Light, almond flavours on the palate followed by chicken skin. Smooth, almost floury. Medium finish. 16

Hidematsu Aka
Very nutty, but quite restrained in the nose and on the palate. A bit of lilies, almond, very soft, light and almost neutral texture. Alcohol almost bites into the soft texture. It is all about length. 16.7

Junmai-shu stands for sakes with a polishing ratio of less than 70%, but with no addition of brewer’s spirit to the drink.

Tengumai Yamahaishikomi Junmai-shu
Pronounced lemon, a bit watery. Pronounced nose, spirit burner, pear and steely. Dry, quite prominent alcohol, a real depth to it. Almost like a plum spirit. 17.4

Tokubetsu Junmai-shu is a seemingly similar style to the previous one, but this is a special brew and as such the polishing rate is also less than 60%.

Nabeshima Tokubetsu Junmai-shu
Watery with a tiny green hue. Restrained nose, fresh almonds and lychee. Subtle. Dry and silky with the alcohol accented. Peach and almonds. 15.2

Junmai Ginjo-shu is a sake made from rice with less than 60% polishing rate, however, it is not a special brewing technique they use and there is no added spirit.

Dewazakura Junmai Ginjo Omachi
Watery with tiny green hue. Oily almonds and rose in the nose. Dry, big and lean body, defined flavours, dense and as if a sur lie taste to it. Schistous on the finish. 17.8

Daiginjo-shu sakes will be made from rice with a polishing ratio of less than 50% and there is some brewer’s spirit added.

Jokigan Limited Daiginjo
Watery with very light lemon. Linden, almond, citrus in the nose. Very soft and ripe with straightforward flavours. Alcohol is quite present. Denser on the finish. 16.3

Daiginjo Yukinobosha
Watery, some lemon hue. Pronounced, almost heavy with sweet acacia and linden dry, very soft and gentle on the plate with a rich and oily texture. Sur lie tones. Almonds, almost glues to the tongue, long. 17

Sawahime Daiginjo

Ligth green hue, tiny watery rim. Rose, peach petals and flour. Very soft, pungent acids on the palate. A bit shouting alcohol. 16

 Junmai Daiginjo-shu is sake made from rice with a polishing ratio of less than 50%, but with the addition of brewer’s spirit.

Junmai Daiginjo Chokaisan
Light watery with a greenish-lemon hue. Medium intense nose, white stone fruits and fresh pig skin, almond, citrus and strongly rose scented. Very soft on the palate, alcohol excellently integrated. 16.7

Dewazakura Junmai Daiginjo Aiyama
Lemon with watery rim. Ripe flavours, broad almonds. Very smooth texture, alcohol high, a dusty mill. Tiny bit of a sur lie character. Long on the finish. 16.6

Junmai Daiginjo Kuranohana Urakasumi
Very light, watery, tiny lemon hue. Restrained nose with pears. Smooth on the palate, lots of glue, ripe fresh almonds. The alcohol is well-balanced by the intensity of flavours, yet gentle. Medium finish. 16.2

Thus far it seems quite easy, as it is a combination of polishing rate and the addition of brewer’s spirit that delineate the various categories. Brace yourself, as it just gets more complicated and fascinating dependent on factors such as the method of pressing, ageing, filtering and so on.

For example, tobinkakoi – sometimes spelt with a g as tobingakoi – is a special handling method of pressing the sake into 18-litre bottles, these are the tobin-s, and the master brewer will select the best bottles for shipping.

Daiginjo Tamahagane Tobinkakoi
Watery lemon. Highly intense ripe pear, honey and linden scented. White peppery, soft, alcohol a bit pointy. Quite heavy in body. 16.3

Another handling method, and an alternative to pressing, is dripping that is when there is no pressure applied, but the mash is hung in bags allowing the liquid to drop and separate from the lees. Such sakes are called fukurozuri-s or shizukuzake, which literally means ‘drop-sake’.

Gokyu Daiginjo Fukurozuri Shizukuzake
Watery. Almond, camomile, acacia and linden in the nose. Alcohol is high and tons of green almonds on the palate. A tiny flour on the back-palate. 15.9

Without making a complete list here of the various handling methods – see Philip Harper’s or John Gauntner’s books for that –, the last group of sakes I shall discuss here is that of aged sakes. Now these command very serious prices, as ageing can last for a decade too, which inevitably adds to the production costs through storage and prolonged handling. As a Westerner, but from the Wild East, that is Hungary, I find this quite a problem, because aged sakes possess a combination of flavours and characteristics that are reminiscent of dry szamorodni-s from Tokaj or cognacs and armagnacs from France, which are flavours more approachable for the Western palate. However, high prices can easily be prohibitive, especially when these sakes are sold by the bottle. Let me note here down two fantastic examples, which I had the chance to taste in London.

Tokigasane Junenjukusei Junmai-Genshu (10-yrs old)
Brass gold. Banana, apricot skin, acacia with some oxidative tones, toffee and coffee. Lovely rounded body, complex and long. Alcohol is very well integrated. 17.1

Hanahato Kijoshu (8-yrs old)
Garnet with olive hue and orange tinge. Sweetish, high alcohol, tangerine and roasted almonds followed by rose petals and finishing with toffee and orange. Tiny oxidative tones. Lovely balance, long finish and superbly velvety. 18.9

By now it definitely seems extremely complicated and if you do not speak Japanese – as I do not either – you may think, how can you confidently choose your sake in a restaurant. Well, this is what Nobu, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s global fine-dining restaurant chain, addresses extremely well through well trained waiting staff and innovative ways oof service, see the photo for the ‘sake-marks’, which are info tags in the shape of a bookmark.

Last week I went to Budapest and I had to go and experience it for myself. All the sakes served come from the same brewery, Hokusetsu. A tasting selection of four sakes are offered at a very reasonable price of 4,000 HUF (approx. £13), which allows customers to get a taste for this most intriguing of drinks. Here is what the selection included.

Hokusetsu Honjozo Kinpakuiri
Floating golden flakes. Very smooth, almost minty, extremely refined. Alcohol a bit on the higher end. Cherry-flowers and mint. 16.2

Hokusetsu Honjozo Yukinohibik
Medium intense, buttery with linden in the nose. Dry, velvety, apple, dough, quite hefty on the palate with some straw on the back-palate. Savoury almond and acacia to finish. 16

Hokusetsu Junmai Daiginjo Yura Yura
Pronounced, lime, green apple and some peach petals. Full-bodied, refined texture, lots of straw and peach, touch of lemon zest. Elegant. 16.7

Hokusetsu Junmai Daiginjo
Watery in colour. Restrained nose with linden, fresh almonds. Dry, smooth, a bit schistous. Velvety dough with a touch of lime, flour and anis seeds. 16.1

Whilst sitting at the bar sipping my sake and jotting down my notes, the barman told me that even in Nobu sake has a 30% share in comparison to wines, which will be ordered by 70% of diners. Those who opt for sake mostly rely on the advice of the waiters unless they are regulars and have the courage to experiment with new kinds of sake.

The UK is extremely well placed for promoting the culture of sake in comparison to Hungary, as there are a number of organisations in this field, such as the British Sake Association or iSake, an organisation focussing on the gastronomic aspects of sake. My next piece of writing on sake will include an interview with Xavier Chapelou of iSake and the sake sommelier at China Tang in the Dorchester, a fine-dining restaurant on Park Lane.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s