Sake school: Six sake types for wine drinkers, Scotch sluggers and more

Master sommelier Roger Dagorn (15 East) gives us a 101 on the fermented-rice hooch. From oenophile-baiting junmai to kimoto for Scotch sluggers, there’s a variety for every type of drinker.

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You know if you’re a merlot fan or a champagne sipper, if you’re a sherry devotee or a Scotch aficionado. But do you know junmai from honjozo? Ginjo from nigori? Before you step into another sake bar, get schooled on six different types of the Japanese fermented-rice beverage and find out which variety will tickle your boozing fancy best.


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Sushi Of Seki

Sushi Of Seki Photograph: Filip Wolak


If you like full-bodied cabs, try a junmai
Heavier and fuller than its delicate sake brethren, the concentrated, acidic junmai grade—pure sake made from rice, koji (starter enzyme) and water—boasts a bold, rich earthiness similar to a robust cabernet sauvignon.

If you like Scotch, try a kimoto or yamahai
Love the peaty malt of good Scotch? Brews crafted in the kimoto or yamahai technique—made without adding lactic acid to the yeast, resulting in more wild bacteria—have that smoky, savory funk that single-malt drinkers crave. This variety is sometimes aged in cedar barrels, which can imbue these labor-intensive sakes—the starter mash is hand-churned over a period of at least four weeks—with a Scotch-like peppery finish.

If you like dry sherry, try a ginjo
The difference between hearty junmai and the lighter ginjo grade is its polishing rate (in layman’s terms: the amount of rice remaining after the husk has been milled) and, with a 60 percent polishing rate, ginjo is leagues more refined than rustic junmai. The superpremium brew is dry, fruity and aromatic, à la Spanish sherry. Sip it chilled for optimum smoothness.

If you like champagne, try sparkling sake
A Japanese twist on bubbly, sparkling sake is distinctive due to its in-bottle secondary fermentation, which produces the fizz and soft sweetness that bottle-poppers look for. Bonus: Unlike the blinding champagne-induced hangover you get every New Year’s Day, carbonated sake’s alcohol content clocks in at under 8 percent, making for easy, breezy tippling.

If you like classic merlot, try honjozo
The medium-bodied cousin of bold junmai, the everyday honjozo-grade sake adds a touch of distilled alcohol to the mash, lending it a soft, easy-to-drink quality in line with a milder merlot. Like that grape varietal, honjozo commonly gives off a cherry flavor and touch of spicy clove.

If you like dessert wine, try nigori
The sweetest of the bunch, milky, creamy nigori caps many Japanese meals as a digestif. The cloudy sip (unfermented rice solids produce the brew’s signature murkiness) is unfiltered and low in alcohol, with light fruit notes. It’s best served cool to bring out its complex sweetness, so chill the brew in an ice bucket as you would dessert wine.

CHEAT SHEET

Warm or chilled?
Sake’s traditionally served warm, but the higher the quality of the sake, the more it should be chilled—warming sake can mask the subtle flavors of premium brews.

Wooden box or stemware?
Wood tampers with the nose of high-end sake (sip delicate ginjos in glassware), though it can actually help smooth out cheaper, harsher varieties.

To pour or not to pour?
Pour for your fellow boozers but not yourself—tejaku (pouring your own sake) is considered very rude in Japanese culture.

What to pair?
A common misconception is that sake should be paired with sushi. Avoid rice-on-rice overkill by soaking up your brew with soba noodles, braised pork belly, miso-glazed Chinese sausage or sashimi.

Sake bomb: yay or nay?
Just say no to sake bombs. They are an American invention and, if ordered at a real-deal sake den, will betray your rookie status.

What’s the difference between junmai and daiginjo?
There are four main grades of sake: junmai (pure rice sake, at least 30 percent polished), honjozo (a tad of distilled alcohol added, at least 30 percent polished), ginjo (highly milled rice—at least 40 percent polished—with or without added alcohol) and daiginjo (even more highly milled rice—at least 50 percent polished—with or without added alcohol).


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