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.
Tue Apr 23 2013
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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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.