Mixology 101: Sake
Rice is nice, for goodness sake. By Jay Chooi
White on rice
Rice is to sake what grapes are to wine. However, sake is not ‘rice wine’ because it is brewed in a way not unlike beer or, for a lack of a better example, soy sauce. The right terminology should be ‘rice beer’. The rice used in sake brewing is called shuzo kotekimai, a coarser grain that is less palatable for meals. This particular grain of rice is more likely to survive the polishing process. It also turns out that the Japanese has domesticated a strain of fungus (Aspergillus oryzae) that feeds on starch and then releases an enzyme to convert it to sugar to kick-start the brewing process.
Rice polishing equals quality
Sake classification is a complex affair. We won’t overwhelm you with Japanese jargon, but sake grades are usually classed by the amount of rice left by the polishing (50, 60 or 70 per cent). In a nutshell, the more the outer parts of the rice are polished away, the higher the grade, the finer the taste and the bigger the price tag. All sake contains a blend of alcohol, sugar and edible acids, yet categorisation doesn’t end here. They use a numbering system not unlike a litmus test to indicate the dryness on labels ranging from +10 (very dry) to -10 (very sweet).
Neither an aperitif nor a dessert drink, sake can be served either chilled or warm. It is traditionally served warm due to the woodier and fuller flavours as a result of old brewing methods and its storage in wooden casks. Although some premium brands still practise it, the traditional purpose of warming sake was to mask some of its unsavoury aspects. The most common way to warm up sake is in a decanter over a pan of hot water. Generally, sake higher in the rice polishing ratio is served chilled as you can better taste the flavours of the rice.
The sake ritual
Sake is customarily served in special flasks and cups made out of ceramic or porcelain. Wood was used traditionally, but purists expressed concern that wood alters the flavours of the drink. The flasks, named tokkuri in Japanese, are filled with warm sake and then poured into cylindrical, small vessels that look like a combination of a Chinese teacup and a shot glass. It is advised to sip instead of completely knocking back sake to savour the multifaceted aromas. Small ‘cups’ also propagate social drinking (a big part of sake drinking) by allowing a group to refill for others several times throughout a session.