Sussing Out Sake
With thousands of years of history behind it, sake is Japan’s national drink. And it’s becoming increasingly popular elsewhere.
A Holy History
It’s believed sake has been made in Japan since rice cultivation began there around 300BC, but its documented history dates from 712AD. Sake was made by monks in temples and shrines, as well as by the common people. Now licences for sake production are strictly controlled by the Japanese government.
Beer or Wine?
Although sake is sometimes called rice wine, it’s brewed more like a beer. The ingredients are rice, water, yeast and a special mold called koji. Some types of sake also have a small amount of brewer’s alcohol added, which manufacturers claim “smooths out” the taste. Sake without added alcohol is called junmai, which means “pure rice”.
The outer layers of the rice are polished away before the heart of the grain is used in brewing. The more it’s polished, the higher the grade of sake. Some sakes are made from rice polished to just 50% of the original grain.
It’s Not Sake in Japan
In Japan, the word ‘sake’ applies to any alcoholic drink. To order it in Japan, you ask for nihonshu, which translates as “Japanese alcohol”. The Japanese are actually drinking less sake these days but Aussies are drinking more – we’re the second fastest growing export market for the drink.
Hot or Cold?
While some more robust traditional sakes are best served gently warmed, chances are the sake you buy in Australia will be from highly polished rice, making it lighter and more delicate in style. It will be better served chilled. You don’t need to fuss around with flasks and thimble-shaped ceramic cups – a white wine glass will do perfectly well.
Not really. Sake is around 15 to 16 per cent alcohol – like strong wine, but not as strong as spirits like whisky and vodka. Like wine, an opened bottle of sake won’t keep. Store it in the fridge and finish it within days.
Sake and Food
The subtleties of sake can be overpowered by strongly flavoured red meats, very spicy food or rich sauces. That being said, sake can complement many different cuisines, not just Japanese food. Experiment.