Sake Rising

Sake has been around for over two thousand years, but suddenly rice is really nice. Sake bars, sake sommeliers, sake education courses and sake breweries are popping up across North America and Europe proving just how fascinated we are with this ancient beverage.

So what is sake? The short answer is that it’s fermented rice. But that’s a huge over-simplification. The process is complicated and time consuming. The rice is milled (or polished), washed, soaked, and then steamed before a mould — think of it as “noble rot” — is added. Once the mould has worked its magic, yeast and water are added and the fermentation happens. The sake is then ready for final preparation and sale. Not a simple process at all.

One of the most daunting things for novices is the hard to pronounce names. The good news is that there are only a few terms you need to master, but it’s important to pay attention because they have a huge impact in style and price. Here’s the crib sheet.

Daiginjo; Ginjo, and Honjozo describe how much the rice has been polished. That’s important to know because the more the rice is polished, the cleaner and more aromatic the sake. Diaginjo is the most polished, Honjozo the least. Junmai may be added to any of these terms and it tells you that no distilled alcohol has been added, so expect a “pure rice” style. If Junmai isn’t on the label, then the sake has been fortified. Just two more terms: Namazake means that the alcohol is not pasteurized and so needs to be kept refrigerated. Finally, Futsu-shu indicates a simple, more rustic sake. That’s it.

I tasted through these sakes with the family recently. We were firmly divided, proving that each sake has a distinct profile and that personal preferences are, well, personal. All these sakes are from private liquor stores


Mizubasho Junmai Ginjo:

Aromatic and elegant with a surprisingly rich palate. Earthy, pumpkin and spicy lifted by floral notes. Approximate price: $18-25 300 ml.

Kazeyo Mizuyo Hitoyo Junmai (Wind Water Man):

Light bodied, with a fino sherry like character. Crisp and fresh with licorice and fennel. Approximate price: $14-20 300 ml.

Kagatobi Gokkan Junmai:

Classic aromas, full-bodied and lovely floral notes at end. Approximate price: $16-22 300 ml.

Tengumai Yamahai Junmai:

“Tengumai” translates to “Dance of the Raven Gods.” Legend says that the raven gods started to dance when they drank this sake. This is the natural wine of the sake world, made with ambient lactic bacteria and an open fermentation. It’s aged for a period and has great depth of flavours and a tantalizing richness. Approximate price: $35-45 720 ml.

Niwa no Uguisu 50 Daiginjo (Nightingale’s Garden):

Fresh, light and aromatic. Beautifully nuanced aromatics – melon, fennel, citrus and grass all take a bow. The brewery has been around since 1832 and while modern techniques are used, everything is done by hand. Approximate price: $42-50 720 ml.

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