Rice Wine

Sake [pronounced saw kay] is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from rice and is commonly referred to as rice wine. While the process of producing sake is actually closer to brewing beer than making wine, I think the end product has more characteristics in common with wine than with beer. Sake is normally between 15% and 17% alcohol and is produced by the multiple fermentation of polished rice. The process of polishing or milling removes the protein and oils from the exterior of the rice grain, leaving behind starch. The more thorough the milling, the more desirable the end product will be.

There are literally tens of thousands of different sakes made by some 2000 producers worldwide. Most, but not all sakes are make in Japan. There are four producers in the United States that produce more than 200 different sakes. Worldwide, about one out of three glasses of wine consumed are sake. In the United States only about two out of every one hundred glasses of wine are sake. But, the domestic popularity of sake is rising.

There are two basic types of sake: futsū-shu, which are the “normal” sake; and tokutei meishōshu or “special designation” sake. Futsū-shu is the equivalent of table wine and over 75% of all sake produced is Futsū-shu. Tokutei meishōshu or “special designation” sake is distinguished by the degree to which the rice is polished and additional distilled alcohol added. The more the rice is polished, the fewer surface impurities remain and the better the Sake. The addition of alcohol does not increase the potency or volume of the Sake. Rather, the addition of small amounts of distilled alcohol improves the aroma and body of the product. Although there are important exceptions, in general sake does not age well and should be served soon after it is made.

In Japan sake is served cold, warm or hot, depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the sake and the season. Sake is one of the few alcoholic beverages that is regularly consumed hot. Typically, hot sake is consumed in winter and cold sake is consumed in summer. As heating serves to mask the undesirable flavors of lower-quality sake, it is said that practice became popular during World War II to mask the rough flavor of low-quality sake resulting from scarcity of quality ingredients during the war.

The most common way to serve sake in the United States is to heat it to body temperature (37°C/98.6°F), however many experienced sake drinkers prefer their sake at room temperature (20°C/68°F), or chilled (10°C/50°F) . Sake is served in shallow cups, called choko (Although Riedel is now producing a footed glass specifically for premium sakes.) Sake is usually poured into the choko from a ceramic flask called a tokkuri. When someone offers to fill your sake cup, it is considered polite for you to raise the cup to meet the tokkuri. Drinking from someone else’s sake cup is considered a sign of friendship or as a way to honor someone of lower status.

I acquired my taste for sake during the 1980s when I was spending time in Japan and China on business. The Japanese have a wonderful tradition that is probably responsible for the large volume of alcohol consumed in their country. When drinking with a friend, it is your responsibility to keep your friend’s glass (or cup) filled. Having experienced this tradition first hand, it’s easy to understand why it’s not unusual for a Japanese to fall asleep at the table in a restaurant. You may find that sake is an acquired taste, but I think it’s worth the effort.

Cellar Notes

I’m not going to recommend you go out and buy a bottle of sake. If you did, you would find that could spend as little or as much as you wanted to. Ordinary sakes are very inexpensive and extraordinary sakes are extraordinarily expensive. What you want to do is sample as much sake as you can for as little cost as possible. The way to do that is the same as it is with wine, by the glass at a restaurant.

While you won’t be able to buy most sakes exactly by the glass, you can buy them in a fairly small size of tokkuri. Obviously the best and perhaps only restaurants in this area that sever sake are going to be those serving Japanese, Chinese or other Asian cuisines. Fortunately, those are plentiful. As with wine, talk to the waiter; find out what they recommend. Some Asian restaurants will also have a sake list. And, don’t forget, it’s up to you to keep your dining companion’s choko from getting empty.