The Rice Wine
Often referred to as rice wine, saké is not technically a wine. Instead, it is an alcoholic beverage made from brewing and fermenting rice and water, somewhat similar to brewing beer. Saké is made from different types of rice, like grape varieties in wine. These breeds of rice, which are usually big and fat grains, have varying flavor profiles that carry over into the saké produced. Saké is also made from water – in fact, 80% of saké is water. So the water used in making saké has a strong influence in the resultant saké’s flavor – hard water usually equals crisp saké, while softer water leads to smoother saké. Saké can be enjoyed hot, cold, or room temperature, with the best saké served chilled, giving a balance of sweetness and acidity.
Saké begins with the polishing of rice. The grains are polished and milled to remove non-starch material, known to impart bad flavors in the saké. The amount that the rice is polished and milled controls its classification – the more polished the rice, the purer the saké and the higher the classification. The polished rice is then washed, rinsed, soaked and finally, steamed. After steaming, a mold called koji-kin is added to some of the rice. The purpose of the mold is to change the rice’s starch into sugar. Once this occurs, the saké-maker, or toji, adds yeast to begin the fermentation of the sugar into alcohol. Over a few days, batches of rice and water are added until the entire mixture has completed fermentation. Once complete, the fermented rice is pressed and the saké is filtered, pasteurized and bottled.
Rice & Water
The rice used for making saké is called sakamai. Sakamai rice grains are big and fatter than what we normally see as rice. There are about 50 “varieties” of sakamai currently used, but about 9 basic types. Common types of sakamai are: Nishiki, Omachi, Miyama Nishiki, Gohyakumangoku. The type of rice, and the degree to which it is polished, determines the flavor and style of the saké. The water used in making saké is also integral to its final flavor. There are many compounds in water that are beneficial, and some that are detrimental. Most saké is made with high-quality, regional water, which helps define saké’s style – almost like terroir! Some areas have hard water, while others are known for soft water.
There are two main types of saké, futsuu-shu, which is basic saké that has little classification and can include added starch or alcohol, and tokutei meishoshu, which means “special designation saké.” This saké contains its own sub-classifications that contain flavor profiles dependent on the rice, water and brewing methods used. Over 70% of saké is futsuu-shu, but most premium saké is tokutei meishoshu. The classifications of tokutei meishoshu include Junmai, Junmai-Ginjo and Junmai-Daiginjo.
-shu – means “saké” in Japan and is used as a suffix for types of saké.
saké – alcoholic beverage in Japanese.
sakamai – the type of rice used for saké.
koji-kin – the mold added to the steamed rice to change starch into sugar.
nigori - unfiltered saké that maintains some of the lees from the rice. Most nigori is sweet and creamy, and thick with the unfermented rice solids.
seimai-buai – the degree that the rice has been milled or polished. The percentage of seimai-bui represents the amount of the original rice left after milling. The lower the seimai-buai, the higher quality of saké.
koji – saké-maker, or brewmaster.
kura – the saké brewery, where saké is made.
Summing it up
Successful Sites: Japan
Common Descriptors: sweet & dry with a range of flavors. Balance is a key descriptor.