Just as sushi, Mount Fuji, and sumo wrestlers are synonymous with Japanese culture, so is sake, Japan's famous rice wine. Dating back to the third century, sake has played a significant role in Japanese traditions. Around 250 A.D., sake's original recipe greatly differed from what it is today. Rice, millet, and chestnuts were chewed by villagers and then spat out into a communal barrel to ferment. Once the natural fermenting process was completed, the sake, then known as "kuchikami no sake", or "chewing in the mouth sake", was drank during special religious and social celebrations. Present at weddings and New Year's celebrations, sake was also used as an offering to the protectors of the fields in Shinto rituals after each harvest. Sake's first recorded appearance in the United States was in 1885. Newly immigrated Japanese laborers brought their beverage of choice with them when they were first enlisted to work in Hawaii's sugarcane fields. In the last hundred years, sake's popularity has skyrocketed throughout the U.S., and is now frequently served at Japanese restaurants and sushi bars.
Today, the making of sake greatly differs from its ancient origins. The evolution is sake production occurred slowly with the discovery of yeast and its uses in the 17th century. As time went on and Japan entered World War Two, a severe rice shortage took place as the nation was forced to conserve resources in order to support the war effort. The government then ruled that pure alcohol and glucose would be combined with small measures of rice mash in order to continue productivity. As a result, this altered recipe functioned to quadruple the national sake output, and continues to be used today. Aside from the method used to create Japan's finest rice wine, fresh spring water and large white grains of rice aid in meeting strict standards that give sake its well-deserved reputation. To begin the production of sake, grains of rice must be polished, or milled, to remove the grains' outer exterior. Next, the rice must be cleaned, saturated with purified water, steamed, and cooled. The fermentation period begins when koji rice is added to the mixture, which slowly transforms starch into sugar, and then sugar into alcohol with the help of the yeast. After approximately 20 to 25 days of fermentation, water is added and the rice mash is filtered to create brand new sake. Lastly, the sake mixture must be skimmed and pasteurized before it's stored and bottled. All together, almost a year of milling, brewing, filtering, storing, and fermenting is needed before the sake is finally ready to be shipped around the world, as well as to local sake bars, or "izakaya".
The selection of one's sake can prove to be difficult, whether you're a seasoned sake connoisseur, or just a little curious. Although sakes are predominantly brewed using the same method, their ingredients, along with brewing locations and styles vary just as their taste does. While some may be "karakuchi", or dry in flavor, others can be very sweet, or "amakuchi". "Genshu" is a term for extremely rare sake, especially in the U.S., because it is undiluted and its alcohol content is very high, and exceeds the average 15% to 17% alcohol content. "Nigori-zake" is a sake that is unfiltered, while "Jizake" is a marking that connotes the sake has been produced in a smaller brewery located in a rural area that does not brew on a large scale. Sakes generally fall into four categories; "Junmai-shu", "Honjozo-shu", "Ginjo-shu", and "Daiginjo-shu". "Futsuu-shu" is a term used for any type of obscure sake that does not fit into any of these four groupings.
Junmai-shu sake is what is most frequently imported into the U.S. It is differentiated from other types of Japanese rice wine because it lacks distilled alcohol and other additives, and is made only with rice, water, and refined koji. The purest form of sake, it is made by altering the complex carbohydrates in the rice into fermentable and non-fermentable simple carbohydrates with a natural fungus that dissolves starch. Junmai-shu's main ingredient is rice that has been polished to remove approximately one third of the exterior of each grain. Junmai-shu's has a full-bodied flavor with a higher level of acidity. It is neither sweet, nor dry, and has a subtle fragrance. Of all sakes, Junmai-shu is often thought of as the best type to accompany a meal. As its taste is stronger than others, its presence is not silenced as easily with edibles. Honjozo-shu sake is very similar to Junmai-shu. Only a miniscule amount of distilled alcohol is added to the sake very late in the fermentation process. After this, water is put in to ensure the alcohol level remains constant. The same type of milled rice is used as well, but because ethyl alcohol is added to the list of ingredients, the taste of Honjozo-shu is both gentler and slightly drier. It also makes the scent of the sake more distinctive. Honjozo-shu sake is generally the most popular among sake experts, and is drank warm, which enhances its flavor and texture.
Ginjo-shu sake is made both with and without added alcohol. What differentiates it from other sakes is the milling process the rice must go through before being used. Unlike Honjozo-shu and Junmai-shu, the rice used for Ginjo-shu sake must be polished so that slightly less than half of the grain is left remaining. Through this extensive milling process, natural proteins and fats are eliminated to ensure they don't hinder the fermentation process, which could cause the development of undesired flavors and other inconsistencies. Once the rice has been prepared, Ginjo-shu must go through a longer fermentation period while stored at extremely cold temperatures. The end result: highly complex sake with a sweet taste and fragrance, balanced by an unassuming delicateness.
Daiginjo-shu sake is like ginjo-shu's more sophisticated older sibling. The rice used to produce Diaginjo-shu is thoroughly polished so that over half of the grain is removed. Afterward, its brewing process is very slow and demanding of personal attentiveness. Its fragrance is often compared to that of the sweetest, most pungent flowers. The full-bodied, complex taste that characterizes Diaginjo-shu is that of such a high quality, that it leaves virtually no aftertaste or pervasive remnants. Because so many of the hangover causing rice fats and proteins are carefully removed from Diaginjo-shu sake, hangovers are virtually impossible to have. Also, all sakes lack sulfites, which almost all other alcoholic beverages contain despite the fact that many drinkers have allergic reactions to them.
The date of production and release is very important when deciding on a bottle of sake. Unlike fine French wines, sake should not age too much in its bottle. Better for drinking than storing, sake needs to be drunk before a year passes from its bottling date. Sake may be served at room temperature, chilled or warm, but never hot. When heated, it should never exceed body temperature. 50 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal temperature to serve chilled sake, although any thing between 50 and 98 degrees is permissible. Also, sake keeps best when it is stored in a cool, dry place.
Due to its increasing popularity, a plethora of sake brands may be purchased at your local grocery store, Japanese restaurant, or even online! Today, many bars and restaurants specializing in Japanese cuisine carry and serve a variety of brands for sake bombs, or warmed sake in a small, wooden cup. Tamanohikari sake is a very popular and accessible type of Diaginjo-shu. Other brands include the light and fragrant Kaiun, and Asahi Tenyu, which has a solid, dry taste and is best when warmed. Kokuryu is another highly regarded sake that has a delicately refined texture and flavor. Because there are approximately 1,800 sake breweries in Japan, along with a growing number throughout the United States, it is impossible to name the best sake brands. There are, however, a growing number of sake societies and tasting clubs throughout the U.S., in addition to an abundance of websites dedicated to sake.
One of the most important aspects of drinking sake lays in its presentation. While vintage wines are drank with foods to improve the flavors of the food, sake is consumed with food to compliment the taste of the sake. Its crisp, delicate flavor is greatly enhanced by fish, light pasta and rice dishes, and most sauces prepared in a traditional Japanese, Chinese, Tai, or Vietnamese style. Among a myriad of dishes that accent sake's tastes and textures, sushi is above all one of the best types of food that can compliment your sake selection. Whether you prefer California rolls, unagi, or something more complex, sushi's light quality ensures that you won't be too full to continue on with your sake sipping. Stir-fries with delicate sauces and tempura also go well with all types of sake. Because sake is seen as a social drink, it is often served at parties, after family dinners, or when close friends meet and catch up on old times. As a result, the container in which sake is served and drank carries great importance.
Sake sets come in a variety of sizes and styles, but are always symbolic of their server and their personal taste. Sets always include a jug or kettle, and come with any number of small cups, ranging from two to six. Available in porcelain, ceramic, wood, and metal, they often display intricate designs emblematic of Japan's artistically and culturally rich history. Although some sets are specifically designed to enhance the flavor of warm sake, or enrich the taste of cold sake, many sets are not temperature specific and may be used according to your mood and craving. Sake masu is a small wooden cup that holds .18 liters, and is one of the only types of sake containers that only cold sake may be drank from.
Here at Mrs. Lin's Kitchen, we have a myriad of sake sets for you to choose from. Varying in design and price, we're sure you'll find something that fits your needs and personality perfectly! Will it be a simple bamboo set or an ornate painted porcelain one? Once you browse through mrslinskitchen.com, we're certain you'll find the right sake set for you.
Eat, drink, and be merry!
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