Cold or warm, sake soothes with flavors of Japan

Sake rice wine was made some 2,000 years ago, not long after wet cultivation of rice was introduced in Japan, although its origins may go as far back as 4,000 B.C. Methods of serving sake appeared in writings as early as 300 A.D.

Rice “wine” is something of a misnomer, since sake is more closely related to brewing with a grain than fermenting fruit juice.

Like beer or whiskey, sake has primarily just four ingredients: rice, water, koji (a type of mold to enhance fermentation) and yeast. It typically has an alcohol content of about 15 percent.

The water used is very important to the flavor, somewhat akin to Scotch whisky in that regard.

And just as a wine’s appellation terroir plays a role in imparting subtle flavors and characteristics, the terroir of Japan’s prefectures do the same for sake. Of course, there’s no reason a kura, or brewery, cannot use rice and other ingredients from other prefectures.

Hiroshima, Akito and Fukushima are some prefectures known for their sake.

There are literally thousands of different types of sake depending on the type of rice and yeast strain as well as fermentation methods.

Sake can, however, be broken down into four main groups. Junmaishu sake is the purest in form, using just white rice, koji and water, giving it a mellow nose and a rich, smooth flavor.

Ginjoshu sake uses rice that has been milled so that 60 percent or less of the grain remains. Brewing alcohol can be added. This process imparts a fruity, floral bouquet and a clean, crisp flavor. Sake using slightly less refined rice is called Dai-ginjoshu.

Honjozoshu sake is made similarly to Ginjoshu, but the rice is milled to 70 percent. It has a mild bouquet and a crisp flavor.

Futsushu sake is your “table wine” value-brand variety.

Several different brewing methods also can adapt flavors.

Genshu-style sake is undiluted with water giving it an alcohol content up to 20 percent.

Koshu sake is aged for five years or longer. It has a sherry-like flavor with notes of spices and nuts.

Aged in casks, Taruzake sake picks up the subtle flavors of the wood.

Nigorizake sake is unfiltered leaving it milky white.

There is also carbonated, or sparkling, sake.

Sake is most often served in small cups, which is helpful since you want to get up from your sushi under your own power, given sake’s high alcohol content. In fact, many brands of sake are sold in split bottles, instead of 750 ml bottles, as wine is.

Unlike many libations, most sake is not aged and should be consumed after the bottle is opened, another reason for smaller quantities. Sake also is sensitive to light and heat, so it should be refrigerated after opening.

A beautiful tradition has your companion serve you sake and you pouring for him or her — you never pour your own.

Then there’s the big question — should you serve it warm or chilled? It’s actually a matter of personal preference. But some experts say ginjoshu and namazake should be cold, and regular sake, honjozoshu and shunmaishu should be served warm. If serving warm, it should be a little higher than body temperature, about 45 degrees Celsius, or 113 Fahrenheit. It should never be boiled.

I’m a novice sake taster, so the flavor took some getting used to — not quite beer, not quite whiskey or wine, but something of all three.

• Takara “Sho Chiku Bai” Ginjo 300ml ($6.79) – This Ginjo-style sake uses a special strain of yeast for cold fermentation. It has a fruity almost malty flavor with a beer-like finish but no heat.

• Gekkeikan “Horin” 300ml ($9.99) – Gekkeikan is the brewer, Horin is its brand
name. Created in the Junmai Dai-ginjo style, its taste is clean and smooth with a fruity aroma and gentle flavor. The mild volatiles left no heat on the palate.

• Rihaku Nigori “Dreamy Clouds” Tokubetsu Junmai, 300ml ($13.99) – Sweet and
wheaty opening flavors are prominent in this unfiltered (nigori) sake of 30 percent-polished rice (junmai). The finish was a bit harsh for me, tasting somewhat like antiseptic mouthwash. “Tokubetsu” means special, and, although its flavor was quite unusual, I have to admit, its packaging is lovely with frosted glass and label art.

• Yaegaki Nigori Sake 720ml ($16.99) – Another unfiltered sake, Yaegaki had a citrusy nose. Flavors were sweet and creamy, almost milky, with a nice warm finish.

• Gekkeikan “Haiku” Premium Select 750 ml ($9.99) – This sake is actually made in Gekkeikan’s Folsom, Calif., brewery, outside of Sacramento. Haiku is drier than some of the other sakes. It had a clear, clean taste that was something akin to hazelnuts. It had no heat at the finish. This one was probably my favorite; I liked the drier style.

• Hatsumago Junmai Shu 300ml ($10.99) – Made in the simplest style from 40 percent polished rice, Hatsumago was sweet with clean flavors mid-palate that spread over the tongue. Its finish was minimal.

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