Ceramic cups for drinking shochu
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Sake Primer

Three essential elements go into sake: rice, water and koji (malted rice). Since water comprises 80% of the sake, local breweries pride themselves on the quality of their water. Each brewery (currently, about 1,800 across Japan; a number that is unfortunately on the decline) features its local brew, or jizake, and it is a unique pleasure to sample regional specialties while traveling. For instance, the next time you are in Japan, you might want to try creamy, milky white nigori sake (unfiltered sake), which is served at country-style restaurants.

There are five different grades of sake, all determined by the brewing method and quality of ingredients. Especially important is the level of seimei, the process of polishing the outer layers of rice. The protein and fats contained in the outer layers reduce the quality of the end result, and thus, the best types of sake are made with rice that has been reduced to 50% or more of its size.

Buying and Storing Sake
You may also come across sake labeled amaguchi (sweet) or karakuchi (dry), but this refers to the taste of the sake, not its ingredients or quality. What type of sake should you try? It depends on your taste, but Junmai-ginjo, (pure rice premium sake) is the most popular type of specialty sake in the West, appreciated for its light, fruity flavor. Junmai-daiginjyo (pure rice super premium sake) is drier, and represents sake at its best. Unlike wine, sake does not improve with age, and thus, freshness is important. Keep good-quality sake in a cool place, and once opened, make sure to keep it refrigerated and consume within a reasonable time.

Serving Sake
While regular sake is usually served warm, the premium types are best served chilled. This is because experts claim that each type of sake has its own distinct optimum temperature, but few people have such patience or knowledge. If you go to a specialty sake bar in Japan, you can be sure it will be served correctly. For serving cold sake, glass tokkuri and specially made sake glasses that amplify sake's refined fragrance are now popular. In the warm season, sake is often served in freshly cut green bamboo fashioned into cups.