Saké: The Spirit of Rice

Why should you know about Saké? Because in our contemporary marketplace, your potential customers are interested in a wide range of products. And regrading Saké, there is an increasing interest in all of its styles. To say that Saké is a beverage made from rice is as superficial as saying that wine is a beverage made from grapes. Saké can be very complex, and you need to be familiar with the different types.

Many producers refer to Saké as a ‘€œrice wine,’€ but since it is brewed from rice, which is a grain, it is technically a beer. Much of the process is the same as with beer. An enzyme breaks down the starches into sugars, so that the same yeast that makes beer can also make Saké. Where it differs from a beer, however, is that Saké is colorless, clear, has no CO2 and no head, and also has a higher percentage of alcohol (12% to 20%). It certainly looks like a wine.

As with any product that can range from ordinary to premium, much depends on the amount that is discarded, versus the amount used. With Saké, this is determined by the amount of polishing the long grain brown rice gets ‘€“ sometimes all the way down to the kernel. Premium Sakés include Junmai Sakés, made solely from soft water, rice, mold (the enzyme) and yeast, and Honjozo Sakés, which may have 10% of the weight of the rice of alcoholic distillate added, to increase the alcohol content. Within those two premium qualities, Daiginjo has at least 50% of the grain polished away. Ginjo has 40% of the rice grain polished away. When the milling rate gets down to 30% or less removed, the Saké is simply called either Honjozo or Junmai. The difference is that with Junmai, there is no minimum milling rate required, but whatever has been milled away must be printed on the label. These are all in the top tier. Another word to learn is Tokubetsu, which is a sub-category, and denotes ‘€œspecial.’€ This can mean special attention to the brew, or the use of a special, or more highly milled, rice. Most Sakés are clean and slightly fruity, with a range of sweetness from rice.

Three other words in this Japanese ‘€œvocabulary primer’€ are: Taruzake, or ‘€œbarrel’€ in which Saké spends a brief time, resulting in a cedar flavor; Koshu, or ‘€œaged’€ (can be up to five years or more), which can have a more pronounced and pungent flavor; and Nigori, or ‘€œcloudy,’€ which contains rice solids in suspension. The common misperception is that these Sakés are unfiltered. According to Michael John Simkin, importer of MJS Saké Selections in N.J., they are filtered, but then the ‘€œclouds’€ of rice get through the screen of the press. Occasionally, 15% of unpressed liquid is added to Saké that has been pressed. These Sakés have become very popular in the U.S. ‘€œSilk’€ is another word that turns up on the labels of premium Sakés, to describe those with an elegant mouthfeel.

Peter Panayiotou, manager of Grand Wine and Liquor in Astoria, NY, www.grandwi.com , boasts over 200 different Sakés, available on a lengthy 50-foot shelf in the front of the store, with prices ranging from $5.99 to $79.99. He is responding to his customers’€™ willingness to try new products, and new pairings for fusion cuisine. One of his biggest suppliers is Golden Eagle Trading Corp., www.GoldenEagleTrading.com . Aaron Shu, a sales rep, does staff training by holding tastings of about eight different qualities, discussing food choices and market preferences.

Saké’€™s shelf life is at least six months, and can go to a year if stored in cool conditions. Your customers will appreciate learning that open bottles of Saké can keep six months more in the refrigerator. Speaking of the refrigerator, most people are now drinking Saké chilled, which may account for its newfound popularity. Michael Simkin suggests 60®º F for premium bottles. Fruity flavors (green apple or quince) are retained this way. Screw caps also contribute to their popularity.

Aside from the 1,200 breweries in Japan today, of which Gekkeikan is the largest, there are five in the U.S. that are produced by brewers from Japan, mostly in California. There is a large source of short grain rice in the Sacramento Valley. The biggest seller in the US is Sho Chiku Bai, which is well-priced, fresh, and also kosher, www.takarasake.com. The #1 Japanese brand is Kurosawa Kimoto. Miyanoyuki Junmai Daiginjo is a consistent medal winner. Snow Beauty is a popular Nigori, with hints of anise and fennel.

A good way to introduce your customers to Saké would be with Sichi Hon Yari’€™s artisanal ‘€œJunmai,’€ with its notes of citrus and melon, www.jotosake.com. A personal favorite of mine is the woody and slightly peppery Kiku Masamune Junmai Taruzake ‘€“ perfect for smoked fish and light meats. For an aged (Koshu) Saké, try Ichishima, which has a slight tinge of color, a slightly nutty taste, and would be fine with rack of lamb or pungent cheeses. TY KU, whose liqueur has a Saké base, has recently released a pair of superpremiun Sakés: TY KU Junmai Ginjo, in a dramatic black bottle, and Junmai Daiginjo, in a companion white bottle. It’€™s Junmai Ginjo has notes of peach and spice, and is a good companion for grilled white meats. The Junmai Daiginjo, a big step up in price, is delicate and creamy, with hints of truffle and spice, www.trytyku.com. Said TY KU co-founder Trent Ulicny, ‘€œEven over the last two years that we have offered TY KU Premium Saké, we have seen a tremendous growth in the category in terms of support and education in the off-premise sector. Most recently, Costco and Whole Foods have begun regional distribution of TY KU’€™s Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo Sakés, showing their increased belief in both the category and consumer awareness and desire.’€

Be aware that Japanese Saké bottle sizes do not match those of U.S. wine bottles, and are usually a few ml smaller. Further, do not disdain Saké that comes in a can ‘€“ it is handy, and protected from light.

Altogether now, ‘€œkanpai!’€ (which means, ‘€œTo your health and prosperity!’€)

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