It is a traditional Japanese custom to toast New Year's Day with a glass of Saké, to celebrate the upcoming year. I will be raising a cup of Saké today in such a toast. I am also dedicating January as Saké Month here at A Passionate Foodie.
All this month, I will be posting numerous articles on Saké. This will include fundamental information, fun facts and Saké reviews. It is not intended to be a comprehensive examination of the topic. Think of it as more as the Cliff Notes of Saké. I will later provide some resources, books and websites, where you can find far more extensive information about Saké.
If nothing else, I hope that my articles will get you to taste and try some different varieties of Saké, to maybe find a new drink that you enjoy.
Has this happened to you?
While dining at an Asian restaurant, you decide to try some Saké. All they have is hot Saké and they do not even tell you the name of the brand. It is served in a small, ceramic flask with a tiny cup. You pour some of the steaming hot Saké into your cup and it is almost too hot to sip. When you do taste it, it has a pungent, harsh flavor and not much else. It is not appealing and you decide you probably won’t try Saké again.
Unfortunately that is too common of a situation though it is changing. People often do not realize that most good Saké is served chilled. Or that a premium chilled Saké can have all of the complexity of a fine wine. There is a wide world of Saké available, thousands of different brands and types. And that cheap, hot Saké you once tried is nothing like what a good, chilled Saké tastes like.
What is needed is more information about Saké, to show people all the possibilities and to educate them about the many varieties of Saké available. Good Saké is becoming more and more readily available at restaurants and stores so it is a good time now to learn more about it. Saké is getting more and more popular all the time.
What is Saké?
“Saké” (pronounced sah-keh) is actually a generic Japanese term for all alcoholic drinks. The term "nihon-shu" (literally "Japanese sake") is a more accurate term but it is rarely used outside of Japan. “Shu” is a suffix meaning “wine” or “wine-like” beverage. For our purposes, I will use the term “Saké” as it is the one most commonly used in the U.S. It is also the term you will see at nearly all U.S restaurants and wine/saké stores.
Saké is often referred to as “rice wine” though that is not a fully accurate description. It is not quite a wine, though it is not quite a beer either. Saké is a fermented beverage made from rice, which is a grain, making it in some respects more like beer than a wine. But, it is not carbonated and tastes more like a wine than a beer. Unlike both beer and wine, Saké also undergoes multiple fermentations. In the U.S., most state laws classify Saké as a wine. It is probably best to think of Saké as its own unique alcoholic beverage.
It is thought that Saké originated in China, as far back as 4800 B.C. It then reached Japan by the third century B.C. So, it has more than two thousand years of history in Japan. Over the centuries, as brewing methods and technology have improved, the quality of Saké has improved. And though Saké may have begun in China, and is still made there, it is Japan where it has reached its greatest heights.
How does Saké compare to wine?
Saké is generally between 15% and 17% alcohol, though there are a few Sakés with a higher alcohol content. This makes it equivalent to some of the more alcohol heavy wines that are now being made. Sakés are generally well balanced so that the high alcohol content is not a problem.
Saké usually has a lower acidity than most wines. This mostly affects the types of foods you can pair with Saké. Unlike nearly all wines, Saké is free from sulfites. Thus if someone is allergic to sulfites, then drinking Saké won't be a problem. Saké also has about 400 flavor components, aromatic esters, compared to only about 200 for wine.
There are about 180-240 calories in a 5.5 oz. glass of Saké as compared to 110-130 calories in a glass of wine. So, Saké is more fattening than wine. Premium Saké though is usually free from additives and preservatives. In addition, Saké has far less congeners than wine. As congeners are thought to cause hangovers, this can be very important. Personally, I have never had a hangover from drinking Saké.
Saké is commonly almost transparent in color, which is usually due to filtering at the brewery. This can sometimes be excessive though and consequently strip a Saké of its character. Other times, a Saké may have a light amber or gold color, especially a full-flavored Saké. But you must be careful as Saké that has been left too long in the light or which is too old will turn darker, almost a dull brown color. That is a sign that the Saké has deterioated and it won't taste as good.