Sake, japanese rice wine, is served hot and usually combined with sushi. WRONG. (1) You can drink sake hot but also cold. It depends on the situation and the quality of the sake. (2) Sake is not a wine. Sake is brewed, therefore it is more like a beer. (3) It is a typically mistake from tourists to drink sake while eating sushi. For the Japanese, the taste of both things do not match. It is like a strawberry cake with cream and a glass of beer.
Sake is like the soul of Japan, because of it’s long tradition and it’s background. Sake is one of the offerings in a shinto shrine. A very long time sake also was the only alcoholic drink in Japan. Today you drink a good sake on special occasion like a big business deal. In Europe you might use a good whisky or rum.
Sakana: A word derived from sake. It stands for a good moment, like a mild summer evening with a fire work, that you are enjoying in company of a beautiful woman. They also have a saying for drinking hot sake on a cold winter day: “Putting a hot stone on someones stomach.”
Small bottles of sake
But what is sake? Wine or beer? There is no clear answer. It is like the katana. It is not a sword that by definition has a straight double-sided blade. And is also not a saber because of the mounting of the handle. The same goes for sake. The difference between beer and wine is the process: Wine is made from grapes (fruits). Beer is made from barley and yeast. You have to convert starch into sugar, before you can begin the alcohol generating process. For grapes you can directly start with the sugar. (By the way, if you don’t add hops to your beer and run the result thru a distill, you receive schnaps, and if you put it into old sherry and bourbon cask, you will get a whisky.)
Die Herstellung / The process
Rice is getting polished, to remove the outer areas of the grain. How much of the outer area you remove decides the the quality (and the price) of the sake. You need a lot of water. The brewing is a little bit more complicated compared with beer. One part of the polished rices is mixed with koji (a mold fungus). You also add yeast and lactic acid. Under high humidity and temperature rice starch is converted to sugar. After a certain time you add more water and the other half of the polished rice. All together is fermenting. In difference to beer, the yeast is stopping to work if the alcohol level is reaching 20% and your sake is ready. You may run it thru a filter.
Because of that, I have decided for myself to call sake some kind of beer, while the amount of alcohol is higher than for wine. Also for travellers from Europe: If you have a few bottles sake in your lugguage you might have to deal with the customs officer. In that case: Sake is not spirit neither is it a liqueur. I always tell them, that sake is a beer, because of the way to make it.
As far as I heard several time, the best sake is coming from Niigata. Every time I asked for Niigate-no-Sake in a Izakaya, the aleays lift an eyebrow. I am not sure if this is a good sign or not.
The quality of sake varies. Here again sake is like wine. You have the cheap version and good, high prices stuff. There is also a very cheap sake, that is mixed up with industrial alcohol. The stop the fermentation at an early stage an add the missing alcohol. You should remember the following kinds of sake: Futsushu is the standard sake. You can buy it everywhere in tiny one way glasses. This is usually the kind of sake you drink hot. Junmai and Honjozo are the good sake. Junmai-Ginjoshu and Ginjoshu are the very good ones, but also the pricy ones. The rice is reduced by 40% during the polishing. The Rolls Royce of sake is the Daiginjoshu or Junmai Daiginjoshu. The rice grain is reduced by 50%. In a Izakaya this sake is really expensive. In a sake shop a small bottle costs easily more than 30€.