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Sake: Japan’s Rice Brew
Everybody loves Japanese food; sushi, sashimi and countless gastronomical delights are pleasing to the palate for people all over the world. However, when you read some magazines or internet articles, some “experts” will recommend pairing western-style wines with Japanese food. While I’ve always been of the opinion that you should drink whatever floats your boat, when it comes to Japanese food, you’re probably better off accompanying your meal with a nice crisp Japanese beer or better yet, have some Sake (pronounced SAH-kay).
Basically speaking, Sake is an alcoholic beverage that is made from fermented rice. In Japanese, sake actually refers to any kind of drink containing alcohol; when the term is used in English it actually refers to what the Japanese call nihonshu or “Japanese liquor”.
Some people think that Sake is rice wine; however, it is not made with a wine-making method, sake is made from a brewing process that is sort of like the process used for making beer. In beer brewing, the starches need to convert to sugar, and then the sugar converts to alcohol; when Sake is made, everything happens simultaneously. Sake usually has an alcohol content of about 15%, higher than that of both beer and wine.
Sake has been around for well over a thousand years; originally a government monopoly, temples and shrines began to brew their own Sake in the eleventh century. In the 1860’s, laws were introduced that allowed anybody who had the brewing know-how to open their own brewery, and as a result, some 30000 breweries opened, the best of which are still open and operating today.
While Sake consumption inside Japan has been steadily decreasing since the 1970’s due to competition from other alcoholic beverages such as beer, the brewed rice beverage has increased in popularity outside the country to such an extent that Sake breweries are popping up in other countries and are using traditional, pre World War II methods of brewing.
Taste and Flavor
Sake can vary greatly, from sweet to savory and can have an extraordinary number of flavor notes. The label on a bottle of Sake will indicate the content’s general flavor characteristics. Here are some of the terms to look for when you’re considering sampling Sake.
• Nihonshu-do refers to the sugar and acid content of the liquid. If the number next to this expression is a negative, it means that the Sake is sweeter or “heavier” than water; if the number is positive, it means the Sake is drier or “lighter” than water. +10 indicates a very dry Sake, while -10 indicates a very sweet one.
• San-do is an indicator of acid concentration, determined by titration, or quantitative chemical analysis. Sweeter Sakes generally have a higher amount of acid so that they do not seem “cloying”.
• Aminosan-do can indicate savoriness. A lower aminosan-do value will indicate that the Sake will be thinner; higher values indicate more viscosity and rounder flavors. A higher number will also indicate a taste of umami.
Flavor notes can include bananas, melons, apples, herbs, rice, spices, chocolates, dry grapes, sherry and caramel sauce.
Contrary to popular belief outside of Japan, Sake is not always served hot; in fact, it’s a question of personal preference; the beverage can be served chilled, warmed, or at room temperature. It all depends on the drinker, the type of Sake, and the season. Hot Sake is usually for the winter-time, and good-quality sake is never heated. Heating is good for low-quality or old sake because the heat will mask inferior aromas and flavors.
Everyday Sake is usually taken in small cylindrical cups called choko. The Sake is usually kept in a sort of flask or thermos that is made from ceramic material which is called a tokkuri. For special occasions such as weddings or ceremonies, flat saucer-like cups called sakazuki are used, and now there are special footed glasses made for use with premium-quality Sake. Box-cups called masu are also traditionally used. At some finer Japanese restaurants, as a show of generosity, a server may put a small glass inside a masu, fill it with Sake, and allow the glass to overflow to the extent that the masu also gets filled with Sake. In some cases, a masu might be placed on a sakazuki and both will be filled the same way.
Sake is almost always served straight, but some cocktails such as the Saketini and the Tamagozake can be made and are quite good.
1 martini glass, chilled
2 ½ oz gin
½ oz sake
1 martini olive
Pour the gin and sake in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice; stir for approximately 30 seconds. Strain into the martini glass and garnish with the olive.
This cocktail has been referred to as “Japanese eggnog” and is a home remedy for a cold or flu.
1 mug containing about 200 ml of hot sake
1 raw egg
1 teaspoon sugar or honey (use more or less to taste)
Whisk the raw egg and honey or sugar together, then add the mixture to the sake, whisking it. The egg will become lightly cooked; do not put the egg mixture in boiling sake as this will only serve to scramble the egg.
Sake is also consumed during religious ceremonies, especially during Shinto rituals of purification.
The next time you go out to a Japanese restaurant or even if you just want to try something a little bit different, try some Sake, and it could very well turn out to be one of your new favorite beverages.
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