When Jason suggested that Malt do a non-whisky week for January, I immediately agreed. I figured a lot of people would be sick of drinking after the holidays, so a low-ABV drink would seem appropriate and refreshing. I was coming straight from Japan, where I drank a lot of sake, and from which I also brought home a lot of sake. Consequently, I thought that this would be a good time to review sake. To whomever requested sake reviews on Malt, I hope this makes you happy.
Like Japan, sake has always been a mystery to me. Having bad, and maybe “stale” sake served to me heated, didn’t deter me from trying to learn more. That said, it’s only been this year that I have started to learn more about this delicious-yet-misunderstood liquid. Thankfully, I found a sake-focused podcast called Sake on Air. It has a group of hosts in the industry, and one of them is John Gauntner, probably the most knowledgeable non-Japanese sake expert. They’ve been very helpful with my sake education, but I still have a long, long way to go.
For starters, what we non-Japanese call sake is actually called nihonshu in Japan. “Nihonshu” means Japanese alcohol. In Japan, the word “sake” is the all-encompassing term for liquor.
Despite being only rice-based, sake is often referred to as rice wine, which is confusing since “wine” refers to fermented fruits. Rice is a grain. I guess its non-fizzy state is why it’s not called rice beer? Being new to sake, I can see that comparing it to wine could be fitting as sake’s diversity becomes easier to comprehend. However, sake is technically closer to beer in structure, as both are grain-based.
A huge difference between sake and beer is that the grain used for beer production has to be malted. Sugar in grains are stored in the form of starch. Malting is essential, as it creates enzymes that break down the starch into sugar so the yeast can ferment it, but rice in sake production can’t be malted, since the rice is milled. Without the husk, rice can’t be malted. Thus, sake needs koji-kin, a type of mold, to convert the starches into fermentable sugar. Koji-kin is a very deep and interesting topic to get into, but I’ll do it some other day.
As I said above, it’s easier to explain the diversity and some of sake’s concepts via wine. These are some of the easier things to discuss. Wine uses different varieties of grapes, while sake uses different kinds of rice. Wine has terroir. Sake can have terroir. Wine has vintners who mainly oversee the production. Sake has tojis who are said to greatly affect the sake with their personalities. Any grape can be used to make wine, but not all grapes can make great wine. Similarly, table rice, which is what we eat, can be used to make sake, but there are specific varieties of rice that make better types. Sake rice is bigger, and its structure is different from table rice. As far as my limited knowledge goes, this is where the similarities end.
I do not dabble much in wine, but I think it is safe to say that much of a country’s wines are region-based. The easiest example would be France. Each region is known for making certain types of wines. Those wines rely on the type/s of grapes that fit best with the region’s terroir. The Bordeaux region produces Bordeaux wine, and it mostly uses Cabernet Sauvignon, while other regions like Burgundy and its wine relies on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
It’s different for sake. A brewery in Kyoto, let’s say, can use rice grown in Kyoto—but they also have the option to use rice grown in Fukushima.
I’ll stop with the technical information here. There is so much to cover with sake! You still have the classifications, like the different kinds of Junmai, Honjozos, the different rice varieties, koji and more, but it’s best not to overload the reader.
One of the best things I love about sake is that there is no pretentiousness around it. You can find a great bottle of sake for about ¥2000 (£13.90) retail price. The most expensive bottle of sake I’ve seen so far is ¥10,000! Because most of the labels are still in Japanese, the price does not take out the fun factor in finding out if one will like the sake or not.
In case it’s still not sexy enough for snobs and bandwagon people to pollute, we can’t say the same for wine. In my experience, you’d have to cough up more; wine has auctions and speculators to drive up the prices.
Another thing to mention is how sake, especially sparkling sake, does not have tannins. This makes it much more refreshing to drink. In my opinion, this also makes it easier to pair or simply consume with food.
I bought this bottle of Daitengu sake for only ¥1800. I accidentally walked into a Fukushima fair while walking around Senso-ji in Asakusa on a Sunday; I guess this was a way for a Fukushima organization to try to bounce back, or a Tokyo organization’s way to show their support, as the typhoon Hagibis also affected Fukushima.
The Daitengu brewery was flooded during the typhoon. The face with the big nose on the bottle is a tengu. Daitengu means “great heavenly dog”. This confuses me, as “tengu” are Shinto gods in Japan. “Dai” can mean great. I must admit that I’m not certain how a man’s face with a big nose ends up being called or translated into a great heavenly dog in English!
This is a Junmai Ginjo made with Yume no Kaori rice from Motomiya City. The person at the booth told me this rice is unique to Fukushima. “Ginjo” means the rice was polished to 60%, which tells us that 40% of it was polished away. The more a sake rice is polished, the more the “heart” of the rice is exposed. The “heart” is where the starch is; its outer parts are more fat and protein, which can create “off” flavors. This is sake is bottled at 15% in November of 2019.
Note: I started reviewing this fresh from the fridge. The constant changing of temperature made this sake inconsistent in that regard. I typically like my sake cold, but I also like to see how it changes as it heats up. FYI, some sake are recommended served at room temp or heated. There is a term for each level of temperature a sake is served.
The order of scents and flavors I write down are in order.
Daitengu Junmai Ginjo Sake – review
On the nose: hints of miso, romaine lettuce, cucumber peel, peppers, koji-kin, hints of the initial scents of soy sauce, fried tofu, charred camembert cheese, fresh melons, hints of muscatel grapes, beans, edamame, hard-boiled egg yolk, pickled sticks of radish,
In the mouth: fried mini shrimps, beans, creamy cow’s milk cheese like camembert and brie, fresh melons, hints of muscat grapes, cucumbers, hints of parsley, cow’s milk, milk whey, hints of blueberries and raspberries, chilled watermelon, slightly sweet rice cakes like mochi, hints of almond jelly
Because this is not a spirit and is only 15% abv, everything is thin. Each sniff and sip is like peeling more and more layers of the sake. The more I sip and drink the more flavors I get. In a figurative sense, it’s all short and sweet.
I’ve never had anything from this brewery, and I’ve also never had any sake made from Yume no Kaori. But in a blind tasting, I wouldn’t be able to tell this apart from a Yamada Nishiki rice Junmai sake. This is all still new to me.