In Japan, saké is considered to be drink for the Gods. It is not uncommon to find shrines to ‘Matsuosama’ – the most important sake-brewing deity – inside several Japanese breweries. This 100% natural drink is made from rice, koji (an enzyme), yeast, and of course water. There are around 65 different strains of rice that are used to make saké, and the most expensive and prized strain among them is the Yamada Nashiki, which is also considered to be the ‘king of saké rice’.
Most people believe saké to be similar to beer since it is fermented from grain; however, its alcohol content and lack of carbonation places it much closer to wine. Sakés are generally served chilled and only inferior quality sakés will be served hot.
Saké can be classified into four different categories – and each has its own typical brewing technique.
1. Junmai-shu: Made from only rice, koji, and water junmai-shu literally means ‘pure rice saké’. It is slightly more acidic in nature and has a heavier and fuller taste.
2. Honjozo-shu: This saké is usually served warm. In the final stages of production, a small amount of distilled ethyl alcohol is added, which helps smoothen and lighten its flavor. It also has a subtle fragrance about it.
3. Ginjo-shu: The ginjo-shu is a saké that has a fruity flavor and a delicate fragrance. It is fermented at colder temperatures for a much longer period of time.
4. Daiginjo-shu: Producing this saké is a rather labor intensive process and the end result is exceptionally aromatic and fruity. Daiginjo-shu is the finest variety of saké and a highly coveted product.
Sakés that do not fall into one of the four categories are referred to as the futsuu-shum or ‘normal saké’.
At a restaurant or traditional Japanese gathering it is customary to pour saké from the ‘tokkuri’ (the serving flask) into the ‘ochoko’ (small porcelain cups). In formal situations, it is considered proper to hold the tokkuri in both your hands and fill the ochoko for the people present at the table.
It is impolite to fill your own cup. This practice is called ‘tejaku’ and it is acceptable only in extremely informal situations. While your glass is being filled you are expected to lift it off the table with one hand and support it with the other.
Though saké is considered to be the perfect accompaniment to sushi, its popularity has led people to pair it with different cuisines. Today, it is estimated that of every ten glasses of wine consumed, two are a saké. The trend has arrived in the U.S. with a big bang, and currently there are seven breweries throughout the nation.
So, the next time you are in the mood to experiment with your choice of drink, you might want to try out a saké. You’ll discover that it makes an excellent match with most contemporary cuisines.
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