Test out your knowledge of that most famous of Japanese alcoholic beverages with this basic introduction.
Drinking alcohol is part of traditional Japanese culture, as well as a recognised way to get along with people in business. Like me, many international residents start to appreciate Japanese beer when they move here, and may already be quite familiar with differences in beer tastes, production processes and so on. But how much do we know about Japanese sake?
Well, more often than not, we’re completely clueless. We even find that the English word ‘sake’ has a much narrower meaning than the Japanese word sake, which covers various drinks, each with its own name and characteristics: nihonshu, shochu and konseishu. Nihonshu (‘sake’ in English) is a brewed beverage (like beer) made by brewing rice, water, koji (a mould grown on rice), and sometimes pure alcohol. Shochu, a distilled liquor, is made by distilling nihonshu from tubers, malt or rice, just as brandy is made from wine (I’ve even drunk a chestnut shochu!). Finally, konseishu is a liquor made by combining fruit and spices with a nihonshu or shochu base (the most famous of these, umeshu, uses plums).
To fully enjoy the unique flavour of Japanese alcohol you absolutely must know how to serve it – the optimum temperature and accompaniments. You’ve probably heard the term rokku (‘on the rocks’) used to indicate a liquor served with nothing but ice. In my opinion this is the best way to drink Japanese alcohol, allowing you to savour the taste, aroma and quality of the ingredients. Alternatively, try the Japanese-style cocktail known as ‘sake sour’, the result of shaking 45 ml of nihonshu and 20 ml of lemon juice with sparkling water and a spoonful of sugar.
Speaking of temperature, other than the famous mizoreshu (a particular nihonshu served between -12°C and -15°C that resembles a sorbet) Japanese sake should be drunk at room temperature or above. As it gets hotter, the taste and aroma become stronger and sweeter. Reputedly the best temperatures at which to appreciate the quality of nihonshu are hitohadakan (about 35°C) and atsukan (about 50°C), though Japanese people typically match the temperature with the season (room temperature in the summer). The same is true of shochu, especially the kind called joatsu. During this shochu’s distillation process the atmospheric pressure inside the still is the same as outside, whereas with genatsu the internal pressure is lower, resulting in a lighter and more delicate flavour.
When exploring your favourite tastes, knowledge of a nihonshu’s classification is extremely important: there’s junmai (nothing but water, koji and rice) and honjozo (junmai’s ingredients plus pure alcohol). Junmai has an intense rice flavour and is appreciated more by people who like challenging new tastes.
Kansai offers a huge range of options for tasting or drinking Japanese sake. One of the best known is
Fushimi Sakagura Kouji in Kyoto, just 7 minutes on foot from Fushimimomoyama Station on the Keihan Railway. Hereyou can join in one of the many events organised every month and have a marvellous experience tasting various
type of nihonshu for a reasonable price. Test out your knowledge of that most famous of Japanese alcoholic beverages with this basic introduction.
By Salvo Bucceri