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With broad, flavorful strokes contained in a single beverage, Japanese sake offers fruity acidity, with notes of pear, citrus, and banana, to a bone-dry minerality and clarity—perfect for pairing with an array of dishes.

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Niki Nakayama Teaches Modern Japanese CookingNiki Nakayama Teaches Modern Japanese Cooking

Niki Nakayama of two-Michelin-starred n/naka teaches you how to honor fresh ingredients with her innovative take on Japanese home cooking techniques.

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What Is Sake?

Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage brewed from fermented rice grains. In Japan, the term sake can also refer to alcoholic beverages in general; nihonshu is a Japanese term that refers explicitly to the brewed rice wine known as sake elsewhere in the world.

How Sake Is Made

Sake is made using a three-step fermentation process called sandan shikomi: In the first phase, a yeast mixture, or shubo, is introduced to an identical mixture of steamed rice, water, and koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae, the bacteria used to make soy sauce), minus the yeast. The two mixtures form moromi, or main mash. Additional batches of the rice-water-koji mixture are added to this moromi two more times, allowing the yeast activity to flourish in between additions. This single-vat brewing technique is known as multiple parallel fermentation and is unique to sake.

5 Main Types of Sake

Types of sake are primarily divided by rice type, the milling and polishing of the rice, and whether additional alcohol has been added to the finished product.

  1. Ginjo: Ginjo is a premium sake category. To receive a ginjo classification, producers must polish a minimum of 40 percent of the grain away. (Polishing removes the outer starchy coating, which adversely affects the flavor.) Producers measure the rice-polishing ratio using the remaining rice captured after the polish: The lower the percentage, the more rice and time the brewing process requires—which usually results in a higher price.
  2. Daiginjo: Daiginjo sake has a minimum requirement of 50 percent, which means 50 percent of the husk has been buffed off the rice. This type of sake features a small amount of distilled alcohol (also known as brewer’s alcohol), which creates different flavor profiles.
  3. Junmai: A junmai ginjo sake is made with no added alcohol and a rice-polishing ratio of at least 60 percent, while a junmai daiginjo likewise contains no added alcohol but a rice-polishing ratio of at least 50 percent. Lower-quality sake producers may add distilled alcohol to cut down the brewing process and speed up production. If premium sake producers do this, it’s in smaller amounts to enhance flavors.
  4. Honjozo: Junmai sake contains no added alcohol, while honjozo denotes the presence of a small addition of brewer’s alcohol. Honjozo sake has a rice-polishing ratio of at least 70 percent and is lighter and more flavorful than junmai, which is not fortified with alcohol.
  5. Namazake: Namazake is an unpasteurized “raw” sake that must be refrigerated and consumed promptly. Namazakes typically have a bright, fresh character the way a young wine might, with less refined edges.
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5 Common Varieties of Sake

There are many different varieties of sake, distinguished by brewing method, filtration, and aging. Here are a few of the most common:

  1. Genshu: Genshu sake skips the post-brewing watering down most other sakes go through. As a result, this undiluted sake has bold flavors and a slightly higher alcoholic content.
  2. Jizake: Jizake is another term for artisanal sake produced by smaller, independent breweries—sake’s answer to local microbreweries.
  3. Koshu: Most sake is intended for consumption in the immediate months after production, but the rare koshu sake—any sake that’s aged for a minimum of three years, in the bottle or barrels—makes up for the wait with deeply rich flavors of honey and caramel, more in line with the complexity of an aged sherry or port.
  4. Nigorizake: This popular “cloudy” sake receives a far less thorough filtration than other kinds of sake, leaving much of the rice sediment behind in the process. The result is a noticeably creamy mouthfeel.
  5. Sparkling sake: With a nod to methode champenoise, sparkling sake is bottled before the final fermentation, trapping the resulting carbon dioxide gas in the beverage.

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How to Serve Sake

Here are a few tips for serving sake:

  • Select the temperature. Like wine or beer, the nuances present in any sake are subject to temperature. Premium sake is intended to be served either cold or at room temperature to call attention to different flavor notes. You can also serve lower quality sake hot in a preparation called atsukan.
  • Choose the vessel. Sake is traditionally served in small ceramic or glass cups, with an accompanying carafe. For special occasions, you can serve sake inside of a wooden box called a masu, which holds exactly one serving of sake: 180ml, or 6 fl oz.
  • Serve your guests. Sake service also adheres to Japanese etiquette: Never allow guests to serve themselves. Keep an eye on their glass or cup and refill it as needed (they should do the same for you).

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