By: Hanifa Sekandi
You have most likely sipped on this subtle, smooth spirit at your favorite sushi restaurant. Sake is a drink that warms up your soul and shockingly excites your senses. Some would say it brings the same joy as tequila. But you do not see it coming. Sake is a humble beverage that does not announce its presence immediately on the palette. Its balanced flavor profile satisfies the desire to sip and dine without overpowering the experience. Alas, a few sakes in, there it is, a feeling unlike any other alcoholic beverage you have sipped on before. It does not hit you in the chest or burn the throat. That tipsy feeling comes later, even for those who don’t consider themselves lightweights.
Sake has enchanted North American imbibing culture. So much so that it has transitioned from the beautiful Japanese restaurants where most people first experienced it to liquor stores across the US. As of late, luxury sake brands are making headway, creating an alcoholic beverage niche just like wine and other high-end spirits and liquors. Like premium tequila, it is becoming a staple on bar carts for those who value a selective drinking experience where just anything will not do. It is about quality and the story that makes the alcohol they drink meaningful.
What is Sake?
Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage. The word sake in Japanese describes all alcoholic beverages. Nihonshu is what sake is called in Japan, most likely something sake enthusiasts in the West are unaware of since this designation is rarely used in western Japanese restaurants. For most people, their first experience with sake is at a Japanese restaurant. While dining on seafood dishes, sake is served and an excellent pairing for this type of cuisine. So, what is sake? Sake is a translucent rice wine. It is often served in a small cup called an Ochoko. It is made with rice and water and brewed by converting starch to sugar. From the sugar, alcohol is produced. The brewing process of sake involves several steps.
The sake brewing process starts with polishing the rice to remove the outer layer. Once this stage is complete, the rice is soaked to ensure that any leftover bran is removed. Next, the rice is steamed to cultivate koji cultures, an imperative component of making sake. While one batch of rice steams, Koji mold is added to the steamed rice. The steamed rice and rice with added koji mold are mixed in a tank containing yeast to create a starter. Next, the mashed ingredients are transferred to a tank with steamed rice, water and koji, frequently added during the alcohol fermentation period of approximately one month. The fermented mash is then pressed and stored.
As you begin the at-home sake experience, you need to buy the appropriate cups since the size of the cup, the shape and the material it is made with influence the fragrance of sake. There are several vessels that one can use to serve sake. For example, a masu container is a small wooden box with a shot glass placed in the center. Another vessel is a Sakazuki, a flat wide-mouthed cup used for Shinto ceremonies and rituals. Small shot glasses are another option for serving sake since thin glass supports a rich tasting experience. It is also suitable for high-quality sake. Shuki is a commonly used vessel. Shuki is a term generally used to describe all sake vessels. Wooden shukis are favorable since they enhance the aroma of sake and provide a milder aftertaste.
To truly appreciate an alcoholic beverage, it is essential to understand its beginnings. These stories over a warm meal with friends bring us together. Further, history demonstrates that bridges and communities have been built simply by sharing spices and drinks with people from different cultures. Sake has its own story. Although the birthdate of sake is hard to determine, its roots are intriguing. The Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms contains Japan’s earliest record of alcoholic beverages. It is believed that sake dates back to the Nara period (710–794). Initially, sake was used during religious ceremonies. During the Heian period, sake was consumed as part of games and festivals.
In the earlier stages of sake, before it became a viable commodity. The Imperial Court during the 8th and 10th centuries governed and controlled its production. The types of sake that people could drink were also determined by the rank they held in court. For example, clear, robust-flavored sake was reserved for those in high-status positions. People viewed as a lower class could only consume unrefined, cloudy brews. During this time, people drank sake for festivals and offerings to the gods.
In the 12th and 14th centuries, shrines and temples became sake brewers and the central producers for over five hundred years. It was at the temples where the brewing process was perfected into three stages. Sake’s longevity, stronghold into the future and availability to the general public are due to these efforts that ushered in the production of sake at a scale. It is important to note that the upper-class nobility only had access to sake during this time. A move into commerce created a demand for this once-exclusive drink.
Once specialized brewers entered the market in the 14th and 16th centuries, temples and shrines no longer held a monopoly on production. Innovations for serving sake made headway during this sake rebirth. New sake vessels offered an easy way to purchase sake to-go, a departure from the wooden pails. Fast-forward to present-day sake production, where technological advancements that commenced years prior and continue to improve brewing methods have allowed sake producers to distribute it globally. New avenues opened the door for the sale of refined luxury sake. It is no surprise that premium sake brands are finding a space among elite alcoholic beverages.
What Is Premium Sake?
So, what is premium sake? Is it worth the price? Does it stand out among other luxury beverages? Luxury sake brands are just getting started. It will not be long before such brands are found next to top-shelf wines and spirits on bar menus in North America. Premium tequila has reigned supreme in recent years. It is now sake’s turn.
Sake has an average ABV of 15% to 16%, quite compelling for those looking for an alternative to high alcohol content spirits. Not bad for a rice wine! Sake Hundred, a high-end sake developed by Ryuji Ikoma, a sake connoisseur who also founded Japan’s Saketimes, is gunning to shake up the fine wine and high-end Japanese whiskey terrain. Ikoma aims to “expose drinkers to the most outstanding examples of Japan’s national drink, showcasing its many styles and sophisticated complexities that allow it to pair with a myriad of cuisines well beyond that of simply sushi.” While developing his brand, he visited hundreds of Japanese breweries to learn about the techniques and art of making sake from those who have gained expertise through their lineage. In 2018, he launched Sake Hundred, a new portfolio of sake for a new generation of sake drinkers. He partnered with select breweries to help him produce his new line of high-end sake.
“Our collection of sakes will take drinkers through a journey of both culture and taste, two elements that are closely intertwined in sake making. You can taste the personality of the sake brewer in our sake, just as you can taste the terroir of a fine wine,” noted Ikoma. He added, “Each part of Japan has its own culture and there is no better way to get to know that culture than through sake.”
Sake Hundred released the limited edition Gengai with an eye-opening price tag of $3,100. Their flagship sake, Byakko Bespoke, made from the “king of sake rice,” Yamadanishiki retails at $380. Of course, other premium sake brands are eager to enter the U.S. Kikuhime ‘Kukurihime’ Ginjo Sake, produced by Kikuhime Brewery, is a top-shelf sake named as a tribute to the Goddess of Hakusan Mountain. The water near this mountain is used in this renowned, slowly aged sake for approximately ten years. Some retailers sell it for $650. Another notable high-end sake is Shukondeinoshiro Kamutachi. Producers of this sake only make 60 bottles a year. Luckily, the price tag on this sake is not as shocking. Getting a taste of this premium slow-matured rice wine is a possibility for those who do not mind splurging just a little. It retails at $229.
Those in the know do not mind lower-priced sake while dining at their favorite sushi restaurant. Even if it sits at a lower price point, it is a great accompaniment to your meal. For many, this led them to explore the world of sake. Its rich cultural roots and the unique brewing process bring each bottle to life. Do not be surprised if it also becomes a member of the new-age beverage trend for individuals seeking wheat-free and gluten-free alcoholic drinks. For now, sipping on warmed sake feels just right.