Sake. We like to think of it as karaoke’s unsung hero. And although holding those dainty cups in our giant paws can make us feel a little man-handy, the glassware is adorable. It also makes us giggle, which somehow feels appropriate too. And after decades of being relegated in the States to brightly lit sushi restaurants and smoky karaoke bars, sake is going mainstream. We’re talking Bravo-Reality-TV-Star mainstream. So, move over pinot grigio and say konnichiwa to your competition.
Although often referred to as rice wine, sake is more of a soul sister to beer in that it comes from a starch (in this case, rice,) turns that starch into sugar, and then ferments into alcohol. Are you still awake? Sorry, it’s a lot more fun to drink sake than it is to read about it, so we’ll try to keep this straight to the point. Feel free to sip along.
There are about 80 different kinds of rice used for brewing sake, which are larger and stronger then the rice we eat. This super strength comes in handy during the initial stages of brewing when the rice is polished to remove the hard outer shell called the bran. After a period of rest and relaxation during which the rice soaks up moisture from the air, it is immersed in water for several hours and then steamed. Sounds kind of like a spa treatment, doesn’t it?... Doesn’t it? Hello? Are you still with us? Good, because this is where it gets gross. Enter dark green mold spores called koji, which are sprinkled onto the steamed rice and left to ferment for about 4 days. Next, yeast, water, koji rice, and sake rice are added together in a staggered process (that we don’t need to go into here) and left to Netflix and chill for around 20-25 days. Finally, the giggle water is pressed from the rice solids and, ding ding! Time to WAKE UP and smell the sake!!!
There are, of course, variations on the above process, which give sake its wide range of complex, unique flavors. First off, it’s in the rice, not only what variety is used but how much it is polished. The percentage you see on the label means the level to which the outer layer of rice was polished away to get to the heart. The higher the number, (80%) the less that has been polished, and therefore the less delicate and refined the taste. (and likely the less expensive the bottle. And as far as the range of classifications, unless you’re really going deep into Saketown, Ginjo is the ideal designation for a decent priced, smooth tasting experience. And Daiginjo is basically its classier, fancier big sister who may be worth the extra bucks but sometimes she’s a bit boring. Of course, we could really geek out and go into the water, the classifications and all the other categories within those categories, but our sake bottle’s almost empty and we’re going Japanese we think we’re going Japanese we really think so.
Sake gifted its first buzz sometime around 300 A.D. Back then, in the pre-refrigeration days, sake was brewed strictly in the winter months. Heavily involved from the start, the government had a monopoly on sake for centuries until they allowed temples and shrines to get in on the tippling business around the 10th century. 900 years later in 1868 the law was changed to allow common folk to start up a brewery, and before you could translate “another round” into Japanese (別のラウンド) more than 30,000 sake houses sprang up. Today, thanks in part to an aging population and an increase in beer and imported liquor sales there are less than 1,800 sake breweries in Japan with nationwide sales dropping 30% since 1975. To stay afloat sake producers have looked to the west.
It will get you drunk. What, you want more? Okay. It will get you drunk without a hangover. Sound better? We’ve tested this theory and it’s kind of true, thanks to the fact that, unlike most wine, sake doesn’t have those headache-inducing sulfites that like to spoil the party. Also, unlike darker liquors and both red and white wine, sake contains few congeners (byproducts of fermentation,) leaving you less likely to cry yourself into an existential crisis on your bathroom floor the next morning. Combine that with the fact that sake is 1/3rd less acidic than vino and you might just wake up feeling better than you did when you went to sleep. Hey, a girl can dream, right?
For those self-disciplined grownups out there looking for benefits that reach farther than the following morning, sake’s got a few. On the diet front, in addition to being sulfite-free, it’s also gluten-free and naturally low in sugar. Looking at the long game, sake contains selenium, which has been linked to lowering cancer risk and preventing degenerative diseases. The amino acids found in sake can slow cell growth and prevent osteoporosis. It also contains peptides that inhibit enzymes that can cause high blood pressure. And for the Mirror, Mirror on the wall Evil Queen inside all of us, sake reduces the production of melanin, which can lead to sunspots and wrinkles and contains moisturizing glycerol to keep our skin supple and smooth. Some people literally bathe in the stuff, but that seems like a waste of sake to us.
It will get you drunk. And don’t push the “no hangover promise” too hard. And remember that over-imbibing will cancel out nearly all of the benefits, but other than that, drink up! Sake’s been brewed the same way for over one thousand years, so it’s safe to say you’re in good hands.
While Japan’s consumption of sake has been in steady decline, the rest of the world’s palate is just getting warmed up. Japan’s sake exports grew by 19% last year, with 1/3rd headed straight for the U.S. With 89% of the sake being imported to the U.S. designated premium sake, other producers are trying to capitalize on the discerning market. Bravo’s Southern Charm star Hagood Coxe, heir to the largest rice plantation in South Carolina, is using the family business to brew a Lowcountry-based sake to compete with other domestic brands popping up in Maine, Minneapolis, Texas, and California, just to name a few.
Not to brag, but Erica has the distinct honor of being a Certified Sake Professional granted to her by the esteemed Sake Education Council. This means that if you see her sitting in a bar alone drinking copious amounts of sake you should simply trust that she is doing important work. It also means that she has spent over 30 hours learning about sake, tasted over 120 different sakes, and still managed to pass a written test. Make that 123 sakes, which includes the three she brought over to Zoe’s the other day. Since tasting sake is like tasting wine–there are a bazillion different kinds and the fun is really in the journey, it wasn’t so much a product review as it was an early happy hour. But the take away was clear, sake ain’t just for sushi anymore.