Why should you know about Saké? Because in our contemporary marketplace, your potential customers are interested in a wide range of products. And regrading Saké, there is an increasing interest in all of its styles. To say that Saké is a beverage made from rice is as superficial as saying that wine is a beverage made from grapes. Saké can be very complex, and you need to be familiar with the different types.
Many producers refer to Saké as a “rice wine,” but since it is brewed from rice, which is a grain, it is technically a beer. Much of the process is the same as with beer. An enzyme breaks down the starches into sugars, so that the same yeast that makes beer can also make Saké. Where it differs from a beer, however, is that Saké is colorless, clear, has no CO2 and no head, and also has a higher percentage of alcohol (12% to 20%). It certainly looks like a wine.
As with any product that can range from ordinary to premium, much depends on the amount that is discarded, versus the amount used. With Saké, this is determined by the amount of polishing the long grain brown rice gets – sometimes all the way down to the kernel. Premium Sakés include Junmai Sakés, made solely from soft water, rice, mold (the enzyme) and yeast, and Honjozo Sakés, which may have 10% of the weight of the rice of alcoholic distillate added, to increase the alcohol content. Within those two premium qualities, Daiginjo has at least 50% of the grain polished away. Ginjo has 40% of the rice grain polished away. When the milling rate gets down to 30% or less removed, the Saké is simply called either Honjozo or Junmai. The difference is that with Junmai, there is no minimum milling rate required, but whatever has been milled away must be printed on the label. These are all in the top tier. Another word to learn is Tokubetsu, which is a sub-category, and denotes “special.” This can mean special attention to the brew, or the use of a special, or more highly milled, rice. Most Sakés are clean and slightly fruity, with a range of sweetness from rice.
Three other words in this Japanese “vocabulary primer” are: Taruzake, or “barrel” in which Saké spends a brief time, resulting in a cedar flavor; Koshu, or “aged” (can be up to five years or more), which can have a more pronounced and pungent flavor; and Nigori, or “cloudy,” which contains rice solids in suspension. The common misperception is that these Sakés are unfiltered. According to Michael John Simkin, importer of MJS Saké Selections in N.J., they are filtered, but then the “clouds” of rice get through the screen of the press. Occasionally, 15% of unpressed liquid is added to Saké that has been pressed. These Sakés have become very popular in the U.S. “Silk” is another word that turns up on the labels of premium Sakés, to describe those with an elegant mouthfeel.
Saké’s shelf life is at least six months, and can go to a year if stored in cool conditions. Your customers will appreciate learning that open bottles of Saké can keep six months more in the refrigerator. Speaking of the refrigerator, most people are now drinking Saké chilled, which may account for its newfound popularity. Michael Simkin suggests 60