It’s the middle of the afternoon at izanami, the Japanese restaurant at the Ten Thousand Waves hot springs spa (21 Ten Thousand Waves Way) up in Santa Fe. Sake Sommelier Mateo Miller and Bar Manager Michael Naiman are kindly giving their lunch break to speak with me about sake (or nihonshu in Japanese), a beverage I know next to nothing about. In front of me is a bowl of crispy brussel sprouts with pork belly and pecorino cheese, along with about a dozen half-drunk cups of sake from around the bar’s extensive menu. The two men have spent the past hour giving me a crash course on everything sake—an education that is distilled here for you, dear reader.
So, we’ll start with the basics: Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from milled and fermented rice. It has been made in Japan in some form for about 2000 years, traditionally by farmers and monks. Now, sake is produced on a massive scale in Japan by toji, or master brewers, who have been doing it the same way for generations. It has become more popular in the US in recent decades since Japanese restaurants started importing it. You can now find at least a few brands of sake in most decent liquor stores in the country.
Sake is clear or slightly yellow in color, depending on the type, and generally tastes delicate and floral, making it excellent to pair with fish and most Japanese food. There are several different grades of sake, where the grade is determined by how much the rice is milled before it’s fermented. In each grade, the outer bran of the rice, which contains most of the fats and proteins, is milled away to varying degrees, with the more highly processed rice creating a refined and delicate-tasting sake. After milling, the rice is steamed and then inoculated with koji, a mold that breaks down the starches in the rice into sugar. The sugar ferments into alcohol in the same tank simultaneously. This is called “multiple parallel fermentation,” a process which differs from beer brewing, in which the starch-to-sugar conversion and the sugar-to-alcohol conversion happen in two different steps. Sake has an alcohol content of 18-20% after brewing, but it is typically diluted to 14-16% to bring out some of the flavors that would otherwise be overpowered by the alcohol taste.
While there are some exceptions and subcategories to the general grades of sake, the most common grades you’ll encounter when shopping for sake are these, in ascending order of refinement:
• Futsuu: This is the sake equivalent of table wine, and it makes up 70-75% of the market. The rice used is run-of-the-mill, non-sake-specific rice. It’s only barely milled in comparison to more premium sakes, and there is plenty of sugar and distilled alcohol added to the finished product to adjust taste and increase the yield. That said, there is plenty of good, drinkable futsuu sake out there. This kind of sake is typically served hot.
• Honjozo: The rice used to make honjozo sake must be milled to at least 70% of its original size. Honjozo is generally light, fragrant and easy to drink.
• Junmai: This type of sake is made with only rice, water and koji mold—nothing else is added. Junmai is typically milled to 70% or less of the rice’s original size, but the rice-only aspect is the most important qualification for this type. Junmai, and all the following grades, are typically served cold to preserve the more delicate flavors.
• Ginjo: In this type, the rice must be milled to at least 60%. Ginjo requires a long and labor-intensive brewing process, and that’s reflected in its price tag. Tastes light, fruity and refined.
• Daiginjo: The rice for daiginjo sakes is milled to 50% or less before it’s fermented. A very small amount of distilled alcohol is added to the mix. Daiginjo tastes complex and fragrant.
• Junmai Daiginjo: The most labor-intensive brewing and the most highly milled rice is involved in making junmai daiginjo. This type of highly refined sake tastes clean and light.
Besides the degree of milling that the rice goes through, the other factors that go into the quality and particular flavor of any given sake are the type and origin of the rice used, the labor techniques, and the temperature at which it’s brewed. There are other, more specialized types of sake as well, such as flavored sakes made for cocktails and the unfiltered nigori.
Reading about sake and how it’s made is only a limited way of learning about it. The best and most enjoyable method of learning about this delicious beverage and its historical and cultural roots is to taste it—ideally, at a bar or restaurant where there’s plenty to choose from and somebody on staff who knows their stuff. Ordering a flight is a good way to taste and compare several different kinds of sake to find out which flavors appeal to you the most. Perhaps you’ll love the Chikurin junmai ginjo, a strong and herbal brew, or the Daku nigori junmai, a unique, unfiltered sake with a mild and creamy palate. It’s a new year—what better time to try something a little different?
Izanami, which by far has the most extensive sake list in New Mexico (and perhaps in the country), is a great place to taste some of the most premium and interesting sakes in the world. Because everyone behind the bar is given regular refreshers on the sakes they carry and what they each pair with, you’ll not be steered wrong. If you happen to find Mateo Miller behind the bar, ask him about his most recent trip to the sake breweries in Japan and watch him light up. Happy sipping.