Sake: Japan’s gift to good libations

If you think sake is rice wine that’s served warm then you need to read this piece from our wine columnist, Laurie Forster. Quality sake from Japan can rival the extraordinary experience of a top notch wine.

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2011 — If a contest were held to crown the unsung hero of beverages, sake would no doubt land on top.  It’s an alcoholic beverage that is widely misunderstood, yet it possesses a sophistication and elegance that far too few have yet discovered. Sake suffers from a handful of myths and misunderstandings. 

Workers at the Nanbu Bijin sake brewery. (photo credit: Vine Connections)

If you have tried the warm, rough sake that is readily available at sushi bars you have not experienced fine sake, which is actually best served chilled. 

Sake is derived from rice, and although China first developed it as early as 4,000 BC, it’s Japan’s history and culture that this magnificent wine has most dramatically impacted.  For well over 2,000 years, sake has been a mainstay in Japanese society and is by far their most famous alcoholic export.  One misunderstanding that exists is that sake is rice wine. Wine is fermented from fruit whereas sake is made from a grain using a process similar to brewing beer.

Top brewers search the world over for the highest quality grains, and the resulting product directly reflects that quality.  The other trick to creating a truly superior brew lies in the act of “polishing,” or milling, the fermented rice kernels. Polishing the rice removes the oils and proteins present in the rice that can cause off flavors, leaving just the pure starches behind. Once the rice is sufficiently polished, the batch is then cooked in ultra-pure water and melded into a mush. 

Next up, the starch is converted to sugar via the introduction of enzymes. If this sounds much like the process by which beer is produced, you’re spot-on. What makes sake’s brewing process unique are the enzymes used during the conversion. Instead of malting the grains to create these enzymes as is done with beer, sake needs a special mold called koji in order to transform the starch to fermentable sugars. Who knew a mold could be so efficient! Yeast is then added to ferment the sugars into a vibrant alcoholic drink.

Sake is organized into three main categories, yet each one is comprised of just four ingredients: rice, water, koji and yeast.  Junmai sake must be polished to at least 70% (meaning a minimum of 30% of the grain is polished away).  It is characterized by a full, clean and solid flavor.  The second category is Jumai Ginjo , a style that is brewed using highly labor-intensive steps.  Traditional handmade techniques are used with rice where at least 40% is polished away.  Junmai ginjo is also fermented at lower temperatures and for longer periods of time.  The result is a lighter, fruitier and more refined brew.  Finally, Junmai Daiginjo represents the crème de la crème in sake.  This sake is brewed with ultra-polished rice (at least 50%) and even more precise production techniques – virtually nothing is left to machinery.  Junmai Daiginjo is the pinnacle of the art form, enhanced with a complex, incredibly fragrant and elegant flavor.

Whether you’re pairing a bottle with a magnificent feast, infusing a shot into a trendy new cocktail or sipping a top shelf selection, sake is a deliciously sophisticated choice. Although the beverage once faced a fair amount of skepticism here in the west, sake has persevered to create a sizable and devoted following all over the world. If you’re not already a fan, seek out a perfectly chilled Junmai Daiginjo, pair it with your favorite subtle delicacy, and prepare to be reformed.

Laurie Forster, The Wine Coach®, is a wine educator and author of the award-winning book “The Sipping Point: A Crash Course in Wine.” Her specialty is delivering wine edu-tainment for corporate events, group tastings and team-building seminars. She is also a sought after guest expert on radio shows across the country, including Martha Stewart Radio.  You can reach her on twitter @thewinecoach or on facebook at

Read more of Laurie’s work at The Sipping Point in the Communities at the Washington Times.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Laurie Forster

Laurie Forster, The Wine Coach® is a wine educator, dynamic speaker and author of the award-winning book The Sipping Point: A Crash Course in Wine. Laurie was not born with a silver corkscrew in her mouth. In fact, growing up Laurie thought wine was pink and came in a box. After several stressful business dinners trying to order off wine lists the size of a phone book, she began educating herself on wine. In 2001 she left the business world to professionally study wine and save others from these awkward moments. Laurie began her wine career in Manhattan where she studied with the American Sommelier Association to earn her certificate in Viticulture and Vinification. She has since earned an Advanced Certificate with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), completed her first step towards certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers and has trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. Laurie’s specialty is creating unique corporate keynotes, team building events and group tasting seminars where she can deliver on her mission to demystify wine one glass at a time. She is also a regular contributor to several magazines; a sought after guest expert on TV and radio stations across the country, including Martha Stewart Radio. For more visit:

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