The consumption of sake is a sacrosanct affair in Japan. In Japanese, the term “sake” technically denotes all alcohol, though it is often used interchangeably with the less ambiguous “nihonshu.” The true genesis of the island nation’s archetypal brew is lost to time, though the divine concoction of water, rice, yeast and koji mold likely originated, or at least became more standardized, sometime during the Nara period (710-784 AD) when Empress Genmei consolidated rule over an agrarian society.
Most people in this fledgling nation state participated in animistic and ancestral folk worship, within which rice, and by extension nihonshu, came to play important ritualistic roles. To this day, nihonshu is used in Shinto weddings and miyamairi, the Shinto equivalent of a christening. It’s also common for brewers to age nihonshu barrels at Shinto shrines to give it a heavenly blessing.
Nihonshu is generally in the range of 13-17 percent alcohol, and so is slightly stronger than an average wine. As with other alcoholic beverages, different types of sake present different flavor profiles, aromas and mouthfeels, and these in turn pair better or worse with different cuisines, seasons or general moods. There are five main flavor dimensions for the novice nihonshu drinker to bear in mind: sweetness, acidity, bitterness, astringency and umami.
The backbone of any good nihonshu is the water used for brewing. This water must be exceptionally soft and contain fewer than 0.02 ppm of iron to yield a palatable end product. Additionally, good sake rice must be low in protein and fats compared to grains used for cooking, and many such varietals have been carefully cultivated for centuries. Polishing the rice further removes proteins and fats on the outer layers of the grain so that the koji can do its work. The prodigious little mold Aspergillus oryzae, also used for producing soy sauce and miso, helps set nihonshu apart from other rice wines and spirits created around the world. Koji converts starch in the rice to sugar so that the fourth and final ingredient, yeast, can convert the sugar to alcohol. The final product is aged for six to 12 months, but should then be enjoyed within a timeframe of several months before the sake begins to lose key flavor characteristics.
The world of nihonshu can feel overwhelming to the uninitiated, but exploring the myriad overlapping styles is all part of the fun.
The six main types of nihonshu can be described along two axes: degree of rice polishing and addition of distilled alcohol. Junmai is made with rice polished down so that roughly 70 percent of the original grain remains, and adding a portion of pure distilled alcohol during fermentation will transform junmai to honjōzō. Junmai ginjō is polished to about 60 percent of the original grain, and adding distilled alcohol creates ginjō. Finally, junmai daiginjō uses rice polished to around 50 percent, and the distilled alcohol version is called daiginjō. The more the rice is polished to remove proteins and fats from the outer layers of the grain, the generally more fragrant and delicate the nihonshu. Perhaps counterintuitively, the addition of distilled alcohol during fermentation results in a lighter, drier sake, whereas the unadulterated version will generally be richer and more full-bodied. Junmai, then, usually has a subdued aroma with a flavor profile heavy in sweetness and umami, while at the other end of the spectrum, daigingo is highly aromatic with a much more nuanced taste.
There is also an array of secondary styles derived from forking roads taken or not taken in the brewing process. Nigori-zake, for instance, is unfiltered so that the lees (yeast residue) from the polished rice remain in the barrels and are transferred to the bottle. Nama-zake is unpasteurized. Genshu forgoes adding water after pasteurization. Sparkling sake traps carbon-dioxide produced naturally during fermentation or injects it afterwards. The list goes on. As can be inferred, these production-based styles are independent from the axes that determine the six main types outlined above. As such, it is possible to enjoy a honjōzō nama-zake or a sparkling daiginjo.
The world of nihonshu can feel overwhelming to the uninitiated, but exploring the myriad overlapping styles is all part of the fun. This historic tipple is rather ubiquitous in Tokyo’s countless izakaya, soba shops and sushi restaurants, but there are a few places for neophytes to best get their bearings before tackling an otherwise enigmatic sake menu on their own.
The local Tokyo chain Kurand Sake Market has five locations around the capital and a satellite in Yokohama. Each one boasts over 100 different nihonshu that customers can enjoy in a self-service, all-you-can-drink format for a flat 3,000 yen fee. They don’t serve any food, but you can bring your own or even have it delivered while you sample your way through the carefully curated sake selection. Any Kurand Sake Market is the perfect place to form fledgling preferences before delving into sake in earnest, and visitors can easily book a table in advance via the English-language website.
Those who already have an idea of what they like should visit Gem by Moto in Ebisu or its newer sister bar in Shinjuku, Know by Moto. Each sports an ever-changing selection of premium nihonshu, including any number of limited and hard-to-find releases from some of Japan’s most coveted breweries. Each also serves an excellent arrangement of seasonal small dishes prepared to pair with the bars’ primary offerings. Both establishments offer English menus and employ English speaking sake sommeliers well-versed in their wares. It’s always a good idea to inquire about seasonal offerings, but the best way to start a laid-back session at either by Moto bar is telling your bartender what you like or dislike and letting them choose something for you. Before long, they’ll have your preferences completely dialed in as they usher you through the best nihonshu experience of your life.
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in our new series Liquid Assets, an occasional look at key beverages – alcoholic and non – that help define the culinary cultures that CB covers.