Discovering Sake By Alexandria Bianco

Oh sake. Most people’s first impressions of the traditional Japanese beverage are from a warm cup at a sketchy sushi bar or the party trick, the sake bomb. Perhaps you've caught a glimpse of a bottle in a shop and been curious about trying it, but have no idea where to start. I FEEL YOU. I, too, have indulged in a sake bomb. In all my years of consuming alcoholic beverages, I have to admit that being sake tipsy and downing an ice cold Japanese beer at the end of a long night is a top three pleasure for me, right behind bubbly wine and a classic daiquiri.

But there's more to it than the sake bomb. The world of sake is complex, traditional, and endlessly interesting. I hope this little guide can be a companion to those of you who look at a bottle of sake and think, “wuuuuutttt?”

We currently have a very special bottle of sake in the shop: Terada Honke’s Katori 80. Founded in 1670, Terada Honke has distinguished itself from other sake producers by forgoing the convenience of most modern sake-making practices in favor of older, more labor-intensive methods. The yeast starter for kimoto sake is rhythmically mixed with long paddles to combine yeast, water, rice, and koji into a mash that naturally creates lactic acid. This process takes twice as long as the modern sokujo process, and results in a more fully flavored, bold sake.

Terada Honke only uses organic rice, house-propagated koji strains, and a high seimaibuai (percentage of rice left after milling). This is an important distinction from mainstream sake-making because of the perceived importance most sake breweries place on a lower seimaibuai. Usually, it denotes a higher quality due to the concentration of starch found in the center of each grain (also called a shinpaku). Traditionally, premium sake production focused on isolating as much of the shinpaku as possible to create delicately textured sakes with refined flavors. Terada Honke instead only mills their rice down to 10%—30%, subscribing to the belief that modern milling practices strip the rice of its distinct characteristics.

When broken down, a sake label is really a description of grade, brewing process, Sake Meter Value (sugar level), and any special attributes of the sake. Reading a sake label can seem overwhelming, and reminds me of the panic I sometimes feel when deciphering a Burgundy label. For example, let's break down the Katori 80 label:

  • Junmai: Refers to a sake of no particular milling requirement that has been made without the addition of any brewer’s alcohol.  
  • Muroka: Literally translates to ‘no filtration.’  A muroka sake is one that has been made without the charcoal filtering process, and usually results in full bodied flavors and more of a hue in the sake itself. 
  • Nama: Unpasteurized! Like milk, there are still live cultures present so we can anticipate more acid in this sake. 
  • Genshu: Undiluted, aka no water added. Full strength. *bicep emoji* 
(There are countless other terms to discuss when reading a sake label, but that’s for another article…)

All of these add up to a sake that's destined to be unique, and the Katori 80 truly is. It's full bodied with lots of bright acid and enjoyable at all temperatures. Served cold, it's both savory (think soy sauce and parm rinds) and sweet (think lots of ripe honeydew and melon), with lots of smoke on the nose. Served warm, it smells like your favorite hot toddy plus toasted anisette and clove. The palate is cooked lemons and honey all the way through, with a creamy lemon bar finish. It's a great jumping off point for those in search of a sake that slaps you in the face with personality, instead of hinting at nuance.

Recommended pairing: North Carolina BBQ or spaghetti carbonara, followed by a rice lager.