An Introduction to Sake

While sake is referred to as rice wine, it is, in fact, closer to a beer than a wine. However, the process of tasting sake is similar to that of tasting wines.

Sake History
No one is really sure where sake originated, but some experts think that it was developed in China, then moved into Japan when the Japanese stated to cultivate rice around 300 BC.

Sake was initially made in a way that many today would not find appealing. People would chew rice, millet, acorn and chestnuts and then spit it out into a large tub. Sake was made this way for centuries. This process, called kuchikami no sake, or "chewing the mouth sake," was replaced with another method when people realized that yeast and a mold enzyme could be used instead of saliva, which has an enzyme that helps fermentation.

Production of sake continued to evolve through the centuries. A final change in the production of sake during World War II leads us to sake manufacturing today. Because of shortages of rice, the Japanese government allowed the addition of pure alcohol and glucose to the rice mix, leading to a yield that was as much as four times higher than what was produced before. Today, more than 90% of the sake made uses this method of production. Sake made using this method is on the less expensive side of the market. The only addition to higher-quality sake is usually water, preferably hard water.

Varieties of Sake
If you have only had sake in Japanese restaurants, you may not have been treated to the best sake. You were probably served futsu-shu, an equivalent of our table wine. Tokutei meishoshu, or special designation sake, are higher grades of sake.

Drinking Sake
You can drink sake cold, room temperature or hot. Some sake is served hot to mask some of the impurities in the drink.

Sake is not made to last. Sake, especially premium sake, starts to oxidize quickly after its bottle is opened. You might be able to drink an open bottle of sake that has been kept in the refrigerator for up to a couple of days, but after that you will probably only be able to use the sake for cooking.

How to Taste Sake
Tasting sake is very similar to tasting wine. First, look at the sake. What color is it? How cloudy is it? Day-to-day sake may have a light-yellow color. Smell the sake to experience its aroma. Then sip a small amount of sake and run the drink around your tongue and mouth. Let your breath out of your nose slowly. Finally, swallow or spit out the sake to experience the tail, or aftertaste, of the drink.

Sake and Food Pairings
Like wine, sake offers a range of smells and tastes, so you will have to sample a few different types of sake before you look at food pairings. Like wine and food pairings, you are going to want to use sake to compliment a dish or provide contrast to a dish. Look at this as a terrific opportunity to explore.

Sake should be stored in cool dark places and should be used within a couple of months after you buy it.

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