Sake Tips from Eric Swanson, Shibuya,
Las Vegas: What Words to Look For when Ordering Sake
Las Vegas, NV
Adapted by Jim Clarke
Junmai: Pure rice sake, which means that no distilled
brewers alcohol is added after the brewing process; this is the
first grade of premium sake.
Honjozo: Shares the space as the first grade
of premium sake, but has brewer’s alcohol added. This is
the table wine of the sake world. Like table wine there are great
ones and some are lackluster. Honjozo has a much longer shelf
life once open and is often very nice when gently warmed. While
Junmai sake tends to be richer and higher in acidity, Honjozo
tends to be lighter and often has a gentle sweetness.
Ginjo: Means a minimum of 40% polishing to the
rice before the brewing process. You see the word “Ginjo”
and you know you are tasting the love, labor, and craft of the
master brewer. Fruity and flowery aromas are typical, as is a
very refined, delicate nature. Best served chilled, some sakes
with richer flavor profiles come alive when gently warmed.
Dai Ginjo: Means at least 50% polishing; “Dai”
means “big” so just think of it as a Big Ginjo. This
is the pinnacle of the master brewer's craft and definitely the
most accessible sake out there – or at least the most popular
amongst Americans. Smooth, aromatic, and often fruity, it’s
great as an aperitif. The aromas and wonderful flavors are great
for stimulating the appetite.
There is a lot of grey between the grades of sake; the fun is
trying them all and seeing which ones you like the best.
Yamahai & Kimoto:
Often seen on the menu or bottle it refers to a traditional yeast
starter method that produces gamey, earthy, woodsy flavors and
a beautiful acidity. These sakes are often great when warmed.
Like wine, sake is diverse in flavor profile from region to region.
Climate, local cuisine, master brewer's guild, and water quality
all play a role in the flavor of sake.
Rule of thumb: Sake starting in the Northeast
is a clean and compact expression of the rice. As you move southwest,
the sake opens up and becomes richer, more complex, and more expansive
on the palate.
Like the rest of the modern world many of these regional lines
are blurring, but enough still holds true to make some generalizations.
Five regional names to look for:
Niigata Prefecture: Located in the Japanese
Alps, Niigata has the best rice in Japan and beautiful water.
This lends it to a very popular style of sake referred to as "kire,"
which means both clean and beautiful in Japanese and perfectly
describes the sake from this region. Dry and light, a sake that
is there one second and quickly disappears from the palate.
Shizuoka Prefecture: Among my best sellers despite
not being traditionally famous for sake production, these sakes
have a relatively low acidity, which gives them a velvety texture,
great aromas, and an easy drinking nature. Almost always a home-run
for first-time sake drinkers.
Nada: This ward in Kobe city in Hyogo prefecture
is the largest brewing center in Japan. Traditionally referred
to as "masculine" sake, they have a great, solid structure
and are often what people have in mind when thinking of a traditional
or classic style of sake.
Fusshiimi: This ward in Kyoto City is the second-largest
brewing center in Japan. Kyoto conjures up the images of shrines
and history; it’s the cultural heart of Japan. This refinement
comes through in the crafting of sake. This sake is soft, refined,
and sometimes slightly sweet, and is often referred to as “feminine”
Kochi: If you want a dry sake, look no further.
Sakes from this prefecture of Japan are renowned for being “kara
kuchi” - dry. The sakes also have a great earthy richness
and depth that is seen throughout the Southwest. Because of there
dryness, it is very easy to consume Kochi sakes in large quantities.
This is quite evident locally: Kochi Prefecture has the highest
per-capita sake consumption in Japan.
Each prefecture, city, and hamlet in Japan has its own unique
quality. These five are diverse and easy enough to remember to
make you sound like an expert when ordering.
When ordering sake by the glass or carafe, check with the server
as to how long the bottle has been open. With Junmai and Honjozo
three or four days should be the max. With Ginjo and Dai Ginjo
allow only one or two days. The more complex and aromatic sakes
quickly lose their nose and nuance on the palate. This assumes
they are all refrigerated properly.
Wooden boxes: The “masu” is a Japanese
cypress box traditionally used for measuring grain. This is fine
for a simple Honjozo or a not-very-aromatic Junmai, but the nose
from the wood ends up masking the beauty and nuance of most premium
sake. The aromas from the wood are great in smoothing out cheaper
Stemware: Traditional earthen cups are fine,
as are shot glasses. My personal preference is a nice port glass
or young white wine glass. With stemware you really get to experience
the nose and even the visual aspects are more pleasant. Psychologically
I also think stemware elevates the status of premium sake to a
place next to fine wine, where it should be. The Riedel Dai Ginjo
glasses are great, if too pricey for us to serve 200 sake drinking
guests each night.