Sake, Water from Heaven

Imagine a tranquil stream with a weeping willow creating a cool grotto beneath its canopy and the sound of birds through the calm air. Close your eyes and picture a kimono-clad geisha laying out a meal from a lacquered box; delicate slices of meats and fish with pickled radish and cucumber. From a porcelain flask, she slowly pours a chilled potion into a wooden cup. You slowly sip the subtle flavor of the clear liquid and know that life is good; you have tasted “water from heaven” Saké.

Few Americans are familiar with the history of saké, its production, its nuances, or its subtleties. In his book, Saké, Water from Heaven, Rocky Aoki, founder of Benihana, introduced the world of saké, weaving a tapestry of Japanese culture with modern production of Japan’s national drink. Saké was introduced into Japan about 300 BCE, having been transported from China where its use dated back to 4800 BCE. While most people think of saké as rice wine, it is closer to beer in its production. As Aoki explains, wine is made from grapes, “You do not make apple wine; you make apple cider. And you do not make rice wine; you make saké.”

Photo by Bill F. Eger

Saké is made from only four ingredients; rice, yeast, water, and koji (a yellow mold called Aspergillum oryzae which is used to convert the starch in the rice to sugar (then converted by yeast into alcohol). The variations in saké, explains Aoki, is in the water, koji, and the type of rice used. The rice used in the production of saké is more plump than that consumed at the table so that there is more starch available for fermentation.

In fact, according to Aoki, “saké rice is not considered good quality for eating, though its cost is greater.” The rice is first polished to remove the husk and impurities, and to expose the starch core. Most saké rice is polished down to 70% of its original size, producing tokubetsu saké. When the rice is polished to under 60% it is called ginjo and is more expensive since more rice has been discarded. Of course, there is also a super-premium Saké called daiginjo produced by rice that has been polished to 50% or less of its original size.

The rice is then boiled and treated with the koji to allow the starch to be converted into sugar. Water and yeast are added to facilitate the conversion of the sugar into alcohol. After about two weeks this mixture is filtered to removed any sediment and the resulting liquid is pasteurized, a process which Aoki claims was performed in Japan two centuries before it was “discovered” in France. The saké is bottled and sold to be consumed young. Saké is occasionally aged in cedar barrels, but this is an unusual occurrence. In addition, grain alcohol is occasionally added to saké before bottling (called honjozo). Saké brewed only from rice is called junmai.

Saké was originally used in Japan as an offering to the gods, hence the name, “water from heaven”. It is now used as a toast at all ceremonies and festivals, and is even sprinkled on the mat at Sumo wrestling matches. Aoki offers an interesting historical anecdote. In ancient times, the polishing of the rice was done by chewing the rice along with nuts and spitting the mixture into a common bowl to be fermented. A village would get together for a “chewing bee”. But to produce the special saké called kuchikami no saké as part of the Shinto fertility festival, only virgins were allowed to chew the rice.

    How does one choose a saké and how is it served? Let me start by saying that there are 10,000 choices–yes, I said 10,000. The top twenty saké breweries in Japan produce the equivalent of 100 million wine-sized bottles a year and there are approximately 1800 smaller breweries in Japan. California also grows rice and produces saké, which is quite good. The best way to determine which saké to drink is to taste several; do not opt for the cheapest. Saké may be served warm (ideally 113 degrees Fahrenheit) but never hot. Warming saké makes it more aromatic and potent, while hiding the subtleties and nuances that distinguish the better quality libations.

Ideally, saké should be sipped at room temperature or cold. Notice that I say sipped. Saké is not to be gulped; sip it with or without air in the mouth. Roll it around on your tongue and notice the aftertaste on your palate. Remember that saké is 14-17% alcohol, so drink slowly. Most saké is to be savored young. Do not lay it away and expect it to get better.

Now that you know the mystique of saké, bring to mind the image of that weeping willow beside the stream, sit back, relax, and enjoy your Splendor in the Glass.