Small essential guide to learn about sake


Do you want to learn more about sake, one of Japan’s best-known drinks? Read our small guide made with Marco Massarotto Sake Samurai.

Up until a decade or so ago, sake was that drink – mostly hot, which isn’t the best way to drink it by generalizing a bit –today sake enjoys a completely new moment of popularity in Italythat someone dared to order in Japanese restaurants to be cool, as an alternative to Japanese beer or more likely at the end of a meal. Then things changed and, thanks above all to the first local experts who began to study the issue in depth, creating sake cards not only in the (increasingly numerous and valid) Japanese restaurants, today the Japanese fermented rice enjoys a moment of completely new popularity in our country. A good reason to find out more.

Our guide to the discovery of sake – complete with combinations with pizzas and carbonara – was Marco Massarotto , a Lombard with more than one foot in Japan. Founder and president of the cultural association La Via del Sake which organizes the Japan Festival in Italy and awarded in 2016 the prestigious title of Sake Samurai assigned by the Junior Council of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association (JSS), he wrote a very detailed book from which much of the following information comes: Sake, Japan in a glass (Quinto Quarto Edizioni, 2015).

What is sake

Sake (without an accent, even if the pronunciation foresees that it still falls on the final e but without too much emphasis) is an alcoholic drink, but it is not the result of distillation but of fermentation .a drink resulting from fermentation, not distillationThis means that it is closer to wine than to liqueurs, and this is confirmed by the alcohol content which is between 12 and 16 degrees. Even its aromas, at times, find descriptors similar to those of white wine but, unlike grape fermented, sake is (often) almost colorless, has no tannins or sulphites and has a low acidity.  In Japanese, the ideogram of sake – which originally indicated alcohol in general – is made up of two basic ideograms : one for water and one for medicine , which tells us something about the deep-rooted consumption of the drink, confirmed by an ancient proverb which reads ” sake is the best medicine “.

Although it is mostly linked to Japanese culture, there are small sake productions also outside the country (including an Italian one, the Nero made by InFermento with the Vercellese black rice de gliAironi based on the experiments of Affini’s mixology, which is however only a distant relative of the Japanese fermented). For this, there is a more appropriate term for Japanese sake: nihonshu , ” the wine of Japan “. Even if the concept of terroir is not yet widely applied and sake is produced throughout Japan, a first GI (Geographical Indication) has been recognized for that of the prefecture of Yamagata and work is underway to expand the protection also at an international level. 

Origins and history

Linked to the myths of the founding of Japan, sake has almost always been produced (historical traces would date it towards the end of the Jōmon period , which goes from 10,000 BC to 300 BC) in parallel with the cultivation of rice, introduced here from China: Legend has it that the god Susanoo used 8 barrels to stun and sleep an 8-headed snake, thus saving a princess and – once he killed him – finding a sacred sword inside. Apparently its origin should be the fermentation activated by natural yeasts and saliva enzymes with the chewing of rice, and was used for medicinal purposes. Surely the fermented drink – which is an integral part of many rites and Shintoists – is linked to the history of the samurai and geishas, who are still fundamental figures of Japanese culture and hospitality; if the former also used it for skin care, the latter drank it in abundance to give themselves courage and as an anesthetic, if necessary. 

Since the Middle Ages , the use of koji has spread – aspergillus oryzae , a mushroom responsible for the saccharification of rice which predisposes it to be fermented, with a process similar to that of malting barley for beer – and it is mainly due to the Buddhist monks ever greater refinement of production techniques and of the results obtained, with the use of starters for fermentation (today often replaced by lactic acid). In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) there is a notable expansion of production – with the birth of wineries especially in Kyoto – and of consumption at all social levels, while in the Edo period (1600-1867) , with the spread of the first forms ofpasteurization and greater structuring of production, the sector is experiencing an important development. 

Development, decline and rebirth

Instead, it is during the Meiji period – the 44 years of enlightened reign of Emperor Mutsuhito, that he begins to make profound changes to the Japanese social and cultural structure, looking at the Western model and putting up to the excessive power of the shōgunate –the 2011 earthquake focused attention on artisanal productionsthat the West knows the drink, officially presented for the first time at the Vienna Expo in 1873 . However, since the 70s of the twentieth century, also due to increasing taxation and the spread of different social and consumption habits, sake has experienced a severe crisis and is gradually being abandoned especially by the younger generations. Apparently it was also the disastrous tsunami and earthquake of the Tōhoku of 2011 , and the consequent damage to the nuclear power plants of Fukushima, which again attracted attention to the artisanal productions of the affected areas, increasing their consumption as a sign of economic and spiritual support. This is probably how we started to notice sake too.

The ingredients

The basic ingredients of sake are: water, rice, koji and yeast . No sugars or sulphites, preservatives, dyes are added. The quality of the water – more or less hard – can greatly affect the final character of the sake, defined as masculine or feminine .only water, rice, koji and yeast are used for the production of sakeThe ideal rice for its production is that of the Japonica variety , and in the less glutinous version; to be clear, it is the same used for sushi but there are types that are particularly suitable for fermentation and the specific type of sake to be obtained. Regarding koji , the name also refers to malted rice added to the healthy one in predefined percentages – there are also rare sake all koji , that is made from 100% malted rice, which have a decidedly unique character and much fuller and rounder. – while the yeasts ( kōbo )used as activators they are largely produced by the Brewing Society of Japan and characterize the different styles of sake. In some cases, alcohol ( jōzo ) derived from molasses is also added, for a maximum of 50% of the total volume; the addition does not serve to increase the alcohol content but to give more aromas, dampen the sweetness or acidity and so on; sake without added alcohol is called junmai . They are often diluted with water to lower the alcohol content, before packaging; undiluted sake is called genshu .

The types

Finding your way through the forest of definitions – mostly written in ideograms on the labels, therefore incomprehensible to those who do not read the kanji – and sake distinctions is a difficult undertaking. We limit ourselves to distinguishing the main varieties – recalling at the base the distinction of junmai or not – which differ above all in the level of refining of the rice , a fundamental step in the production of sake followed by: washing and soaking, cooking and cooling, saccharification (for create kome-koji , or malted rice), fermentation, pressing, finishing, first pasteurization (optional but recommended), refining (from six months to a year, in cedar or taru wood barrels) and possible dilution, the second pasteurization (optional, to make sake which otherwise are defined as nama-zake , raw) and bottling.

Depending on the level of refining of the rice, sake can be divided into futsu-shu ordinary alcohol , or table sake, obtained from rice grains with a percentage greater than 70% after refining), honjozo or junmai (less than 70% ), ginjo or junmai ginjo (60% or less), daiginjo or junmai daiginjo (50% or less); the last two – ginjo and daiginjo – are considered premium or ultra-premium sake and are characterized by hints of tropical fruit, flowers and anise, further enhanced in the junmai versions.

How to keep it

Sake should be consumed fresh – or at least not aged in the bottle (which does not bring any improvement, on the contrary) and kept away from light and heat ; best to keep it – taking care to keep it upright to avoid contact with the metal cap – in the fridge at 8 ° C , especially for non-pasteurized ones which should preferably be consumed within 6 months of production (and which is therefore difficult to find outside Japan) . The sake ruined can have unpleasant scents of fermented vegetables, malt, sulfur.

How to serve it

On formal occasions and ceremonies, sake is served in masu , suggestive but rather uncomfortable square cups made of Japanese cedar wood.if you don’t have traditional cups, tulip-shaped wine glasses are fineAnother traditional vessel is the o-choko (a ceramic cup from which to sip it slowly, pouring it from the special tokkuri carafe ), in various shapes related to uses and areas. Actually, tulip-shaped wine glasses are perfectly suited to better appreciate the aromatic nuances of sake ; alternatively, Riedel has created special sake daiginjo glasses , with a pronounced belly and narrow mouth. The ideal, especially for premium sake, is to serve them cold (between 5 ° and 9 ° C) . If you want to eat it hot, however, usually the tokkuri is heatedin water bath; also in this case, to follow the traditional uses there would be a whole series of rules and denominations based on the temperature. Let’s just give some indication of the label : carafes, bottles and cups should always be taken with two hands, and the older or more important guests should be served first; sake is always poured to the other diners and left to the others to pour it to us: it is an act of care, respect and harmony. The traditional toast is: kanpai !

How to match it

A Japanese saying goes “Sake never quarrels with food ”, indicating both its versatility and the fact that the Japanese are not too picky in combinations; in short, you will hardly find a sommelier who will show you what to order with this or that dish and you will be able to choose the type that suits you best (letting yourself be guided by the providential tasting notes sometimes shown on the menus). In general, we can say that thanks to its non-invasive taste, sake does not cover the flavor of the food but prolongs and amplifies the sensations (for example, the spicy) leaving the palate clean, and rounds off the fat and intense flavors. The pairing criteria are therefore by assonance, based on intensity and structure: salty foods enhance the fruitiness of the drink, while for sweet foods it is better to go with a distinctly sweet sake. 

Sake-based cocktails

Now entered in the drink lists and in the bottiglier and of many Italian places, sake is also suitable as an ingredient for imaginative cocktails and with a pleasant oriental touch (even if it gives its absolute best, or in very simple preparations). A few examples: a few years ago, when he was driving the Collegio counter in Rome, Emanuele Broccatelli offered the delicious Kanpai with sake plum, almond milk, green tea soda and ginger syrup, while at the Origami Lounge and Saké Bar Fabio Cesareni had a whole line of sake-based cocktails including Jasmine Green Tea (jasmine green tea, saké, lemon zest, ginger and lemon grass) and Diego Ferrari– specializing in low alcohol drinks – has created Japanito , a variation of Mojito based on sake and kombucha green tea instead of rum. Affini in Turin offers Amarikè Dry   (black sake, pumpkin liqueur, dry vermouth, elderflower liqueur). 

In Naples we find it among the ingredients of Kaoru Lavanda (elderberry liqueur, sake, gin, lime juice, lavender syrup and cucumber) by Staj , the first Neapolitan noodle bar. In Rome at Drink Kong there is an omakase room entirely dedicated to Japan.at drink kong there is an omakase room entirely dedicated to japanThe history of barman Patrick Pistolesi with sake is long and complex, his love for Japan has led him to deepen the subject, even if he declares that he prefers young and light ones, or flavored ones: like Kizan , which remains slightly fruity and dry, or those with alum (plum) or yuzu. In 2014 he used the latter in a recipe that led to the world cocktail final, the Nikka Perfect Serve : “I made a Whiskey Sour with added sake yuzu, that drink made me win and I flew to Japan, but that’s another story. In my opinion, sake finds space in a modern cocktail bar, after all it is a rice wine and similar products the young barman’s fridge is full of it, think of dry or white vermouth or the wonderful fine sherry. The sake together with a couple of other ingredients can build delicate drinks with low alcohol content, but of such complexity as to make the most demanding palates smile: I can think of a twist on a BamBoo cocktail or a Sake Martini, maybe a nice oriental Adonis. Sky is the limit! 

Where to find it in Italy

In Milan there are Sakeya , the first Italian “House of Sake” opened by Lorenzo Ferraboschi (Italian head of the Sake Sommelier Association (SSA)) and Maiko Takashima, also founders of the Sake Company, and Saketeca Go , with a wide range of sake. In Rome at the Rimessa Roscioli Gae Saccoccio organizes dedicated evenings and meetings.

The izakaya are also spreading here , traditional Japanese places halfway between the restaurant and the pub where you mainly go to drink sake or beer to be accompanied with simple food: from Kanpai Milano to Umami or Mikachan in Rome. However, the sake in cans or in transparent single-portion cups that have contributed to making this product pop again in Japan have not yet arrived here .


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