The first time I tried Japanese sake many years ago, I felt like I was drinking Kerosene. Of course, that was before I had a pallet for such things, but still, it turned me off for years. Recently, a friend opened up a bottle of chilled Ume sake and poured me a dainty sip. It wasn’t so bad! I’m not a super sweet beverage lover, but at least it didn’t blast me out of the water.
When I heard that my favorite little wine shop, SWAM was featuring Sake for their Thursday Tasting last week, I figured this was my opportunity to give it another chance. SWAM stands for Shiroma’s Wines and More. It is locally owned and run by Jill Shiroma, and every Thursday they serve up a great, complimentary sampling of wines, beers, spirits, sakes or sometimes a combination of a few. You will always find a group of regulars and some lucky new comers standing around some snacks, trading great information and buzz about favorite beverages in a relaxed and casual environment.
Last Thursday, the gang at SWAM gave me quite a re-introduction to the world of sake, with a sampling of five different kinds of sake as well as three different Japanese beers. All of the selections were served chilled and varied from traditional style sake, such as Sho Chiku Bai Junmai, to the fancier Kamotsuru Gold Flake, to the sweet Choya plum sake called Choya Ume Blanc. A couple of them did make me feel like I could breathe fire, while others were very sweet and syrupy, and others were intense, but smooth.
I also discovered that the world of sake making is a pretty amazing process. Sake is often called “rice wine”, however “sake” is actually a generic Japanese term for alcohol. The correct term for refined rice wine is “seishu”, or “nihonshu”. I also learned that sake is it’s own breed – the brewing process somewhere between beer, spirits, and wine.
Like wine, there are regional varieties and good & bad years; and as there are good grapes for good wine, there is also good rice for good sake. And therein lies the secret. Like many things I have discovered in Japanese culture, sake is a delicate balance of quality, skill and patience. Sake production takes about 1 year, starting in winter and ending the following spring. The brew matures during the summer and is then bottled in autumn. The taste depends on a balance between sweetness & acidity and is maintained not by technology, but by skilled artisans who sense subtle changes in climate, rice & water.
Sake is another one of those magical things created by the alchemy of water, malt, yeast and in this case, steamed rice. The brewing method is called, Multiple Parallel Fermentation. This method combines converting grain starch into sugar, and then sugar into alcohol, by means of yeast to create a beverage with a higher alcohol content than any other fermented drink, with alcohol content generally around 14-17%.
All sake falls into one of two groups. The first, and highest quality is Junmai-Ginjo, literally translated as, “pure rice”. A traditional brewing method strictly prohibiting the use of additives, with 60% of the rice being refined, compared to 27% in normal sake making. The second group has additives, including added alcohol. Strangely, the more alcohol added, the cheaper the sake is considered.
The reason for sake’s reputation for being a spendy beverage is due to the finest sake-quality rice being grown only in limited areas of Japan, it’s difficult to cultivate, has a small yield & is sold at a premium. 50% of the product is polished away during the brewing process, doubling the cost. Unlike wine, an unopened bottle of sake is good for about 1 year.
After my short lesson in sake 101, I have a lot more respect for the process and the varied tastes in those dainty cups of alcohol, and I will definitely stay open to the warmth, the tradition and the care that goes into each bottle.
When you’re on Oahu, make sure to stop by SWAM in the Waimalu Shopping Plaza for either their Thursday Tastings or any other time to find a gem of a little wine shop:
98-1277 Kaahumanu Street,
Aiea, HI 96701