|Origins of Japan's "national brew". Via.|
Think about your favorite perfume or cologne. It isn’t just one note is it? Many different fragrances mix and blend into the the beautiful scent that is uniquely you. The same is true about sake. When sitting down for a drink of Japan’s "national brew", we don’t tend to think about what went in to creating what’s in wafting from our glass.
Everything from the aromas and flavor, to the alcohol content and the temperature at which the sake should be served--reishu (chilled) is usually of higher quality ingredients, but kanzake (warmed) can be enjoyed no matter the quality--rests on two basic ingredients: rice and water.
The world’s leading sake expert, John Gaunter, known as the sake dendoushi or “sake evangelist” in Japan, leads Japan Society’s sold out annual sake tasting tonight, dissecting these two ingredients and explaining their roles in sake making. They may seem overly simple, but as Gaunter explains, there is much more than what meets the eye (and nose and taste buds).
Rice is the most important ingredient in sake. There are nine basic types associated with different flavor profiles, running the gamut from the “king of sake rice” Yamada Nishiki to the smooth and dry Gohyakumangoku. Profiles range from earthy and distinctly rice-y to rich, complex and more acidic.
The rice milling process also has a major effect, as Gauntner explains:
After proper sake rice (in the case of premium sake, anyway) has been secured, it is milled, or polished, to prepare it for brewing good sake. This is not as simple as it might sound, since it must be done gently so as to not generate too much heat (which adversely affects water absorption) or not crack the rice kernels (which is not good for the fermentation process)... The amount of milling greatly influences the taste. For more on this topic, please visit Types of Sake page.Water is sake’s second most important ingredient. Most breweries are located next to a plentiful source of pure and natural water. The quality of the water, as well as how its minerals and compounds affect yeast growth and fermentation, will affect the flavor of the final product sake. The final product is about 4/5 water, but in the process of making the sake, “oceanic amounts” are employed. Water has to be used in washing and soaking the rice, then in steaming and fermenting it, then in the final dilution, which takes the naturally occurring alcohol from 20% down to a more palatable 16%.
Though Japan Society’s tasting is sold out, Gauntner told Examiner.com in a recent interview two great places in New York City to enjoy sake: the East Village’s Sakaya and the speak easy-esque Sakagura located a few blocks from Japan Society in the basement of an office building, noting “there really are so many more”.
Gauntner also indicated in the interview that his mission is more than educating New Yorkers and Americans in the art of sake. He also wants to elevate tastes in his home base, Japan:
People here have been so close to it for so long that they have little awareness of how special it is. The craftsmanship, history, cultural significance are all something people here have taken for granted for too long. And, few regular consumers are aware of just how damn good it tastes, as evidenced by reactions of those that try premium sake for the first time.Thanks to Gauntner, next time someone asks for their sake of choice, the world will know more about what they’re yelling Kampai to!