Calamity’s Corner: All About the Sake!

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While the Victorians swilled gin and downed rum, while the Russians guzzled their vodka, far away in the Eastern lands of Japan they sipped on a far different libation: Sake.

As with many of the delicious things we drink the origins of sake lie shrouded in the fogs of history. The earliest recorded mention of the beverage was way back in 712AD. It was primarily in religious ceremonies, court festivals and in drinking games. In the 10th century sake was brewed primarily in temples and shrines. It was in the 18th century that the methods of making sake became more widely disseminated and word of this tasty drink really spread.


Today sake is enjoyed around the world. Here in the US it seems to be mostly popular in Japanese restaurants. That is only a small representation of what sake has to offer. Most of the people I know think sake is always served warm, in little ceramic carafes and sipped from tiny ceramic cups. This is only a little bit true. Some sakes do taste better warm, but there are a large variety of sake that are best enjoyed chilled. I’ve sampled plum sake and even cedar aged sake.

Sake is often called rice wine, but the manufacture is more akin to beer brewing than wine or spirit distillation. It is made from sake rice, which is larger and stronger than rice used for eating. It isn’t palatable for eating. Much like wine has a variety of grapes to choose from, and as beer can use different kinds of hops, sake rice comes in several different varieties. I’ve heard that there are at least 80 different types of rice used in sake production in Japan.

sake_set_Cherry_BlossomWater is very important in sake making; the same can be said for beer making as well. It is used in almost every phase of manufacture, from rinsing the rice all the way to the final dilution of the sake. Different mineral compositions of the water can drastically change the way the sake comes out. So choice of water for brewers is important and can lead to the variety in we taste in the product.

Then the sake is brewed in a multiple step process of fermentation, resting, soaking, yeasting, the addition of mold (aspergillus oryzae), and so on. Once all this is done the sake is matured for nine months to a year. All of this is done under the careful gaze of the Toji (basically the Sake Brew master).

There are eight different designations of sake:

Junmai Daiginjo-shu (pure rice, very special brew)

Daiginjo-shu (very special brew)

Ginjo-shu (special brew)

Tokubetsu Junmai-shu (Special rice brew)

Tokubetsu Honjozo-shu (special genuine brew)

Junmai-shu (pure rice)

Honjozo-shu (Genuine brew)

Once that is established it is differentiated further by the method used to make the starter mash:

Kimoto: the traditional orthodox method

Yamahai: a simplified method (introduced in the early 1900s)

Sokujo: quick fermentation, a modern method

Then there is the way it is handled after fermentation:

Namazake: sake that has not been pasteurized

Genshu: undiluted sake

Muroka: unfiltered

Nigorizake: cloudy sake

Siechu: clear/clean sake

Koshu: Aged sake (most sake doesn’t age well but this is specially made)

Taruzake: Aged in wooden barrels or bottled in wooden casks (usually Japanese cedar)

Shiboritate: Freshly pressed (Similar to white lightning or white dog whisky)

Fukurozuri: A different method of making the sake aka Drip Sake

Tobingakoi: sake pressed into 18 liter bottles (“tobin”)

sake_blogThere are still more ways to further designate sake, but I think it’s safe to say it’s a complex and varied product.

Sake’s flavor varies from brand to brand, much like beer or wine. It can often be described using terminology like dry, or crisp, much in the way we describe some wines. There is usually an earthy or herbal quality to the beverage. The taste of it also changes with the way it is served. Sake can be served chilled, at room temperature, or heated. Warm sake is more of a winter drink, and is usually served to mask the taste of a lower quality sake. High grade sake is rarely served warm.

There, as with many things from Japan, is a lot of ritual associated with drinking sake. Traditionally you do not pour your own sake, but it is poured for you by another member of your group. Of course when drinking sake solo that goes out the window, but, I’ve noticed that drinking sake tends to be a social thing.

Sake BombSake cocktails have grown more popular in the modern age. Sake bombs (a shot of sake with beer), Sake-tinis, and mixed cocktails are appearing more and more often on menus of Japanese restaurants across the world. Here in the US it is very uncommon to see sake on the menu of any other kind of place.

It is a tasty drink, sake, and I encourage you to give it a try! In fact, here at the Labs we do have an opportunity for you to do just that! At the International Steampunk Symposium, on Friday night (April 24th, 9pm) we will be sampling a few different sakes (and rum as well.) Some will be hot, some will not. Dorian and I are also concocting a couple drinks that use both sake and rum in it. Come by and we’ll tell you more about this fascinating libation!

~Calamity Dawn

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