Konnichi-wa, readers. Let’s take a break from the strawberry story for another edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, this time a staggering 8 days late. Having taken five weeks of Japanese classes back in 1999, I was excited about this month’s WBW. Richard, Boston’s Passionate Foodie and unrepentant sake enthusiast, chose the theme of homage to Kushi no Kami (the god of sake. By the way, kami in Japanese relates to gods or divinity, as in kamikaze: “divine wind”). So I chose two different styles of sake to compare, having only a small amount of experience with the drink. I picked them up at the local liquor store (the one closest to Cornell), and taking a look at the shelf, I get the feeling that these sakes are pretty high production, Gekkeikan being the Godzilla of American sake distribution.
Before we start, some sake vocabulary:
Junmai: Some sakes have alcohol added near the end of fermentation. Only rice, yeast, koji (more on that later), and water are allowed in sake that is classified as junmai. Junmai is like the Rheinheitsgebot of Japan.
Honjozo/Ginjo/Daiginjo: these have to do with the amount of milling the rice goes through before fermentation. You can think of rice as a hard protein/gluten shell with a starchy center. The more milling, the more starch is available for fermentation, and (according to many) the higher quality the sake. In order, the rice grains of the aforementioned are milled to 70%, 60%, and 50% of their original size.
Genshu: Cask-strength sake. Sake finishes fermentation around 18-20% alcohol. Most is diluted with water, but genshu is the real stuff, straight out of fermentation.
Nigori: unfiltered sake. I guess unfiltered is misleading, since there aren’t actual chunks of rice in the drink, but only coarse filtration is applied after fermentation, resulting in a milky, cloudy beverage with lots of sediment floating around.
SMV: Sake Meter Value. Ranging from -15 (really sweet) to +15 (dryyyy), this indicator appears on most bottles.
For more sake terms, and there are many more, you can refer to this website, the sake glossary.
(NB: I follow the New York Times style for grape varieties [i.e., riesling is not capitalized], so I will go with the NYT here and not put an accent on the word “sake”. Japanese is a context-centered language, so use your context clues.)
Horin Gekkeikan Sake (Ultra premium) Junmai Daiginjo
SMV: +2 (on the dry side)
Price Point: $13, 300 mL bottle
Looks: Pours clear with an ever so slight yellow tinge
Nose: black licorice and melon. I get the alcohol after a while. Bit of a brewery smell coming on.
Palate: Alcohol pronounced but nice, not a very complex matrix. Somewhat creamy mouthfeel, yeasty/bready, very clean and crisp. I’d like some more acidity, personally.
I have had many sakes that smell like melon. I mean the unripest part of a honeydew. I wonder what’s up with that. Studies suggest that phenylethanol shows up in both melons and sake, but to me, phenylethanol smells like rose/honey (most like Dundee’s Honey Brown beer, actually, if you’ve had it). (Hayata et al., Analysis of Aromatic Volatile Compounds in ‘Miyabi’ Melon (Cucumis melo L.) using the Porapak Q Column., J. Japan. Soc. Hort. Sci., 2002) I suspect there is not as much research on sake aroma compounds as wine aroma compounds. Perhaps we’ll tackle this in a later entry. After a few days in an open bottle (I actually tasted these last Thursday and am just now revisiting them…) the licorice is overwhelming.
Momokawa Pearl Junmai Ginjo Nigori Genshu Sake
SMV: -12 (pretty sweet)
Price Point: $14, 750 mL
Looks: cloudy white and opaque with slight yellow, like buttermilk
Nose: big, banana, coconut, piña colada
Palate: love the texture that the sediment gives, long finish
I had a small sake tasting with friends a few months ago and the nigori was definitely my favorite. The same applies here. I am a very big fan of this beverage. A++ would buy again!! If you buy nigori, make sure to shake it before you pour, as the sediment will separate in the bottle.
Overall, most of the sake you’ll find in the liquor store will be cheap (I don’t think I’ve seen anything over $25), light, and very flavorful. I’m just getting into it, but I really do like it, especially nigori-style. Perhaps next time I will ask for a sake flight with some raw fish at Ithaca’s local sushi haunt, called, aptly, Sushi Osake.
Sake seems as diverse a field as wine, so it’s tough to sum up sake in one Science! segment. As a biology guy, the most interesting part of sake-making for me is the addition of koji to the rice. Koji is better known to the scientific world as Aspergillus oryzae. It is a mold added to rice before fermentation to break down the starch into fermentable sugars for yeast. Just as beer brewing requires barley to be malted (where enzymes in the barley [amylases] break down the starch in the grain), sake brewing requires koji. It’s possible that koji also contains enzymes that contribute to the final flavor and aroma of the finished fermented product. For example, glutaminase converts glutamine to glutamate, the primary component of umami taste (Kitamoto, , “The Molecular Biology of Koji Molds”, in Advances in Applied Microbiology,Vol. 51, ed. Laskin et al., Academic Press, 1997) Interestingly, koji is also used to ferment soy sauce and miso.