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With a rich Japanese history and thorough ingredient standards, sake is a more versatile and dynamic liquor than many drinkers once gave it credit for. But as sake’s popularity outside Japan rises, it’s clear that the rice-based liquor’s locally sourced ingredients, small-batch production, and ever-evolving complexity resonates with an international audience. To learn more about sake—from basic questions like 'what is sake?' to understanding sake classifications and how to serve high-end sake—we turned to a sake expert at the newly opened Ritz-Carlton, Nikko. A luxe onsen hotel on Lake Chuzenji, about 100 miles north of Tokyo, The Ritz-Carlton, Nikko takes great pride in their food and beverage program, with a high-end rare whisky and sake collection at The Bar and authentic all-day local fare at The Japanese Restaurant. Yusuke Yamada, manager of The Japanese Restaurant, sheds some light on sake for us here.
What Is Sake and How Is It Made?
There are three main ingredients in sake: rice, water, and koji. Koji is the microorganism used to ferment sake.
The fermentation process sets sake apart: “Sake is in the same category of fermented liquor like wine and beer, but it involves a more complex brewing process,” says Yamada.”Sake is not fermented by adding yeast to rice, but through the use of koji, which converts the starch in the rice into sugar. The rice begins fermenting once the yeast is added to this sugar.”
Each of sake’s three ingredients are meticulously sourced—in fact, you’ll often notice high-end sake comes with a story behind the rice or the water because both actively contribute to the sake’s flavor profile.
Perhaps the biggest determinant of a sake’s flavor is the rice polishing ratio. Part of the sake-making process is to polish rice grains to get rid of the protein and fat that might impede the grain’s flavor, leaving just the purest starch center of the grain. “Basically, the more rice is polished, the cleaner and lighter-bodied the sake tends to become,” Yamada explains. “Rice polishing ratio determines the classification of sake and is one of the factors that determine the flavors and aromas of sake.”
Much in the way certain areas (like Bordeaux or Napa Valley) take pride in their terroir because it enables them to grow superior grapes, many of Japan’s prefectures have something unique to offer in terms of sake production.
For example, Tochigi, the prefecture The Ritz-Carlton, Nikko is located within, is known as Japan’s leading agricultural prefecture. Tochigi launched a prefecture-wide initiative to “develop a new special sake-rice called ‘yume sasara,’” says Yamada. It took 13 years to create this modified grain, and yume sasara is now used in a local sake bottled exclusively for the hotel.
The water used in sake is another crucial factor—sake is 80% water, after all. Certain areas of Japan are coveted sake producers because of their proximity to fresh mountain water. Tochigi’s proximity to the mountains makes it a perfect area for sake production—the prefecture’s water source is the only freshwater mountain stream near Tokyo.
Common Sake Classifications
Sake classification is determined by the rice polishing ratio. Sake using rice with a high polishing ratio (greater than 60%) will be more savory and grainy with a fuller body. When there’s a rice polishing ratio greater than 60%, the sake is classified as Junmai Shu.
Sake with a lower rice polishing ratio (less than 60%) will be cleaner and lighter-bodied. The two main classifications for lower polish ratios are Dai-ginjo and Ginjo.
As Yamada has stressed, the rice and polishing ratio can significantly impact the sake’s flavor. “However, that does not mean that sake with a low rice polishing ratio (like Dai-ginjo) is better than the one with a high rice polishing ratio. Sake with a high polishing ratio has savory, rice-like flavors that are becoming very popular these days,” says Yamada.
The Tradition Surrounding Japanese Sake
The tradition of sake in Japan dates back to the 700s, which is when they started using koji as the key fermentation ingredient. “Sake was used to make offerings to the gods,” says Yamada. “The sake barrels commonly seen at shrines are called ‘sakedaru’ (which are decorative sake barrels).”
While, today, sake is a common dinner libation and often integrated into Japanese-inspired craft cocktails, it is “still used at Shinto shrines in religious ceremonies such as formal Japanese weddings,” says Yamada.
Serving Sake and Blending Sake-based Cocktails
First, let’s talk about serving temperature for straight sake. To determine whether a sake should be served chilled or warmed, take cues from the sake’s classification. Junmai Shu sakes—with a higher polishing ratio—should be served warm to complement the full-bodied, grain-forward flavor, while lighter sake classifications (Dai-ginjo, Ginjo) are typically served cold.
While the world of classic sakes is already filled with nuance and ingredient specifications, the next step in sake education is delving into sake cocktails and aperitifs. Yamada says sparkling sake has become a very popular aperitif; “It has a scent of fresh citrus and tastes like a sweet sparkling wine,” he says. Yamada observes that sampling a sparkling sake aperitif has piqued the curiosity of non-sake drinkers. It often encourages rice wine newcomers to expand their sake horizons.
As for blending cocktails, The Bar at The Ritz-Carlton, Nikko mixes craft sakes with high-end spirits and distinctly Japanese flavors. Yamada recommends mixing sake with Japanese whiskies and dimensional, savory flavors (like wasabi) for a colder-weather cocktail. At The Bar, they use sake, wasabi, and whisky to create their signature Altitude 1300 cocktail—it takes on a yellow color reminiscent of the changing autumn leaves. For a brighter sake cocktail, try mixing fruit flavors (think: lychee, yuzu, sansho) with an aromatic wood or floral element (i.e., cedar, jasmine) and a sweeter, lighter-bodied sake. The Bar’s Kegon Falls cocktail blends sake with sansho—a citrus-forward sweet and spicy pepper—with hinoki, a Japanese cypress wood.