The ceremonial exchange of the sake bowl still accompanies important events in Japan, such as business deals. But sake is also part of family celebrations or get-togethers with friends.

The ceremonial exchange of the sake bowl still accompanies important events in Japan, such as business deals. But sake is also part of family celebrations or get-togethers with friends.
© Ueno Gourmet

Kanpai! Everything you need to know about sake

Some call it the elixir of the Japanese soul. A fitting metaphor for a brew that unites Japanese attributes such as tradition, craftsmanship, precision and the pursuit of perfection like no other. But what is this sake actually - and what is the best way to enjoy it? Incidentally, "Kanpai" (or "Kampai") translates as "dry glass" and is an invitation to empty the glass: Cheers!

Its aromatic diversity is quite impressive, ranging from light and fresh to fruity and aromatic to full umami. But even the Japanese sometimes need a little time to warm up to sake. This was also the case for Yoshiko Ueno-Müller, the first woman to be awarded the title "Master of Sake Tasting" and one of the few who can call themselves "Sake Samurai" for their services to the culture of Japan's national drink. Your door opener to the world of rice brewing? A premium sake from the snowy north of Japan:

I would still recommend this to any newcomer today: Always go for premium sake, because life is too short for bad sake.

However, there is no need to worry about the price being too high right from the start, as the "premium" attribute of sake is less to do with the price than with the degree of polish of the rice. Rice grains are polished for sake production until, depending on the degree of polishing, only a small part of the grain remains. The degree of polishing and the proportion of rice inoculated with the koji mushroom used for fermentation determine whether a sake falls into the premium category or not. However, sake sommelier Ueno-Müller is also aware of the problems sake has in this country. "In large parts of Europe, sake is understood to be a tasteless, hot liquor. However, these industrial sakes are often mixed with neutral alcohol or artificial additives and are not able to represent the thousands of years of brewing tradition. The term "sake" is also not protected abroad which is why even cheap liquor can be sold as sake." Overall, however, the premium segment is enjoying increasing popularity, and not just among the Japanese. This is mainly due to a young generation of sake brewers who, with a great deal of commitment and fresh ideas, have revived sake in around 1,200 currently active breweries and brought it to the world. But how is it possible to tease out a drink of such elegant sweetness, delicate fruitiness and rich umami from a rather tasteless base such as rice?


The art of brewing for wine fans

The answer to this is complex, because sake is reminiscent of beer in its production, but in terms of taste it couldn't be further from it and is more comparable to wine. This is also due to the unique brewing method, in which the rice starch is converted into sugar at the same time as the alcoholic fermentation takes place. The koji mushroom, which is also essential for the production of soy sauce and miso, is responsible for this process. It is ground into a fine powder and added to steamed rice, converting the starch into sugar. This fermented rice is combined with freshly steamed rice, water and a yeast culture, which converts the sugar into alcohol, to form the first mash.

The quality of the water has a major influence on the body of the end product, while the type of yeast determines the aroma and taste. After repeating the process several times, followed by maturation and pressing, sake is finally produced after sixty to ninety days. To this day, brewing takes place exclusively in winter, as this allows the temperature during fermentation to be controlled more precisely. As a result, many brewery employees are more likely to be found on the farm in summer than at the fermentation tank.

However, as Yoshiko Ueno-Müller explains, a product characterized by such craftsmanship and tradition is by no means free of developments:

We are observing two major trends in sake. On the one hand, light sparkling sake, which is often reminiscent of fruit secco in taste, and on the other, matured qualities that are very full-bodied and complex. These go well with game or cheese.

And what is the best way to enjoy sake now? "Anything is actually possible," laughs the sake samurai. "You can treat it like a light wine and enjoy it at seven to nine degrees. However, I recommend a temperature of ten to 15 degrees, especially for the better qualities. By the way, sake is best enjoyed in a wine glass. You can also enjoy it from a small ceramic cup, although this is more for warm ginjo sake."

Best of Sake

Outstanding vintage sake, aged in used barriques from Burgundy. Complex, ripe aromas with notes of dried fruit, some almonds and raisins. Subtle ripeness and wine aromas end in a finely tart finish. Goes perfectly with game.
Very fruity sake with slightly tart notes and a fresh attack. Berry on the palate, but harmonious and aromatic with subtle acidity. Very vinous character with subtle aniseed and strawberry notes, the finish is long-lasting and juicy.
A liquid dessert! This matured sake impresses with notes of raisins, dry plum and ripeness on the nose. It is nutty on the palate, accompanied by an elegant fruitiness. With its full body, it is slightly reminiscent of port wine and therefore goes perfectly with cheese with fig jam.
Fine dessert sake, flavored with sour plums. Strong almond and fruit notes on the nose, with dried dates, cherries, plums and almonds embedded in a pleasant fruitiness on the palate. Clear, fruity, long-lasting finish.
Fruity and floral on the nose with subtle notes of melon, peach and slightly earthy aromas. Very balanced and lightly fruity on the palate. Tropical fruit, some peach and umami shine on the palate, especially in the finish.
Mild sparkling sake with a pleasant fruity sweetness. Light, refreshing acidity meets gentle pear and melon notes, making it a serious aperitif alternative. It also goes well with light dishes and fruity desserts.
Fruity and lively sparkling sake from bottle fermentation. With a pleasant sweetness and subtle acidity, it comes into the glass with a fine effervescence, where it unfolds its fruity, light aroma with notes of lychee, peach and pineapple. A little reminiscent of white storm.
A very refreshing representative of the Junmai category with full fruit notes and a pleasant balance of acidity. On the palate, there are lychee, citrus and light nutty aromas as well as a deep umami aftertaste. This makes the wine a suitable accompaniment to fish, grilled food and cheese.
Elegant, strong citrus rises to the nose, pure acidity is almost overpowering. The finish is reminiscent of tangerine. A great combination of fruit and tartness. Works best on ice or as a spritz in combination with sparkling wine.

Sake styles at a glance

Sake can be roughly divided into three types. Depending on the style, they are suitable for different pairings. The often rather fruity Ginjo sake (e.g. melon, banana, citrus) goes best with fine dishes, while the rather full-bodied Junmai sake is a kind of uncomplicated all-rounder thanks to its umami and rice notes. The third variant is matured sake, which has balsamic and spicy notes and therefore goes perfectly with chocolate, cheese or goose liver.

A full-bodied sake with an undefined degree of polish.

Junmai Ginjo
Fruity, mild sake with a degree of polish of 60 percent or less.

Junmai Daiginjo
Very harmonious, aromatic sake with umami notes and a degree of polish of 50 percent or less.

Light and fresh sake with a degree of polish of 70 percent or less.

Aromatic sake with a degree of polish of 60 percent or less.

Highly aromatic, complex sake with a degree of polish of 50 percent or less.

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Alexander Thürer
Alexander Thürer
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