The art of drinking sake – Japan’s national taste

Trends & Culture - May 15th, 1981

Despite all the propaganda and international advertising regarding Japanese “scotch-type” whiskies and various locally brewed beers, sake must still be considered the only true, national and tradition­al alcoholic beverage of Japan.

Sake is most loosely described as a “rice wine” and while it is exactly that, it is also much more than that. Sake has a unique taste which cannot be compared to any other wine in the world, except perhaps some of the so-called Korean Village Wines (the home-made type). It is completely compati­ble with the extremely delicate palate of the Japanese people and blends perfectly with the flavor of their traditional dishes.

Although the novice drinker or “tourista” type might have been brainwashed into thinking that sake is best when sipped hot, out of cute little cups with flowers on them, we’re sure you’ll be surprised to learn that sake is actually quite a versatile drink.

By “versatile” we don’t imply that it can go hand-in-hand with Kentucky Fried Chick­en, a Big Mac, a Wimpy Special or Shakey’s-Pizza. When one drinks sake, he should enjoy its inherent delicate taste, flavor and bouquet without killing any of its taste by strongly seasoned foods.

With the taste of sake being delicate and actually on the sweet side as opposed to “heavier” wines such as port, claret or sherry, it is fitting, therefore, NOT to drink it with such dishes as pizza, tacos, curry. Frankly, sake doesn’t fit too well with lamb roasts, liver and onions, meat stews and the like either.

On the other hand, it is very compatible with all sea foods. In fact, some consider it almost a crime if you don’t sip sake when eating sashimi or sushi. Sake also goes very nicely with Genghis Khan-type barbecues which feature various meats and vegetables. And, of course, it drinks well with such winter Japanese dishes as sukiyaki. Sur­prisingly, it also seems to go with Korean food quite well.

Because Japanese men generally prefer to do most of their serious drinking before dinner, there are all sorts of delicious tidbits which should be eaten while drinking sake. Certain delicacies, such as crisp dried sea-weed, dried squid, pickled octopus, fresh wasabi (horseradish), various radish-based pickles, dried shrimp, fresh ginger, sashimi and such not only seem to taste much better with sake, but most Japanese feel that by nibbling a little, it also helps to keep you from getting thoroughly smashed before you know it.

Sake, depending upon the grade, contains an alcoholic content of anywhere from 14% to a whopping 20% ! Because it actually goes down so smoothly, it’s easy to “sip” large quantities before you realize you are into your cups. It has a tendency to creep upon you—like an express train—especially when it is imbibed hot and on an empty stomach.

Although, as far as can be determined, there are no special secret ingredients or blending mumbo-jumbo necessary to make one brand more delicious or costly than an­other, brewing experts tell us the two basic ingredients required to make good sake are a source of pure spring water and the very highest grade of rice.

Ozawa, a brewery located in a little hamlet near Ome City about two hours outside Tokyo, draws their water from a grotto 140 meters deep, and has been using this same, fresh spring water source for more than 300 years.

Basically the process of brewing sake is not too complicated. Special attention is paid to fermentation times, temperature con­trols during each process, the size and con­struction of the brewing vats and storage tanks.

Very briefly, you start with a very high grade of rice. It is then washed, cleaned and dried. After that it is put through a tumbling process so that the harder, less tasty, outer surface of each kernel is worn away by friction, finally producing small, highly-polished kernels of rice about 60-70% the size of the original.

Then comes the process of cooking the rice in gigantic double boilers, after which the whole pasty mass is put into wooden troughs and aerated, turning -it over and over using large wooden paddles. Then it is put into huge vats, combined with the right amount of spring water and left to “sleep” for about 20 days. The resulting fermenta­tion time is carefully watched and regulated, and when the mixture reaches just the correct levels of acidity, alcohol content, water percentage, etc., the liquid is boiled off, filtered and again returned to age for several more weeks in huge stainless steel tanks, each of which contain around 23,000 liters.

When sake is ready to bottle, it is pumped out of the tanks, reheated and bottled while hot . . . after which it is allowed to cool in the bottles at the ware­house.

Sake is generally sold in four grades: Tokkyushu (best, deluxe), Ikkyushu (first grade), Nikyushu (second grade) and “blind” (ungraded . . . the cheapest and naturally the lowest in alcohol content).

Sake is botttled in 1.8 liter (issho), 720 milliliter  (go-go), 500 ml, 300 ml, 180 ml, and 150 ml bottles or in 72-liter, 36-liter or 18-liter wooden barrels.

As far as price is con­cerned you may pay as much as ¥2,390 for the 1.8-liter bottle of the highest grade, or around ¥1,660 to ¥1,220 per 1.8 liters of the second grade. “Blind” sake is only sold in small (one drink) bottles.

What’s the best way to drink sake? Well, if you really want to be 100% “pure” about it, put yourself into a purely Japanese at­mosphere … a traditional Japanese restaurant, sushi shop or a Japanese ryokan (inn). For some reason, it always seems to taste better sitting on a tatami mat floor in a yukata before a beauti­ful arrangement of flowers and perhaps a Japanese scroll. And the male sake sipper finds it doesn’t hurt a bit to have a covey of cute little kimono-clad birds flut­tering around the room to help pour your sake and bring little delicacies to tease your taste buds.

In the winter it is, of course, best to drink sake hot … as it not only warms you up faster, but gives that pleasant, tingling feeling sooner. The real trick, when out for a night of anticipated heavy drinking, is to pace your sake intake and amount of tidbits you eat so that you can keep up the initial glow. However, it always seems that once you are at a Japa­nese party and the sake and food starts to flow, you say to yourself, “To hell with this pace thing. . . . I’m going to enjoy myself.”

In the spring and autumn many prefer sake at room temperature. In this case you scrap the tiny cups and drink it from glass tumblers.

In the summer many pre­fer to drink sake chilled. It is a refreshing and delightful drink cold, but you should never mix it with ice . . . several hours chilling in the fridge should do the trick.

Some adventurous drinkers have tried various sake cock­tails, such as a sake-tini (sake and dry vermouth), but we advise against butch­ering the basic natural taste.

Many older Japanese swear that the best cure for a cold is to drop a raw egg yoke into a glass of super-hot sake and chug-a-lug the whole mass. And, as far as cooking is concerned, sake is being used more and more in new Japanese dishes. Of course, sukiyaki wouldn’t taste right at all unless the juices everything is cooked in weren’t laced with sake.

Hard-core Japanese sake drinkers claim there is no better way to get smashed than to drink hot sake while simmering in a superhot Japanese bath.

Sake and sex? For sure! Although we, of course, have never tried it, there is said to be an old Japanese custom called “oheso-zake” (belly-button sake). First you both soak for a half hour or so in the hot bath and then upon emerging you lay the young lady down and pour sake in her navel . . . and you drink. How about that? Well, it saves on cups they say.

Regardless whether you prefer sake hot out of cute little cups, at room temperature from tumblers, cold in wine glasses, out of belly-buttons or whether you drink it with sea food, bar­becued meat, sukiyaki or just some Japanese canapes . . . sake is the national drink of Japan and, as such, should be treated with the proper respect and consumed in ap­propriate quantities to as­sure that no sake maker will go out of business in the foreseeable future. What better way to benefit the economy and promote friend­ship and international trade?