WHAT TO LOOK FOR : Unfortunately, outside Japan the saké selection is still very limited. This is changing, however, since some large Japanese breweries have begun producing reasonably good saké in the United States. If you find a store that carries several kinds of saké, look at the label to identify the type and grade.
Saké is classified into two major types, according to the production process employed. One type, jozo-shu, has added alcohol; pure rice saké, or junmaishu, does not.
Each type of saké is made in different grade, from ordinary to superior (ginjoshu) and premier (dai-ginjoshu). They differ in the materials used, the amount of labor required, and how much of the production process is traditional. The grade usually appears on the bottle label, written in Japanese characters if not in letters. If you wish to select the base saké for your table and kitchen, it is worth the effort to become familiar with these designations.
Jozo-shu, alchohol-added saké, comes in these grades:
- Futsu-shu, ordinary table saké is the most widely consumed grade. The bottle may be labeled either futsu-shu or simply seishu. Seishu, "pure saké" is a generic term for all kinds of saké. Futsu-shu has no distinguishing characteristics. It is made of ordinary grades of rice, koji, spring water, and distilled alcohol. The added alcohol may be made from rice, sugarcane, potato, barley, or another grain. The amount of alcohol added is more than twice the volume of that which is actually produced during the saké fermentation process. This saké is best consumed warm, at about 105 to 125 degrees F. It is also perfect for use in cooking.
- Honjozo-shu is a higher grade of jozo-shu, alcohol-added saké. It is made with a better grade of rice, koji, spring water, and distilled alcohol. A higher proportion of the alcohol is produced during saké fermentation; only about one-quarter of the total alcohol is added. The quality of honjozo-shu can vary depending on the source and the quality of the added alcohol. Honjozo-shu has a lighter, milder, rounder flavor than futzu-shu. This grade is suitable for consuming either warmed or cooled.
- Honjozo-ginjoshu, superior grade, and jonjozo-dai-ginjoshu, premier grade, are the highest grades of alcohol-added saké. The rice used to produce these grades is of the highest quality. Also, more care is taken throughout the production process. For example, 50 and 70 percent of its volume is ground away, respectively, and it ferments for a little longer and at a lower temperature than it does for lower grades of saké. This process produces a very refined, delicate, distinctive and slightly fruity beverage. Honjozo-ginjoshu and jonjozo-dai-ginjoshu are best consumed cooled, to avoid cooking away their delicate fragrance.
Junmai-shu comes in these grades:
- Ordinary junmai-shu is made with a grade of rice similar to that used in honjozo-shu production, koji, and spring water. The flavor of junmai-shu is strong, rougher, and richer than that of jozu-shu because there is no added alcohol to soften the flavor. Junmai-shu once almost disappeared from Japan, since during and after World War II rice was in short supply. Now, with the growing popularity of stronger, richer saké, many smaller breweries like Nemoto Shuzo have begun to produce traditional junmai-shu. Junmai-shu is best consumed cooled, like a white wine.
- Junmai-ginjoshu, superior grade, and junmai-daiginjoshu, premier grade, are the highest grades of junmai-shu, pure rice saké. Just as for the highest grades of alcohol-added saké, the rice used to produce these grades of saké is of the highest quality. More care is taken throughout the production process: 50 to 70 percent of the rice is grounded away, respectively, and it ferments for a little longer and at a lower temperature than it does for other types of saké. Junmai-ginjoshu, and junmai-daiginjoshu are best consumed chilled.
Consider also whether you'd prefer dry or sweet saké. Whether saké is dry or sweet depends on several variables in the manufacturing process. Stopping fermentation at an earlier stages makes saké taster sweeter, because some of the glucose is left unconverted to alcohol. Also, saké tastes drier when its acidity is higher. Some saké producers indicate acidity on the bottle label. Look for this information.
STORAGE: Unlike vintage wine, saké is seldom stored for a long period of time before drinking. Namazake (unpasteurized saké) does not travel well, requires refrigeration at all times, and should be consumed very soon after it is produced. Ginjoshu, superior grade, and dai-ginjoshu, premier grade, should be kept in a cool, dark, and dry place or in the refrigerator to prevent a decline in quality. Once opened they should be consumed as soon as possible. They will not become undrinkable for some time, but oxidation diminishes their flavor and quality.
Excerpted from the book The Japanese Kitchen: 250 Recipes in a Traditional Spirit by Hiroko Shimbo. Copyright © 2000 by Hiroko Shimbo. Reprinted with permission of The Quarto Group.
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