Found out that if you can chew a piece of potato for around a minute without vomiting, it starts to becomes sweeter. This is because the enzymes in saliva start converting the starch into sugar. Why is this interesting? Because the first things you think of when you hear sugar is alcohol. Rice doesn’t have sugar, it has starch which makes things difficult for novice cultures. The anecdotal origin of sake in Japan is that it was first made by chewing the rice, spitting it out, and then letting it ferment. It’s also said that this skill was learnt by watching monkeys and their resultant more than usual silliness (dancing, unplanned copulation, kebobs…). Now obviously it’s a lot slicker now, unplanned copulation may also require suave behaviour for example. Sake production has also moved forward in a way that’s so complicated that I can’t explain it now. Not that I don’t want to but I think the more pressing need is a buying guide.
The first rule is that if it has the roman characters “o” “n” and “e” on top and the roman characters “c” “u” and “p” below, it is to be avoided, unless desperate, same for ones in cardboard containers. After that, it’s a little trickier. Click on the two label pics and you’ll find notes attached explaining each kanji character. There aren’t that many kanji characters so it isn’t that hard.
Ingredients: The label pictured has three ingredients, 米 rice, 米こうじ rice kouji (the mould that converts the rice’s starch into sugars), and 醸造アルコール brewer’s alcohol. Pure rice sake, junmaishu, will only have the first two. This one is honjouzou which only has a limited amount of brewers alcohol. Beyond this – sugars, acids, and down it goes.
Another guide is the percentage of rice that remains after polishing. This will be expressed as a percentage of the original weight. 50% is exceptional, 60% good, and 70% the cut off for special designation. This one is 65%
Taste: If you’re still stumped by wine labels, you can imagine how overwhelming it is to see 20 or so bottle of sake all in Japanese. The easy way is to work out if you’re a dry or a sweet person. Often this will be written on the label as a -/+ and a number representing residual sugar. +7 is very dry, -6 very sweet (close to a sauterne), with +1 around the middle. I tend to prefer very dry sake. This one has a dryness of +7 and the 辛口 karakuchi designation.
Acidity, sando, may also be shown. Lower numbers tend to taste watery and higher ones heavier and rougher. This one is 1.5 and tanrei, which is light.
Unfortunately, as the small bottle of Ozeki Karatanba I had was a roughy, my theory of most of the good stuff staying in Japan still stands. It’s worth looking out for some though. For some reason it seems to have the deep drunkedness of whisky with the mild euphoria of champagne. The range of flavours is also engaging and described by sweet amai, dry karai, bitter nigai, sour suppai, and astringet shibui. A different approach to wine.
Despite previous research opportunities, much of the technical information cribbed from the extremely good The Insider’s Guide to Sake by Phillip Harper, a British ex-pat brewer. Well worth a read for any refreshment lover. You could also have a good look around eSake. And sake, serve it chilled, yeah.