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Top 5 Things I Learned In Sake Class

October 22, 2009

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I have been a sake enthusiast since I was just a wee college student (all of eight months ago), parading around Chinatown like I was an expert with my equally inexperienced and uncultured friends. We would lurk around the many dark, airplane bathroom-sized restaurants, praying that they wouldn’t card us and we would get to say, “We’ll have the BIG bottle, please.”

Well, I’ve since matured.

Seeing who can stomach the largest number of sake bombs is not a goal of mine anymore. I want to know what I’m drinking, know the culture surrounding it and be able to educate others about its many wonderful qualities. That’s why when I heard The Second Glass (the people behind Wine Riots 1 & 2) were hosting a class on sake, I knew I had to go. So whether you’ve mastered the art of balancing a sake bomb on a single chopstick or you’ve been pronouncing “sake” as one syllable (like, “For goodness sake, get on with this blog post”) I’m sure you’ll learn something from my list of the Top 5 Things I Learned In Sake Class.

1. Sake is a “rice alcohol.”

What does THAT mean, you ask? Defining sake is straight-up hard. The production process resembles that of beer, but the finished product is more like wine. It’s not a spirit, and it’s sometimes called rice wine, but not really (you see where there could be confusion). The word “sake” in Japanese can be used to refer to most adult beverages but in English it’s roughly translated to “rice alcohol.” Just remember the word “rice” and you’ll have no trouble impressing your friends with this little slice of knowledge.

2. The key ingredients for sake are rice, water, mold and yeast.

MOLD?! Yes, mold, just like a lot of cheeses depend on mold. My explanation will skip multiple steps in the sake production, but I think I got the gist of it. Again, rice is the key ingredient here, and only after it’s polished, washed, soaked and steamed is the mold (also known as koji) introduced. When steamed rice is sprinkled with koji-kin (a special kind of mold) it will spread over the rice and begin to convert the starches into sugars. This is where I’ll take my lab coat off and say that to me, sugars sound a lot yummier that starches. So yay for mold!

3. Like wine, sake has many, many, many, many different varietals.

Except sake is even more confusing. To correctly ID a type of sake, you need the brewery name, brand name, product name, style and classification. And they’re usually in Japanese. Thus my dreams of becoming a Master of Sake in the Japanese countryside, where rivers of rice alcohol flow from the mountains and rain down from the heavens, came to a screeching halt.

4. 75% of all sake produced is known as Futsuu-shu, or table sake.

From my limited understanding, this is like the wine cooler of the sake world, or maybe the Natty Ice. The rice for premium sake is more highly milled, and the more the rice is milled, the more fragrant the sake is (also like wine, you can sniff your sake and get a number of different scents, from spicy to flowery to eggplant pizza). Table sake has had next-to-no polishing and has had more alcohol added to it, a fact that frankly amazes me. Our instructor said that most Japanese families have a pot of this table sake sitting on their…tables (odd) in their kitchens, ready to be thrown back on a nightly basis. I’m thinking of instating this same practice at my home, at the office and all over the United States. I frankly don’t see why it hasn’t caught on yet.

5. In Japan, it is NOT okay to eat rice when you’re drinking rice.

There’s no real explanation for this, just more of a cultural standard. I’ve probably offended millions when I used to order sake with a huge bowl of white rice. Silly, silly girl. But see? It’s things like this that made me want to take a class.

And there you have it. I can’t remember the name of the sake I liked best (the tall, light blue bottle on the very right in the picture above) but it cost just as much as a decent bottle of wine. So to all: imbibe! Try it out! Maybe you’re getting sick of your Long Island Iced Teas and looking for something new. Sake is the way to go (it’s even sold at some Trader Joe’s, so you really have no excuse). And most importantly, tell me how it goes! And to my fellow sake lovers, have anything to add?

– Alison

PS. To learn more, my personal favorite sake website is Sake Social. Cheers!

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