Producer: Ichinokura Brewery
Region: Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Tasting Notes: Hazelnut, white flowers, cereal, cooked rice
Pairings: Sushi! Chinese stir fry, pate, umami-rich meat dishes
Price (approximately): $20
Sake! Admittedly, until only a few years ago I knew absolutely nothing about sake. Difficult to locate in the local stores with bottles even more difficult to decipher, I stuck close to inebriated beverages with which I had ample familiarity. I was intrigued, however, with the fact that sake is one of the most poured beverages on the planet. A few years ago, intrigue turned to action. One year of intentional and dedicated musings by the masu left me with a deep appreciation for and enjoyment of sake as one of my top beverages of choice. It is complex, delicate and sophisticated, and pairs with much more than sushi. In essence, it is brilliant.
With Japanese culture experiencing increased popularity in the West, sake is becoming easier to procure, but the labels can still leave a curious bystander somewhat stumped in the grocery isle. Today’s bargain wine highlights a fantastic value sake along with four tips for interpreting the sake label (which actually contains quite helpful information when you get the hang of it).
This sake is extra dry with aromas of cereal, white flowers and hazelnut. On the palate, A spiced beginning with a touch of white pepper, followed by a hazelnut, cooked rice, cocoa and cream elements. The finish cleanses the palate with a touch of bitterness that leaves you ready for the next sip.
In Honolulu, you can find this sake at Marukai Market and Fujioka’s Wine Times. For all of your sake needs, Fujioka’s probably boasts the best sake lineup at the moment and has a certified sake expert on staff to answer questions. The Sake Shop, due to open in Kaka’ako, has for years been the preeminent sake shop in town. Look for its new location on Cooke Street coming soon.
Enjoy this sake on its own at a leisurely pace, or pair with sushi, a variety of Chinese stir frys, pate, or umami-rich meat dishes.
Know Thy Label: For sake, you can judge a book by it's cover. Well, kind of ...
Sake's character-laden labels and foreign terminology can make one feel a bit lost and intimidated. Fear not! Sake bottles are in fact crammed with tremendously useful information that allows you to procure a great bottle with ease. With only a few label-navigation tips, you can be drinking with confidence.
1. Looking Polished
Sake quality and style depends chiefly on the amount that each grain of rice has been polished (or milled). Milling is the process of removing the outer layers of the rice grain, which include fats, proteins, minerals and other compounds that distort flavor, to reach the more concentrated inner layers of starch. Simply stated, the greater the percentage of each rice grain that is milled away, the higher the sake quality (and the more expensive). A sake’s designation on the bottle (e.g., Junmai, Honjozo, etc.) is typically provided in English and will indicate its quality. The table below summarizes:
2. To Distill or Not to Distill?
Sake that contains distilled alcohol (a practice that began during World War II due to country-wide rice shortages) doesn’t significantly change the alcohol content of the sake, but can provide different aromas and tasting notes. The traditionalists are quick to condemn all who are not sake purists, but in reality it is a matter of taste and preference. On the label, look for “Junmai” to indicate that the sake is “pure” and does not contain any additional distilled spirits. Absent this indicator, there is likely distilled spirits added. This sake, as a “Honjozo”, has distilled spirits added to the final product. Experiment with a few varieties to determine what delights your palate.
3. Sweet or Dry
Most sake labels contain a sake meter value (or “SMV”) that provides a spectrum of sweetness measured approximately from -10 (very sweet) to +10 (very dry). Remember, high and dry; small is sweet. Despite its widespread use, the SMV figure should not be relied upon as the sole predictor of taste. Acidity, temperature, milling rate and a host of other factors are also important considerations. Notwithstanding, SMV can get you in the sweetness ballpark.
4. Old Sake is Bad Sake.
Be sure to check the label for the date of bottling. Unlike wine, sake is not usually aged for long periods and should not be purchased if more than 12 months old. Ideally, purchase sake that is less than 6 months old.
You can learn more about the science of sake and its brewing process in my Sake Science 101 post!