The popularity of sake in the U.S. has exploded in recent years. While the novelty of feeling like a giant, able to swill cup after tiny cup of boozy brew, plays a small part for some people, I’m guessing more people these days are attracted to its finer qualities. Despite sake’s growing presence, it is still a relatively new beverage on people’s radar, especially outside of a Japanese restaurant. We at Dishing are here to demystify the Japanese staple beverage and direct you where to take advantage of your new knowledge either at home or out on the town.
Just as wine and beer vary drastically across styles, so does sake. There are three ingredients common in all sake: rice, water and koji (the bacteria that turns the rice starch into alcohol). At the risk of oversimplification, the biggest thing that you need to understand is the milling process. Before the rice is soaked and fermented the outer husk is “polished” down. The majority of the rice’s starch is located in the middle of the grain, so removing the outer layer to varying degrees affects the fermentation and flavor of the sake. The percentage of the original rice grain left intact is probably the biggest differentiation point between sakes. Another important factor in sake classification is junmai. A sake that is junmai means that there are no additives, specifically distilled alcohol, and that the rice has been polished to at least 70 percent. You will see it on sake menus used on its own or used as a description modifier for other kinds on sake styles
Now that you you understand the milling percentage and junmai, we can start breaking down the different styles.
Junmai: As mentioned above these sakes are polished to at least 70 percent. Junmai sakes tend to be full bodied with rice notes stronger than its more refined counterparts. The flavors benefit from being served warm more than other styles
Honjozo: Like junmai, honjozo sakes are polished to 70 percent, but differ from their junmai counterparts as they have a small amount of distilled alcohol, which is added during the brewing process. The addition of the grain alcohol actually mellows out the intense rice flavors. This style can be enjoyed both hot or cold
Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo: These sakes have been polished to at least 60 percent. The additional polishing leads to a lighter, more refined flavor. These sometimes fruity flavored sakes are often served cold
Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo: Polished to 50 percent, these sakes are the ultra premium of the varietals. Often quite pricey, the delicate complex flavors of these sakes come out when chilled.
Nigori: This style of sake is coarsely filtered resulting in a cloudy appearance. Served cold, this sake usually has a sweeter flavor and creamy mouthfeel then it’s counterparts
Nama: Nama sake is unpasteurized as compared to its counterparts, which usually go through two pasteurizations before being sold. Because of this, nama sake has to be kept cold in shipping. Although not very common in the states, one of the more popular brands that you will find around Jackson, Funaguchi, is actually a nama sake. The style tends to be fruity, sweet, and full bodied.
Dinning out: There are a few places around Jackson to enjoy sake with your meal. King Sushi has a great selection broken down into style. Most are available by the bottle or smaller carafe so you can try a couple different kinds during your meal. If you really can’t make up your mind, they offer sake flights as well. Sudachi has an extensive sake list with many of their options available in smaller formats as well. The staff is quite knowledgeable and can help you create a perfect pairing, whether you are looking for a can of funaguchi or a bottle of ultra premium daiginjo. Noodle Kitchen has some great sake options that are quite affordable. Try some of their flavored sakes for a fun twist. Nikai balances out their sushi and grill menu with an extensive wine and sake list. Their range of hot sakes are great for a cold winter day.
Drinking In: If you’re thinking about doing a sushi night at home or just switching up your normal drinking routine, there are a few good places around Jackson to pick up a bottle of sake to bring home. Westside Wine and Spirits has a large selection of sakes and a knowledgeable staff that can point you in the right direction no matter what you are pairing it with. The Liquor Store stocks a good variety of sakes, located at the end of the center aisle by the beer coolers. The Momkawa Pearl, a Nigiri style sake that they sell is a great value option and tasty served slightly chilled. The Jackson Whole Grocer carries some nice ginjo and daiginjo options if you are looking for some high quality options.