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What is Sake? How is Sake Made? What are Polishing Grades?

What is Sake? How is Sake Made? What are Polishing Grades?

Did you know that Taylor's has the largest selection of Craft Brewed Sake of any wine shop in North Carolina?
Now is the best time of the year to check it out if you aren't already familiar with our selection hand crafted Japanese Sakes. We have many styles, grades, regions and breweries and they are all on sale for the month of July!

So what is Sake?

Sake is a rice based alcoholic beverage first brought to Japan from China around 300 B.C. along with the methods for planting and growing rice. Many people refer to Sake as "rice wine" but it is actually a brewed beverage more similar to beer. The main difference between Sake and beer is that the starches in rice don't contain fermentable sugars until they have transformed by a special rice mold known as Koji. Premium Sake only contains water, rice, koji, yeast and sometimes distilled alcohol.

How is Sake Made?

Rice is washed and steam-cooked. This is then mixed with yeast and koji (rice cultivated with a mold known technically as aspergillus oryzae). The whole mix is then allowed to ferment, with more rice, koji, and water added in three batches over four days. This fermentation, which occurs in a large tank, is called shikomi. This mash is allowed to sit from 18 to 32 days, after which it is pressed, filtered and blended.  During final blending, the brewer adds water and/or distilled alcohol spirits to adjust the final alcohol percentage.  Distilled alcohol was first added to Sake during WWII to stretch volume as rice was in short supply. The process continues today as many brewers believe that the addition of pure alcohol helps to open up extra aromas and flavors although many purists believe this step unnecessary and destroys the purity of the product. 

Key Sake Terms You Should Know

Polishing Grades
Rice kernels for making sake are "polished" to remove the proteins, minerals and other impurities located in the outer portion of the kernel to get to the pure, fermentable starches at the center. The more of the outer husk polished away, the higher the grade of Sake produced. In general, Daigingo Sakes are lighter and more refined and "lower" grade Sakes have bold and richer flavors. A "higher" grade doesn't necessarily mean a "better" Sake, it is more important go find out which grade/style better fits your flavor profile.
Daiginjo - 50% or more of kernel polished away
Ginjo - 40% or more of kernel polished away
Honjozo - 30% or more of kernel polished away
Futsu - "Table Sake" with no minimum polishing requirements. Accounts for 75% of total Sake production in Japan and mostly consumed in Japan and little is exported.
Junmai - Sake made without the addition of distilled alcohol, or "pure rice Saké."
Tokubetsu - A somewhat vague term that means "special" sake. Polishing of 55+%, low fermentation temperatures, or rare rice strains are some of the most common reasons for a Sake earning a Tokubetsu
Nigori - A 'Milk Saké' or sake that is coarsely filter or that has had some of the rice solids added back, resulting in a Sake that has a cloudy, milky white texture and appearance. Most have an off-dry to sweet flavor.
Genshu - A Saké that is undiluted before bottling.
Nihonshudoor Saké Meter Value (SMV) - A number that can be found on the back label of many Sakes indicating the sweetness/dryness level. Zero being a neutral sweetness level with higher positive numbers indicating drier Sakes and lower negative numbers indicating sweeter Sakés.
Nama - Indicates an unpasteurized Saké.