Courtney Kaplan talks about sake the way most people talk about their children: She’s giddy with admiration, full of stories and eager to share.
Kaplan, who was once responsible for the sake selection at wine shop Domaine LA, is the co-owner at the Japanese izakaya Tsubaki and the new Ototo sake bar and restaurant, both in Echo Park. The latter is where you’ll find the most comprehensive sake list in Los Angeles. Seated at a table at Ototo on a recent afternoon, Kaplan helped me put together a complete guide to the Japanese rice wine. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about the stuff, plus what to buy and where to find it.
What is sake and how is it made?
Sake is a brewed alcoholic beverage made through a process called multiple parallel fermentation. It is the only drink made this way. The main ingredients are sake rice (a rice that has a much larger and starchier center than table rice), water and koji (a fungus that aids in fermentation and turns the starch in the rice into sugar).
The first step is to polish the rice. Breweries use large machines that polish away the exterior of the grain, mostly doing away with the proteins and fats to get to the starch in the rice. The more you polish away, the more what you end up with is pure starch. Most believe this leads to a cleaner product.
The polished rice is steamed. Some is separated to be mixed with the koji and some is reserved for the brewing process. The rice for the koji goes into a humidity- and temperature-controlled room where it is inoculated with the koji. This allows the koji to grow and feed off the starch in the rice and convert it to sugar, not alcohol.
A mash is formed using the steamed rice, water and koji, along with added yeast and lactic acid. The lactic acid is there to protect the mash from bacteria and whatever else might grow in the mash. Then the mixture goes into a tank and the following are added in three increments: rice, water and koji.
This is the multiple parallel fermentation: Koji rice already has its starch converted to sugar, which gets fermented into alcohol by the yeast. Meanwhile, the koji is turning the regular steamed rice in the mix into sugar. And the yeast is turning that sugar into alcohol. All of this happens at the same time, in the same vessel, hence the name “multiple parallel fermentation.” This process typically takes around two to four weeks depending on how the starter is formed.
The different categories of sake
The word translates to “pure rice.” It refers to sake made with water, koji, yeast and rice. There is no legally defined polishing requirement for junmai.
A small amount of distilled alcohol is added to junmai sake. The purpose is not to raise the alcohol percentage, but often one of the following reasons: to stretch a short rice crop, to lighten up the texture/flavor of the starchy, rich rice or to bring out certain aromatics. There is often a misconception that honjozo is lower quality when really it’s delicious, sessionable and refreshing.
Junmai Ginjo (純米吟醸)
The distinction refers to the amount of rice that is polished away before the brewing process begins. Ginjo refers to rice that has between 50% and 60% of each grain remaining. This style can be a little more aromatic and is a nice entry point for sake beginners.
Rice that is polished to a ginjo level with distilled alcohol added.
Junmai Daiginjo (純米大吟醸)
This style includes sake made with 50% or less of each grain remaining. This is often the most prestigious and expensive with brewers throwing/polishing away half the product. It can be very aromatic with a richness in texture due to the pure starch. This style can be difficult to pair with food.
Rice that is polished to a daiginjo level with distilled alcohol added.
This style of sake is often called unfiltered but it’s actually lightly filtered, which gives the sake a cloudy appearance. Some can have sediment and be super creamy. They tend to be a little sweeter due to the existence of rice solids and unfermented long chain sugars.
The term means raw and refers to sake that is unpasteurized or pasteurized a single time. Pasteurization kills off any yeast or bacteria in the sake. Most sake is pasteurized twice. Not pasteurizing preserves some intensity of aromatics and more acidity. The increased vibrancy can connect with people who drink certain styles of white wine. These sakes are usually released as seasonal, limited edition products.
This style includes sake made using the oldest way of making sake, called the Kimoto process. Instead of adding lactic acid and commercial yeast, long poles or feet are used to stomp the rice, koji and water together in order to dissolve the rice. This activates the natural yeast in the environment to build a starter, and lactic acid naturally forms in the mash. The end result is a rich sake with a creamy texture.
Near the turn of the 20th century, a researcher at the National Institute for Brewing Studies in Japan figured out that if you raise the temperature and let the rice, koji and water hang out, the rice will dissolve on its own. Yamahai sake is typically gamy, earthy and nutty, and often compared to the funky flavors and acidity of natural wine.
Regions in Japan and different styles of sake
The quality of the water contributes to different regions being known for different styles of sake. And most regions use local water. Local cuisine also influences the different styles. As you move from North to West, the sake gets sweeter and richer. Northeastern Japan is known for its lighter, drier sake.
The area has very soft water that is low in mineral content, so the sakes from this area tend to be softer, more aromatic, gentler and more elegant. Soft water is more appropriate for brewing things like ginjo and daiginjo.
The hard water in this region makes the sake more muscular, savory and umami-rich. A lot of Yamahai technique is used in this region. That combined with the hard water creates a burly style of sake.
This region is known for its heavy meat-centric cuisine. The sake here tends to be more umami-driven to complement the meat.
Known as the Napa of the sake world, Niigata is home to many well-known, high-producing breweries. The region started to make its signature light, crisp and dry sake in the 1970s.
The region is known for its dry sake.
Breweries in this region tend to make richer styles with more umami and sweetness.
Akita and Yamagata
Both areas are known for their clean, pristine, aromatic sake.
The soft water in Kyoto creates a more delicate style of sake, which pairs well with the region’s subtle cuisine.
The region, near Kobe, is where most of the really good Yamada Nishiki rice is grown. The sake produced here tends to be dry, crisp and fresh.
The prefecture is known for its heavy tonkotsu ramen and produces an umami-rich sake to match.
Home to Mount Fuji, Shizuoka is known for its soft, elegant, pretty style of sake.
Hot vs. cold
A lot of restaurants use the cheap stuff and heat it up. But real warm sake is heated properly in a water bath and brewed with the intention of being served warm.
Sake can be more expressive if warmed to the ideal heat level: There is nurukan (lukewarm), hitohadakan (translated as human-skin temperature, around 95 degrees) and atsukan (actually warm).
Daiginjo and ginjo are mostly served cold to preserve the delicate aromatics. Yamahai and kimoto sakes that have a little more umami and sweetness do well warm. Good importers will put preferred serving temperatures on the bottles.
If you like this wine, you’ll like this sake
Sauvignon Blanc → Kaiun junmaiginjo from Suyaka, because it’s aromatic with passion fruit notes but has a tropical, grassy green thing going on.
Muscadet or Chablis → Taka Tokubetsu junmai, because it’s crisp, dry and minerally with a water source that has a lot of limestone influence.
Big red wine → Sempuku, because it is made with an heirloom rice called Shinriki using the Kimoto method. It’s also cask-strength and not diluted. It’s big, rich, earthy with a cocoa powder quality to it.
Sour beer and or natural wine → Souden, made using the yamahai method. It’s tangy but with an umami funk underneath and a lactic tartness.
Off-dry German Riesling → Kamoizumi Kome Kome, because it’s bright and just a tad sweet.
Chardonnay → Urakasumi honjozo Genshu, because it has a fuller body with creaminess and a little smokiness.
Words to know so you can get what you want
Try not to stay away from saying things like dry vs. sweet. Determine if you’d like something fruity, floral or aromatic. Or earthy, umami, savory and rich. Or crisp, clean, minerally and fresh. Think about what other things you like to drink including wine, beer and liquor to give sommeliers a sense of what type of sake you might like.
Importers to know
These are names you can look for on the back of the bottle and be confident that what you’re buying is good stuff.
World Sake Imports: It works mostly with craft breweries and has a very strenuous selection process. It often gives an English name to the bottling as well.
Vine Connections: It has an impressive portfolio with a variety of high-quality sake from smaller breweries. Its sakes tend to be rustic with personality.
Wine of Japan: It doesn’t have any big marquee names, but it takes really good care of its product. The sakes are refrigerated from the moment they leave the brewery to the moment they arrive at the restaurant door.
Where to buy
Domaine L.A.: You can also order individual bottles here (take a photo of a bottle you like from dinner/elsewhere and bring it in), not just by the case. 6801 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 932-0280, domainela.com
True Sake in San Francisco: It’s the best store on the West Coast, and it will ship to you overnight with the exception of nama sakes. 560 Hayes St., San Francisco, (415) 355-9555, truesake.com
When I ask Yoshihiro Sako of Den Sake Brewery whether his first love was wine or sake, he answers slowly, as if it were a trick question.
John and Pete’s Fine Wine and Spirits: 621 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood (310) 657-3080, johnandpetes.com
Tokyo Central market chain: This chain is putting some effort into it, but stores usually have only the bigger brands. Multiple locations at tokyocentral.com