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sake

Pronunciation: [SAH-kay; SAH-kee]

Categories: Japanese

Although often called Japanese rice wine, many don't think of sake as wine because it's not made from fruit. In fact, some people consider it a beer because it's produced from grain. However, the United States Tax and Trade Bureau (previously the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) has settled any dispute by categorizing sake in Class 6—"wine from other agricultural products." Sake is made up of rice, water, koji, yeast and sometimes a small amount of distilled alcohol. It's produced in several steps, during which time specially selected rice undergoes fermentation, which converts the starch to sugar and then to alcohol and carbon dioxide. After fermentation, the liquid is drawn off, filtered, heated and transferred to casks for maturing. None of the carbon dioxide is retained so there's no effervescence. The alcohol content of sake ranges from 15 to 19 percent, which is high for beer and low for most grain-based spirits, but in the range of some wines. Though there are myriad types of rice used for brewing sake, what differentiates the various types of sake is how much of each grain of rice is milled or polished away and whether or not distilled alcohol is added to the mix. Seimaibuai, or seimai buai, is the Japanese term for milling, describing how much of the rice grain is polished away or milled, which influences the sake's flavor. Some sake labels list a percentage number, referring to how much of the rice grain is left. Generally, the lower the percentage, the more the rice has been polished away, and the more elegant, refined and high-quality the sake. There are six main styles of sake: junmai has 70 percent remaining rice grain and no added distilled alcohol—the flavor is full, clean and well structured; honjozo has 70 percent residual rice grain and a small amount of added alcohol—it's light and mildly fragrant; junmai ginjo has 60 percent remaining rice grain and no distilled alcohol—the flavor is light, fruity and refined; ginjo has 60 percent residual rice grain plus added alcohol—the flavor is light, fruity, aromatic and refined; junmai dai ginjo or junmai daiginjo has 50 percent of the rice hull and no distilled alcohol—the flavor is complex, yet light and fragrant; and dai ginjo or daiginjo has 50 percent of the rice hull plus alcohol--a fragrantly light flavor with good complexity. When the word junmai appears alone or in combination with other descriptors, it means the sake has not been supplemented with distilled alcohol. The addition of alcohol is neither good or bad—it simply produces a slightly different sake, both in texture and in flavor. Because seishu is the legal name for sake, the word shu is officially added to sake terms, as in junami-shu or ginjo-shu. Futsuu-shu is sake that doesn't fit into one of the six previously listed sake categories. Most sake is filtered and clear, but the word nigori denotes sake that is unfiltered and slightly cloudy. Amakuchi describes sake that has a sweet flavor whereas karakuchi refers to one that's dry. Most sake is diluted with a small amount of water so that the alcohol level is 16 percent or less. The term genshu indicates the sake is undiluted and has an alcohol range of 17 to 19 percent. Sake typically is pasteurized twice; unpasteurized versions are labeled nama. Freshly brewed sake that has been stored in cedar tanks is called taru (cedar sake). If sake instead of water is added during the brewing process, the result is kijoshu (dessert sake). Though most sake is not aged longer than the fermentation cycle, koshu is a style specially produced to mature for years, and the sake yellows as it grows older. At one time it was traditional to serve sake warm, but today most premium sake is served either at room temperature or slightly chilled. Lower-end versions are often still warmed to obscure the flavor. Besides being a popular potable, sake is used in Japanese cooking, particularly in sauces and marinades. As with wine, sake begins to degrade as soon as it's opened. Tightly seal, store in the refrigerator and consume as soon as possible.