My first taste of Saké was many years ago, in a Japanese restaurant. It was an ounce or two, served warm in a small ceramic cup, slightly sweet with a good hit of alcohol.

Back then, I never paid any attention to what brand or style it was, or even that there was a style or brand. I thought saké was just saké; since, I have had the opportunity to experience many different types of saké, and have come to appreciate the variety of styles and flavor profiles.

Saké has been around for more than 1,000 years and is very much a part of Japanese culture. There are more than 1,800 breweries in Japan producing about 10,000 different saké. Like wine, saké can have complex aromas and flavors, and they are great with food; unlike wine, saké is not aged and doesn’t have a specific terroir. However, factors like the type of rice and local water conditions have a huge impact on the quality and flavor of the finished product.

During the last few years, saké has been growing in popularity. While saké served warm is still popular, much of the growth is in premium styles and it is preferred that it be consumed chilled. There are so many different types and various styles of saké that it can be overwhelming if you are new to this delicious, and often misunderstood, beverage.

What follows is a simplified explanation of saké, how it is made and the main types of premium styles.

Not Rice Wine

Saké is a fermented alcoholic beverage made with rice, water, koji mold and yeast. It’s not a rice wine, and it’s not a distilled spirit. At about 16% alcohol, it’s not that much more than the alcohol in wine, but far less than in distilled spirits. Saké can be sweet, it can be dry, and it can be anywhere in between.

Saké is very food friendly. Saké lovers consider it better then wine when it comes to complementing the umami flavors in food. Along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter, Umami refers to the savory taste. Foods like fish, shellfish, cured meats, cheese, mushrooms, spinach and cabbage are among the list of umami flavors.

How It’s Made

The rice is milled to remove the outer coating and expose the starchy core. Saké style and quality is determined by the milling of the rice. The more of the outer coating that is removed, the purer the flavors.

The grains are then washed, soaked and steamed to bring out the starches. Next, Koji mold is mixed in to change the starches into sugars. Yeast and lactic acid are added next to begin fermentation, which can take from about 20 to 30 days. The saké is then pressed to separate any unfermented grains, filtered and pasteurized. Finally, water is added to lower the alcohol content, from 20% down to 16%, before it is bottled.

Saké Styles

With the variety of saké styles, a presentation of the main options will suffice, to avoid confusion. This will give you more than enough information to appreciate the tastes and versatility saké offers.

There are two major categories to remember, Junmai and Honjozo. Junmai is saké brewed with rice, water and koji mold. Honjozo is saké brewed with rice, water, koji mold with the addition of distilled alcohol. From here, the percentage of the milling of the outer coating of the rice determines the style.

For saké that is designated just Junmai or Honjozo, the rice is milled 30% with 70% of the grain remaining. Junmai is typically full-bodied and earthy, while Honjozo is lighter and dry, with some minerality. Next are Junmai Ginjo and Honjozo Ginjo. Here the rice is milled 40% with 60% of the grain remaining. Junmai Ginjo is typically medium-bodied, with a variety of fruit and floral notes. Honjozo Ginjo is light-bodied, aromatic and fruity.

At the top are Junmai Daiginjo and Honjozo Daiginjo. Here the rice is milled 50% leaving 50% of the grain remaining. Junmai Daiginjo is light-bodied with complex fruit and floral notes. Honjozo Daiginjo is light, smooth and aromatic.

There are many other variations of saké. One more notable offering is Nigori Saké, which is only partially filtered, leaving some of the starches and koji sediment in the liquid. This saké is typically cloudy, fruity and sweet. There is also a category of normal or table saké. These are often served warm and used in cooking.

A Few to Try

Tozai “Living Jewel” Junmai Saké: Aromas and flavors of pear, melon, kiwi and coconut with a light, yeasty note. Medium dry and fruity. Enjoy with tempura, sushi and spicy Asian dishes. It’s priced around $12.

Rihaku “Wandering Poet” Junmai Ginjo Saké: Loaded with aromas and flavors of banana and honeydew melon, this medium-bodied saké is crisp and fruity, with an herbal note on the finish. Great with tough to pair vegetables like asparagus, broccoli and artichokes. It runs in the upper teens.

Konteki “Tears of Dawn” Daigonjo Saké: Does have a little distilled alcohol added that opens up the aromatics. Lush aromas and flavors of banana, anise and truffle with a smooth, velvety finish. Pair with braised pork ribs or raw oysters. Its priced in the low $20s.

Tozai “Snow Maiden” Junmai Nigori Saké: Aromas and flavors of honeydew melon, pear, apple and honey with a hint of almond. The bright and fresh palate is a combination of rice and fruity sweetness. Full-bodied and creamy. Enjoy with spicy dishes or a spicy tuna roll. Try it with light desserts. It costs around $12.

However, this information barely scratches the surface of the wide world of saké. Whether you just enjoy a warm glass at your favorite sushi restaurant or dive in and start sampling the wide variety of styles available, it’s worth the trip. Cheers.

Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis; and holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].