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Sake 101 for the Sake Virgin

I recently had the pleasure of attending a sake tasting in the Food Network Kitchens hosted by Timothy Sullivan, a “Sake Samurai” and founder of UrbanSake.com. I think I was likely the least educated about sake at the table — I was a total sake virgin. Thankfully, Timothy had some great takeaways to make sake more approachable for someone like me.

Sake: It’s More Like Beer Than Wine

When Timothy asked if we thought sake was more comparable to beer, wine or spirits, I voted for wine. But it turns out, sake is more like beer. Both beer and sake are made from fermented grains and need a brewing process to convert starch to sugar (whereas with wine, the sugar comes from the grapes). In the case of sake, the grain used happens to be rice.

To quote Timothy: “It’s built like a beer but drinks like a wine.”

It Takes a Grid to Understand Sake

Well, this tip doesn’t exactly make sake seem that approachable. But Timothy’s grid actually demystifies sake and will help you understand how to order it in a restaurant.

Across the columns of the grid are the two styles of sake: fortified vs. pure rice style. As indicated, the fortified style has distilled alcohol added to the product whereas the pure rice style does not.

The rows of the grid are created by taking into account how much milling of the sake rice was done before steaming and brewing take place. The less milling, the more the drink has a “rice” taste to it. That’s not necessarily bad; it’s just a fact.

And where the row and grid meet, you find what that type of sake is called. That should help you understand what those terms mean when you see them on a menu. You can find out more about the grid and what each type of sake is like on Tim’s site.

The Most Common Sake in Japan Isn’t Even Available in the U.S.

Futsu-shu — a minimally-milled, fortified style sake — is the most common type of sake found in Japan. It’s very affordable and is usually the “house sake”. This style makes up about 80% of all sake made in Japan, but it’s rarely exported as the profit margin is so low.

Sake Will Knock You on Your Ass

If you’re not careful, that is. Most sake has an alcohol percentage of between 15 and 16%. This is significantly higher than most beers (though some craft beers do get up there). So drink with caution.

Oh, And Don’t Warm It Up

Unless you want to. Timothy believes there is a sake that will shine at any temperature — warmed, room temperature or chilled. It’s important, though, to start with a quality product. A good sake will taste good regardless of how you serve it. He does warn, though, that sake in the U.S. is often served too hot: “There’s warming and then there is sake abuse.”

Sake: It’s All About Experimentation

Remember how I said most sake is between 15-16%? Well lately, sake makers have been mixing it up and creating lower alcohol sakes, in addition to fruit-flavored sakes, cloudy sakes, sparkling sakes — there are so many styles to try, you’ve just got to jump in and give it a go.

A great place to start? Timothy’s website, UrbanSake.com. He does a Tuesday Q&A that’s a great resource. You can also submit your own questions and see if he’ll answer.

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