Saké—popularly called Japanese “rice wine”—isn’t wine. Saké is its own thing—a completely separate classification of an alcoholic beverage. “Saké isn’t some squirrelly Far Eastern variation on wine or beer,” said Chris Pearce, owner of World Saké Imports.
Saké is fermented rice: rice that’s been de-husked, polished, washed, soaked, steamed, worked on by enzymes, fermented with yeast and usually filtered and pasteurized. And that’s the short version of the saké brewing process.
There are close to 1,500 saké breweries (sakagura) in Japan and a handful in California and Oregon. These breweries produce many different styles of saké, with correspondingly different aromas and flavors. The types of rice, water and yeast used, as well as subtle or great differences in production methods, all contribute to the variations in saké.
The color of saké can be clear, faintly yellow, gold, amber or milky white. Aromas have been described by saké experts and writers, such as John Gaunter, Philip Harper and Beau Timken, as those of green apples, strawberries, melons, pears, honeysuckle, strawberries, chestnuts, bananas, floral and earthy.
Saké flavors incorporate some of the same descriptive terms as the aromas, and saké is often spoken of as either sweet or dry, with sourness and astringency present. Timken stresses that the sweetest sakés are never as sweet as a sweet wine. There are no sulfites present in saké, as in wine, and saké is stronger than wine, averaging 15 percent to 17 percent alcohol by volume. Some special sakés are 20 percent. Saké is also less acidic than wine.
“The ‘light and dry’ style of saké is giving way to full-flavored sakés,” Pearce said. “Saké brewers are going for a balance of sugars and acids.” Small, cutting-edge saké brewers in Japan are leading the way with new sakés.
As Americans learn more about saké, better quality styles have entered the U.S. market. Customers now know to order the best sakés served cold. More importers have appeared and bottle labeling has improved. Saké appreciation clubs have sprung up, such as the RKA Saké Club started by Benihana restaurant founder Rocky Aoki and his wife Keiko. Aoki calls saké “Water From Heaven,” which is also the title of his book on the subject.