For Goodness SakeSake sometimes feels like one of those things that’s just too complicated to come to grips with, like jazz, the rules of cricket or Ottolenghi recipes. But it’s really not. But what it might just be is the next big thing. So welcome to Sake 101, Harvey Nichols style…

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Sake definition
Sake is the generic Japanese name for all alcoholic drinks, so when we say sake in the UK, what we actually mean is nihonshu – Japanese rice wine. This is important for two reasons: if you travel to Tokyo and ask a bartender for a sake, she’s going to look at you strangely. Also, it flags up that what we call sake is in fact rice wine, i.e. it’s fermented like a wine, not distilled like a spirit. This means it’s lower in alcohol than a spirit, and is often treated in much the same way as wine. It trumps wine, though, when it comes to those with a sensitivity to sulphites and tannins; sake usually contains neither of those things.

What is sake?

Sake is primarily made from four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji. Together, these are brewed into what looks like a porridge. Rice may be the famous bit, but koji is what makes the magic happen. To give it its Latin name, aspergillus oryzae is cooked rice inoculated with fermentation cultures that grow into a good kind of mould. It breaks down the starch in rice and turns it into sugar. Without this miracle fungus, we would have no mirin, soya sauce, miso, rice vinegar or sake. So let’s take a moment to be thankful for koji.

How is Japanese rice wine categorised?

Japanese rice wine can be divided into two categories: Tokutei meisho-shu (premium sake) and Futsu-shu (table sake). Here at Harvey Nichols, we love the finer things in life, so are primarily concerned with the former, although wonderful examples of the latter do exist. Tokutei meisho-shu can be broken down into two types: Junmai, the most highly prized, is made from just the four key ingredients. Then there’s non-Junmai, which tends to have an additional ingredient, brewer’s alcohol. This sounds like it might make things harsher, but the opposite is true. Although alcohol is added, the sake is then watered down to compensate, making it lighter and smoother, and often a great entry point for the uninitiated.

How does rice become sake?

Then we get back to the all-important rice. Sake rice starts as brown rice, with the starch centred in the core of the grain. Surrounding that are all the fats, vitamins and proteins. These bits give sake a more rustic, umami and rice-y flavour. So the grains are milled or polished to whittle them down to just starch. The more you polish, the cleaner, brighter, and more delicate and aromatic the final sake. The name ginjo denotes that the rice has been highly polished. If you see daiginjo, this means that it has been extremely highly polished, so less than 50% of each grain remains.

Although sake is more like a wine than a spirit, one similarity it shares with its higher-alcohol cousins is that the more you pay, the smoother and more refined it gets. So if you are looking to try for the first time, jump in nearer the deep end with the more expensive expressions, because they can often be far more approachable.

To make choosing sake simpler, our expert buyers have made some selections below: