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The Basics of Sake

Written by Jennifer Jordan
Filed Under: Wine Types

Throughout history, there has been a legacy of delicious duos. Soup met crackers, peanut butter courted jelly, and ham was introduced to eggs. Recently, a new duo has joined the ranks of great culinary creations: sushi and sake. Move over wine and cheese, you've got competition.

Sake, while it is Japanese for "alcoholic beverage," has a more specialized meaning in America. Here, sake generally refers to a drink brewed from rice, more specifically, a drink brewed from rice that goes well with a rice roll. Some people even refuse to eat raw fish without this escort.

Sushi, as an entre, is something people either love or hate. For those who have never tried it, sushi can seem unappealing. Some people don't like the concept of eating raw fish, others aren't willing to try something new, and, naturally, some people fear a protest from the Little Mermaid. Whichever apprehension people have about sushi, the existence of sake has helped the raw fish industry; sushi must raise its glass in a toast. Sake, single handedly, has helped reel people into the raw fish craze.

Perhaps this is based on sake's natural ability to enhance sushi, or perhaps it's based on the fact that novices find it easier to eat raw fish once they are a tad tipsy. Whatever the reason, sake and sushi are a winning combination. But, of course, they aren't the only combination.

Like most wine, sake goes with more than one thing: sushi and sake are not in a monogamous relationship. Instead, sake is very versatile; it is able to be served alone, or with a variety of other foods. Some of these foods include Tempura, Chinese Food, and Yakitori.

The history of sake is not as cut and dry as the food it enhances; sake's past is not well documented and its existence is filled with ambiguities. There are, however, a great number of theories floating around. One theory implies that sake began in 4800 B.C. with the Chinese, when it was created along the Yangtze River and eventually exported to Japan. A completely different theory suggests that sake began in 300 A.D. when the Japanese began to cultivate wet rice. However it began, sake was deemed the "Drink of the God's," a title that gave it bragging rights over other types of alcohol.

In a page straight out of the "Too much information" book, sake was first made from people chewing rice, chestnuts, acorns, and millets and spitting the combination back out into a tub. The starches, when combined with enzymes from saliva, turned into sugar. Once combined with grain, this sugar fermented. The end result was sake.

In later years, saliva was replaced by a mold with enzymes that could also turn rice into sugar. This discovery undoubtedly helped pave the way for sake to become the item it is today. Yes, there is nothing quite like taking spit out of a product to help it flourish.
 

Sake: the Struggling Years

Though sake initially began to increase in quality and in popularity, it was dealt a hefty spill when World War II broke out. During this time, the Japanese government put restrictions on rice, using the majority of it for the war effort and lessening the amount allotted for brewing.

When the war concluded, sake began to slowly recover from its proverbial hang over and its quality began to rebound. But, by the 1960's, beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages posed competition and sake's popularity once again began to decline. In 1988, there were 2,500 sake breweries in Japan; presently, that number has been reduced by 1,000.

Sake, though it should be refrigerated, can be served in a variety of temperatures: cold, warm, or hot. In Japan, the temperature is usually dictated by the temperature outside: sake is served hot in the winter and cold in the summer. When consumed in the US, sake is typically served after it is heated to body temperature. More seasoned drinkers, however, prefer to drink it either at room temperature or chilled.

Unlike many other types of wine, sake does not age well: it is the Marlon Brando of the wine industry. It is typically only aged for six months and then should be consumed within a year. Sake is also higher in alcohol than most types of wine, with most types of sake having between a 15 and 17 percent alcohol content. The flavor of sake can range from flowers, to a sweet flavor, to tasting of, go figure, rice. It can also be earthy and the aftertaste can either be obvious or subtle.

Sake is one of those wines that some people really like, as they drink it like water and wear shirts that say, "Sake to Me." Others find it unappealing and would rather have a Merlot or a Pinot Noir. Whether it's loved or hated, no one can argue that sake doesn't possess a certain uniqueness. This alone makes it worth a sip. It really is an original; so just try it out, for goodness sake.