Tuesday, February 13, 2007

For goodness sake

If you forget everything else you learn tonight, remember this word: "ginjo" - or so spake John Gauntner, sake guru, last night. "Ginjo," that would be Japanese for premium sake (actually, make that 'super-premium sake' - which, if you really want to know, makes up only 6% of all sake produced). John is the sake guy. No really, he is. And he really knows his stuff.

I signed up for this class thinking: I like sake, but I never have any idea what I'm ordering or why and wouldn't it be nice to have a clue? In 2 hours, John gave me more than a clue - for instance, according to John, 90% of the time sake is "fairly priced" - meaning that 90% of the time you are going to get what you pay for. As I know, unfortunately all too well, this is decidedly not the case when choosing wine.

And what about this? Sake is made from rice. Yeah, yeah, you knew that. Did you know that the rice has to be milled before the sake can be brewed - and that the more grain that is milled (ground away), the more expensive the sake will be? And, even though all sake is made from rice, there are really two kinds of premium sake - those made from rice and ONLY rice, and those made with distilled alcohol. And, the rice-only sakes are called Junmai. And, whether a sake is Junmai or not is relatively immaterial to selecting a sake - so that's one word I can jettison when attempting to make sense of a sake list.

Sake comes in grades (based on, you guessed it, how much rice is milled away). The words I did learn and remember are the different grades (John has a great and simple chart of all this):

  • Daiginjo -- generally the top of the food chain in sake )at least 50% and as much as 65% of the rice is milled away)
  • Ginjo -- one step below Daiginjo
  • Junmai-shu and Honjozo-shu -- the bottom of the premium sake food chain
  • Tokubetsu -- a special type of Junmai-shu... that I really liked, especially Suigei ("Drunken Whale")
There are 1600 sake brewers in Japan - somewhat overwhelming when you can't even read the label. But, on the flip side, find a few you like (John's not-lists are a good start) - and chances are you'll like their sake in every grade.

If you have questions, want to learn a little something, or are just a tad curious about sake - John Gauntner's site is a great place to start.

Oh, and the other thing he said to remember? Drink what you like - don't worry about the grade. Now don't you wish your parents had told you the same thing growing up?

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