Sake: The ancient art of rice wine

I remember when Hakusan Winery in Napa Valley started to make sak/. I thought to myself: That’s smart. How hard can it be to make wine from rice? And just think, no shipping charges from Japan!

It closed about four years ago. And, after researching sak/, I decided it’s no small wonder: Sak/ is not easy to make. However, Gekkeikan makes sak/ now in California. SakeOne, which produces the Momokawa and Moonstone brands is in Forest Grove, Ore. With the recent interest in sake, maybe Hakusan was just ahead of its time. While interest in sake is waning in Japan in favor of beer, it is gaining favor in the United States, possibly because of the popularity of Asian food. Also, since sak/ is made with rice, not grapes, sak/ has no sulfites. In addition sak/ has one-third the acidity of wine, so it is easier on the stomach.

Sak/ is made from four main ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji (an enzyme that converts starch into sugar and imparts that distinct flavor). This rice-based fermented alcoholic beverage is essentially brewed like beer. There are several styles of sake, from dry to sweet, and delicate to robust. Different sak/s pair well with different foods.

Since rice doesn’t have liquid like grapes, pure water is a key ingredient in sak/. Then, just as the best wines use the best grapes, the finest rice makes the premium sak/. Nine types of rice can be used. The best is Yamada Nishi Rice, from a specific region of Japan. Aficionados consider this rice the king of sak/ rice. It has a fragrant, well-blended, soft flavor. The other rice varieties differ in fragrance, earthiness, dryness, richness. The descriptions remind you of wine connoisseurs explaining the differences in finished wine.

The milling of the rice is the next step. The starches in rice that provide the best flavor are concentrated in the center of the rice grain. The Japanese term is shinpaku, or “white heart.” Around the outside are undesirable fat and proteins, which can deliver unpleasant flavors and aromas. This outside is polished away by gently rotating the rice grains against each other instead of grinding. Grinding could crack the grain, which would cause fermentation to proceed at different rates. The grains can be polished to as much as 80 percent. Polished sake rice resembles small translucent BBs with a white center.

Sak/ rice is brown short grain, almost round. Table rice does not make good sake, just as table grapes would make one-dimensional wine.

After polishing, the rice is washed and then soaked to bring up the water content before it is steamed. Part of the steamed rice is reserved for koji, which is a mold. Again we are reminded of the similarity to wine. Botrytis (called noble rot) is the mold that gives Sauternes wine many of its special taste characteristics. Koji mold is cultivated on a bed of steamed rice. As this occurs, some of the enzymes break down the rice’s starch molecules into smaller sugar molecules which are food for the yeast. Other enzymes release tendrils into the rice, which gives sake some of its special aromas and flavors.

Because koji is dependent upon proper temperature and humidity, some sak/ries make koji in a stainless steel tank, mixing the koji with metal paddles. The Oregon sak/ry has cedar-lined koji rooms, which look like very large saunas and have computer controls for temperature and humidity. The rice is placed on tables and turned by hand every four hours for four days.

Once the sak/ries have the steamed rice, the koji rice and water, if more koji rice is added to a batch, the batch has more layers of flavor and complexity. The sake is fermented slowly at cool temperature for about a month. This slow brewing retains the complex fruit and spice notes that would be lost if brewed too quickly. After the month of cool brewing, the sake is ready for filtration, pasteurization and aging. Just as wine has “lees” or grape skins and other solids remaining after fermentation, sake contains rice flour and other solids.

After filtering, sake is pasteurized to prevent secondary fermentation. Then the sake is aged from three months to a year, adding complexity and depth. After aging, the sake is pasteurized again and bottled.

Besides the different steps, the finished sak/ can have alcohol added. Alcohol helps extract flavor and aroma. This tends to be the cheaper sak/s.

I had a very rare sak/ in New York recently. Nobu, the famous Japanese restaurant, is the sole source of Hokusetsu sak/ in the United States. Owner Nobu Matsuhisa enjoyed this sak/ so much that he asked for exclusivity in the United States. The brewery has been in existence since 1886 on the Japanese Island of Sado. In 1993, it adopted the name Hokusetsu, which translates to “northern snow.” Hokusetsu produces a dry sak/ that has been awarded many coveted Japanese prizes.

I ordered it in a masu, which is the traditional square box. This was the traditional rice-measuring device, typically made from aromatic cedar, which imparts aromas to the sake. Good sake is always served chilled, mediocre sake can be served warm, which helps hide its defects. Like white wine, good sake should not be served too cold. If it is too cold, some flavors are masked. When serving white wine, I take it out of the refrigerator half an hour before serving.

There are more than 14,000 different sak/s produced by 1,800 sak/ries worldwide, primarily in Japan. The United States has five: four in California and one in Oregon. Sak/ is also made in Brazil, Australia, Vietnam, China and Korea. Sak/ originated in China, where sake-making implements have been discovered in the Yangtze River Valley dating back to 4800 BC.

Sak/ is easily found in your grocery store. Price is absolutely connected to quality in sak/.

Celebrity Sightings:

  • Tuk Tada, legendary manager of the south-end QFC, was shopping in the north-end QFC in mid-June. Longtime residents remember Tuk fondly. He says he is no longer playing golf, and his “little” grandsons? They’re in college!

  • Max Zellenger, who has recently moved onto the Island, holds a place in Washington State’s wine history. “I had my first crush of Washington grapes at the first winery I built at Franz Wilhelm Langguth Winery in Mattawa, in 1982. So this year will mark my 25th harvest,” said Zellenger. He was president of Associated Vintners, which became Corus Brands. Corus was the company that owned Columbia Winery, Paul Thomas, Covey Run, Ste. Chappelle and Sawtooth. He is still the Chief Operating Officer of Corus, which now owns Zefina, Alder Ridge and Six Prong of Washington state, Battle Creek of Oregon and Sawtooth of Idaho.

  • Chris Howell, winemaker for Cain Five, and his wife, Katie, were visiting his mom this month.

    Future Events:

    The Annual Auction of Washington Wines, which benefits Children’s Hospital, will be held at Chateau Ste. Michelle Aug. 16 to 18. Call 206-326-5754 for more information and tickets.

    Dee Hitch can be reached at

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