We had a brief introduction to sake when we were in Vancouver (this blog will get there in the Throwback posts soon), but like most people we knew very little about it. And we knew nothing at all about shochu.
The name sake is itself a bit of an error, as sake just means alcohol. Everyone knows that it is generally used to refer to the Japanese rice wine, but if we want to be correct, we should refer to it as nihonshu. Doing so is almost guaranteed to get you a broad smile from your Japanese bartender.
The other thing bound to get you a smile - and quite possibly a free drink or two - is knowing a bit about the different types. I guess so many of us foreigners just come in and ask for sake, that they find it quite refreshing if you've bothered to learn a bit about it and know the names to ask for.
Nihonshu is made by fermenting rice that has first been polished to remove the outer part. The more the grain is polished, the more starch is removed, and the purer- and more expensive - the resulting drink is. The top level, with at least fifty per cent of the grain polished away, is Daiginjo;the next, with forty percent gone, is Ginjo, and then the more basic, with just thirty percent discarded, is often just cared nihonshu, or honjozo.
Then there is a question of whether they add any distilled (or brewers) alcohol during the process. This can be a good thing, and we had some very nice ones where it was included, but often, it is added to lower quality wines to pack it out, so generally it is not as sought after. If the wine is pure, with no added alcohol, the description will include the word Junmai.
Of course, being me, I liked the most expensive one best, the Junmai Daiginjo. Nic however, took quite a liking to the Nigorizake, which is cloudy, because they do not filter out all of the rice sediment.
Then there is Namazake, which is unpasteurized, so has a very short shelf life and must be kept in the fridge, and Tamazake, which has been aged in wood, so has a stronger, smokier flavour.
It can be sweeter (amazake) or dry, it can be light and fresh, or aged and full bodied, and it can be served cold or hot. The style of the drink varies depending on where in Japan it was made, and even on the season that it is intended to be drunk during.
Connoisseurs will tell you that there are only certain types to drink, but in reality, like most drinks, it is just a question of what you personally prefer. We enjoyed trying as many as possible.
Then there is shock. In a Japanese bar, the nihonshu will normally be in the fridge, so when you see all of the bottles lined up the shelf, they are usually shochu. And in Japan, shochu is just as, if not more, popular than nihonshu.
Shochu is a distilled spirit, usually only about 25% strength, that can be made from a variety of products. Some of the most popular are rice, barley and sweet potato, but we tried one made from brown sugar, and there are a number of other varieties.
It can be drunk neat, with ice, with water, or it can be the base of a pretty good cocktail. If you're in Japan, give it a go.