I used to hang out with a Shingon Buddhist monk named The Venerable Daijo. The man was a veritable fountain of information on incense, the tea ceremony, and other Japanese customs. I was part of a small group that was fortunate enough to be able to study under him for a couple of years while he was here in the United States. We learned about some of the history of the monks. Take the Vajra for example. It was a nasty looking little brass weapon that fit over your hand, sort of like a set of brass knuckles. In wartime it was used like a handy skull opener. The Shingons were also the ones who attempted to mummify themselves while they were still alive. They attempted this through extreme dehydration and getting rid of the bacteria in their bodies by drinking a combination of pine tar, arsenic, and a preservative found in lacquer. That was several thousand years ago, today the drink of choice is sake, and in Daijo’s case, a little Guinness on the side never hurt.
Sake was first brewed in Japan after the practice of wet rice cultivation was introduced, probably around 300 B.C. Sake is traditionally referred to as “rice wine” because it is fermented and typically has between 15 and 20 percent alcohol. In some ways it is more like beer because it is made from grain, not fruit, and requires an extra step in its fermentation. The basic process involves “polishing” or milling the rice kernels. Most of the starch that is needed for fermentation is in the heart of the kernel and that has to be broken down into simpler sugars before the process can begin. Early on, the entire village would chew the rice and then spit it into a large tub. This removed the chaff and the enzymes from the saliva broke down the starch. This practice was discontinued when it was discovered that yeast and Koji (a mold enzyme and the same one used to make soy sauce) could be used instead of the spit.
Sake with just the ingredients of rice, water, yeast, and Koji is called junmai. There are some 60 varieties of rice that is used to make sake. But unlike grape varieties, sake is categorized by how much you mill the rice. In junmai the rice is milled to 70 percent of its original size. With junmai ginjo only 60 percent of the grain remains and junmai daiginjo has 50 percent left. The more the rice is milled, the better the Sake. There are also a lot of other classifications and subcategories that can get a bit confusing, so the best thing to do is to try several high quality varieties and see which ones you like the best. Some Japanese restaurants will let you try several samples, so that might be a more economical way to go.
Some people say that a good rule of thumb is that the better sake is beat served cold while you heat the cheaper ones. This is really all a matter of personal taste, though some of the rougher tasting ones can get a little smoother when heated. A lot of times the serving temperature recommendation is listed on the bottle. Most of the better sake served in restaurants is chilled. I personally think that heating makes the cheap ones makes them taste a little like rubbing alcohol.
Sake can be served in the traditional Japanese-style cups, martini glasses, or wine glasses. The traditional ones include the sakazuki ( flat saucer-like cup), ochoko (small cylindrical cup), and masu (wooden box-like cup). Many restaurants prefer the wine glasses because they concentrate the delicate flavor of the finer sake in a smaller area.
Last year at the St. Louis Japanese Festival, which is one of the largest in the country, there was a sake ritual at the opening ceremony. Sake for about 600 was served from a giant wooden barrel as a salute to our sister city in Japan. Daijo would have been proud.