Episode 091 - Sake (Part I)

Episode 091 - Sake (Part I).JPG

What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Sake expert Lara Victoria ( Photo Credit: Blake Cowan )

Sake expert Lara Victoria (Photo Credit: Blake Cowan)

Welcome back to another episode of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!

This time around, we have a really special treat for you - a two-part crash course in Sake, which is one of those fermented beverages that’s part of our Western social consciousness, but not something most of us know a whole lot about.

Our guest, Lara Victoria, is a WSET certified educator in wine, spirits, and sake - that’s the Wine & Spirits Education Trust - and when you hear Lara talk about flavor and process, this deep knowledge really shines through. We give you a really good rundown of what that organization offers at the beginning of our interview because we’ve been getting an increasing amount of email questions about educational programs - so heads up to all the folks who are looking to get some certifications under their belts.

Featured Drink: The Sake Bomb

This week’s featured drink is - unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because we need to get this out of the way, because it’s a bit of an abomination amidst the cocktail community: the Sake Bomb.

Now, let’s be clear: we don’t think the sake bomb is an actual cocktail. It’s a bastardized boilermaker - aka a shot and a beer. Now, there’s really no need to post a formal “recipe” for a sake bomb, because it’s basically this:

You take a shot of sake, you drop it in your beer glass - preferably with a Japanese beer like Sapporo - and you chug.

Now, this...drink...which is absolutely not a cocktail...inhabits the same unfortunate space as the Irish Car Bomb, which is also somewhat relevant since St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t that long ago. But if you look closely, it’s a mild boilermaker - a shot and a beer.

( Photo Credit: Lara Victoria )

(Photo Credit: Lara Victoria)

And we say “mild” because sake is a fermented beverage, rather than a distilled one. So, where you’d usually sip a shot while drinking a beer, this is a drink you can merge and mingle because the ABV isn’t all that different between the two liquids. With the beer, you’re looking at about 8-10 oz o 5% alcohol, and with the shot, you’re looking at 1-2 oz of 15-18% alcohol.

Overall, the Sake Bomb is a bit of a novelty drink, where people who want to get silly pretend to be drinking actual spirits. And that’s cool if you want to get into the festivities of a white-washed hibachi session, but we chose the Sake Bomb as this week’s featured cocktail because we’re about to learn a bunch of things about sake that will encourage you to broaden your horizons and try sake both on its own and - next episode - as a targeted addition to really great craft cocktails.

Show Notes

At the beginning of the interview, we mention the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust), which is an organization whose business is education. Here are a few links to relevant resources here in the Washington, DC area and beyond.

You can use these resources to find educational opportunities in the wine, spirits, & sake world. Although some of the curricula are being revamped, there are generally four certification levels (I, II, III, & Diploma).

Contact Lara

You can get in touch with Lara to say hello or submit an inquiry about her educational, food styling, or wine/spirits/sake evaluation services.

What is Sake?

Sake is a fermented beverage made from rice. I differs significantly from beer and wine in both its production methods and flavor profile. It is lighter in acidity than most wines, and there are many different quality levels and classifications.

Sake Serivice Temperatures

Sake can be consumed chilled, room temperature, or warmed (see chart below for precise temperatures). One fun experiment to try is to sample a bottle of sake at all three service temperatures to learn how the flavor changes as the temperature varies. To warm sake, a hot water bath or tea light is typically employed, but there are also specialized sake warmers available online for less than $50. Although it is not ideal, you can also use a microwave to warm your sake in a pinch.

Sake Service Temperatures

Storing Your Sake

Sake has a longer shelf life than most wines. Rather than having to consume a bottle within a day or two of opening to avoid spoilage (like a wine), you can store your open bottle of sake at room temperature or in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks, which makes it a bit more flexible.

Sake Production


Lara Victoria - getting up close and personal with Koji.

Lara Victoria - getting up close and personal with Koji.

In order to break down the starches in rice into sugars that are accessible to yeast, the sake brewer (or Tōji) will employ a strain of aspergillus that creates important enzymes that eat away at the starches in the rice. This inoculated rice is called Koji, and it is responsible for a unique aspect of the sake making process: parallel fermentation.

The Magic of Parallel Fermentation

There are different types of koji that provide the yeast with different access to sugar, so depending on the Tōji’s desired fermentation length and heat, an appropriate strain of koji can be selected. Once the koji is added to the rice mash, it works in parallel with the yeast, with both chemical processes taking place in tandem to generate alcohol, carbon dioxide, heat, and flavor.

Sake Grades & Classifications

Sake is broken down into various classifications based on two primary factors:

  1. The extent to which the rice is polished before production and

  2. Whether or not distilled alcohol is added to create the end product

Junmai Sake

Any sake that does not contain added distilled alcohol, it is called Junmai. This is not necessarily a classification that refers to quality - it’s merely a term used to designate one aspect of the production methods.

Sake Grades

Most rice used to make sake is polished to remove the outer husk that contains problematic proteins and other compounds that can hinder fermentation. The more the rice is polished, the higher the grade.

Honjozo - At least 30% of the rice must be polished away before production.
Ginjo - At least 40% of the rice must be polished away before production
Daiginjo - At least 50% of the rice must be polished away before production

Although the level of polish will affect bottle price, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the end product - merely the style. It is also worth noting that Honjozos, Ginjos, and Daiginjos can all either be classified as Junmai or non-Junmai.