Welcome to Alcoholic Geography, Playboy.com’s monthly attempt to educate you, our loyal readers, on the finer points of where your favorite poisons originate and the natural topography that inspires a distinct adventure for your seasoned tastes.
When we whisked readers away to Scotland last month for a tour of the Highlands, Lowlands and islands in order to give you a taste of how regional geography serves to influence the flavor of whisky, it was but a mere reintroduction to the well-known scotch brands you have grown to love, such as Aberlour, Glenfiddich and Glenlivet.
In today’s lesson, we’re shaking things up a bit as we delve into the largely unknown world of sake and it’s native home of Japan. While most of us here in the U.S. associate sake drinking with a night out at a Japanese teppanyaki or sushi joint, sake, like grape-derived wine, can range in quality from corner-store (most commonly found in quantity at all-you-can-eat/drink restaurants) to the exclusive and expensive varietals accompanying your Bluefin maguro sashimi or that precision-cut piece of fugu (delicately de-toxined blowfish).
Sake, the term most Westerners use to refer to fermented Japanese rice wine, is actually the Japanese word for any beverage containing alcohol; what we call “sake” is known as “nihonshu.” So if you do find yourself asking for the light liquor in the Far East, make sure to ask for it properly or you may be handed a refreshing Asahi or Sapporo draft instead.
Sake is produced by fermenting rice and water with microorganisms such as sake yeast and koji mold. While regular “table” or “sushi” rice could in theory be used for this method, to be formally called “sake” the quality of rice used must be a highly milled premium variety known as “sakamai.” This variety features soft, large grains but is more expensive due to its limited growing areas and difficult cultivation requirements.
A noticeable feature of the different varietals below is the use of different sources of water. Few would assume that the local stream would provide such a distinction, but in fact the hardness of the water and natural minerals and elements contained within actually has a fair amount to do with the flavor produced. While some breweries favor semi-hard water due to lower manganese and iron content, the mixture of ground water with Japan’s high amounts of precipitation allows for a stable taste in most producing regions.
Following the milling of the selected harvested rice to the level known as “seimai-buai,” the rice is washed and soaked before being steamed in large vats once it has absorbed the optimal amount of water. Following this, the koji mold cultures are added and allowed to grow. Once the key amount of mold has been reached, the rice is introduced to more water along with a yeast mixture and heat is applied, beginning the fermentation process. To complete the process, the mixture is filtered to remove stray mold and rice and bottled for consumption.
Below are the five most famous regions for sake production in Japan, based on overall production, quality and age of their breweries.
The Region: Nada, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture
Flavor: Dry, sturdy flavor. Very balanced but less aromatic in smell. Bold and masculine.
Notes: Almost one third of all sake production in Japan is based around Kobe due to preferable water and shipping routes.
The Region: Fushimi, Momoyama, Kyoto Prefecture
Flavor: Very feminine and softer flavored. Sweet and slightly fragrant; delicate taste but formal and elegant.
Notes: Geikkeikan brewers are one of the largest brewers of sake in the world.
The Region: Niigata Prefecture
Flavor: Very clean and mild in taste. Exceptionally dry and refined flavor.
Notes: The taste of Niigata sake is heavily influenced by the combination of cold snow, good quality sakamai and clear mountain water.
The Region: Akita Prefecture
Flavor: Balanced, with a distinct tight flavor. Exceptionally good rice varieties.
Notes: Coal miners developing the region led to the current sake industry.
The Region: Hiroshima Prefecture
Flavor: Soft but subtle flavor, midly sweet overtones. Very clean.
Notes: Extremely soft water in this region produces the light and airy texture of this region's sake. Hiroshima's leading technological developments have contributed to the refinement of flavor in this region.