Saké To Me

By Chris Maybroda.

Rice, water, yeast, and Koji. These are the four ingredients that make up the unique, magical, and sometimes mysterious beverage called saké.

Honeydew melon, anise, passion fruit, mushroom, magnolia flowers. These are some of the unique aromas and flavours that you will find in premium saké.

It is both incredibly complex and beautiful in its simplicity.

Let’s make something very clear; this article is focused on premium saké, and the quality and complexity that can be found there. I promise, it’s not that you don’t like saké, it’s that you don’t like bad saké.

Premium saké (pronounced sak-eh — like Canada, eh) is made from four ingredients only; rice, water, yeast, and a special starter mold called Koji, which breaks down starch molecules into sugar, so that the yeast can do its fermentation magic. That kind of purity comes with some wonderful side benefits. Premium saké is sulphite-free, gluten-free, and in Japan they say that you know you were drinking good saké the night before because you don’t feel it the next day.

Saké is brewed in a Kura, a saké brewery, by a Toji, a master brewer with decades of experience. It is not a simple fermentation like wine, and is not distilled in any way. It is a process of multiple parallel fermentations where the starch–to-sugar, and sugar-to-alcohol take place at the same time. This process imparts saké with the highest alcohol content (16-20 per cent) of any non-distilled beverage.

Generic table saké, or Futsu-shu,
can have copious amounts of distilled alcohol added as an inexpensive way to increase volume. Premium ginjo saké may only use tiny amounts of added alcohol to enhance fragrance and flavour. Also, there are no minimum rice milling requirements for Futsu-shu so there is less opportunity to let the rice express itself as it would in a true premium crafted saké.

This is what I really love about saké; it offers a range of flavours that wine just doesn’t have. It is quite often the perfect partner for what’s for dinner; soups, salads, spice, steak, swordfish, smoked salmon and a whole lot of other ‘s’ words that are not sushi. (For the record it works with non ‘s’ dishes as well).

At New York’s Le Bernardin restaurant, for example, you will always find a selection of saké because wines only cover a certain range of flavours, and both the chef and wine director realized they were limiting their guests‘ pairing experience by not offering it. Some keen Edmonton restaurants have taken note as well, so look for it.

Hot vs. chilled. When you heat generic table saké, you cover up many of the negative flavours. With premium saké, you generally want to drink it chilled to allow those wonderful complex aromas to really shine. And while you are at it, drink it from a wine glass. Wine glasses are designed to enhance flavours; let them do the same thing for your saké.

All rice is not created equal, and this is especially true for premium saké rice. Saké rice is not like table rice. It is larger, softer, with a higher starch content and lower fat and protein content. That starch is visibly concentrated in the centre of the grain, the start of premium saké’s complexity. The outside of premium saké rice is milled away, and saké is graded and classified by what’s left. Think of the rice like a bullseye: the more of the outside layer you take away and the closer you get to the starch centre, the more delicate and complex flavours truly start to come through.

Terms to start you on your saké journey


If you remember one word, this should be it! This is the starting point for Premium saké. This word on a bottle means that the brewer has milled away the outside of the rice grain until 60 per cent of the rice remains, allowing the more delicate and interesting notes to be expressed.


This term is used when there is no additional alcohol added to the saké. A Toji may add a bit of brewers alcohol to enhance certain aspects of the saké. If you see the word Junmai you know this has not been done. These types of saké have a more pure rice flavour. A Junmai Ginjo is a saké that has 60 per cent or less of the rice grain remaining and has not had any additional alcohol added.

Dai Ginjo

The pinnacle of the brewmasters art, the rice is milled down to 50 per cent or less. They are amazingly complex, elegant, and intensely aromatic. A Junmai Dai Ginjo is a saké that has 50 per cent or less of the rice grain remaining and has not had any additional alcohol added.


Roughly filtered cloudy saké. Less filtering creates a creamy texture and tropical notes that are ideal with spicy foods.

Premium saké

Umi Blu Ginjo (60 per cent) Yoshi No Gawa Brewery, Niigata, Japan

This ginjo is a new release from the Yoshi No Gawa brewery, established in 1548. Smells like tropical fruit punch Jello. Mango, pineapple, and passion fruit pop out of the glass. The taste reflects the nose along with good acidity and a pure, clean finish. A pretty luminescent blue bottle, too. Put a couple of these stunning blue bottles on your table and serve teriyaki grilled salmon or honey-glazed ham.

Toko Junmai Ginjo (55 per cent) Toko Brewery, Yamagata, Japan

This brewery is actually located inside the saké museum in Yamagata, Japan and is over 400 years old. Smells like freshly steamed rice, which is very typical of a junmai saké, cotton candy and vanilla. You really taste the sweetness of the rice. The flavours last making this saké a good choice with strongly seasoned dishes. This brewery also has a ginjo in the market which makes for a cool experiment if you want to try a ginjo and junmai ginjo with all things being equal except the ginjo has some alcohol added to accent different flavours.

Dassai 50 Junmai Dai Ginjo (50 per cent) Asahi Shuzo Brewery, Yamaguchi, Japan

Asahi Shuzo brewery is the rock star of the saké world in Japan. This brewery only produces top end Junmai Dai Ginjo. It smells like extraordinarily concentrated, rich and ripe melons, apples, pears and apricots. Chill this saké, bring out the good wine glasses and drink it with oysters, or brie, or even with hearty dishes such as chicken parmesan or beef wellington.

G Junmai Ginjo Genshu (60 per cent) Saké One Brewery, Oregon

This brewery may be located in Oregon but it does everything in the traditional Japanese way. If you really need to drink your saké warm, (I don’t blame you, this is Edmonton in the winter) this is the saké for you, as it is big and bold enough to not lose its character. It’s a genshu, which means the saké remains at undiluted alcohol strength of 18 per cent. It is bold, robust, dry — great with ribs, lamb, rich cheeses.

Momokawa Pearl Junmai Ginjo Genshu Nigori (60 per cent) Saké One Brewery, Oregon

Nigori Saké is a creamy, roughly filtered traditional saké. It tastes like a beach cocktail—melons, banana and coconut with a slightly sweet finish, ideal with Thai curries as it is the perfect drink to cut the heat. Keep a second bottle for dessert because it would be in good company with chocolate and strawberries, too.

Saké missionary Chris Maybroda of Blue Note Wine & Spirits is one of a dozen certified saké specialists across the country, and the sole specialist based in Edmonton. He is always happy to answer your saké questions at