Masa Masterclass: A Primer on Sake

First Republic Bank
May 14, 2021

Please note, the content of this webinar is suitable for those over the age of 21.

Masa Beverage Director Jonathan Charnay will describe the various styles of Japanese sake and teach you how to distinguish regional differences. By offering suggestions for conventional and non-conventional food pairings, he hopes to open taste buds to the wonderful wide world of Japanese sake.

Read below for a full transcript of the conversation. 

Sophia Smith -  Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us. It's a pleasure to welcome you here today. We're thrilled to welcome Jonathan Charnay, Beverage Director Masa Restaurants for Masa Restaurants. So before I turn the call over to Jonathan, he'll take some questions at the end of today's session. And as a quick housekeeping note, you can put those questions into the Q&A box by using the button on your screen. Jonathan, we're so excited to have you here today and please take it away.

Jonathan Charnay- Hello, I'm very excited to be with you, and we are going to talk about sake today. And here we are at Bar Masa which is next door to the famous Masa Restaurant, and I have a selection of sakes for you. As you probably know, sake is becoming very hot right now and it's a beautiful category of new drinks that you can have with food pretty much like wine, and so here we have four different styles. The first one is what we call Nigori or unfiltered sake. As you can see, it's a little cloudy, and it looks a little bit like milk. So this kind of sakes are unfiltered and they're full of flavor, and I would say is the perfect sake to start when you're a beginner. Most people love Nigori sake. It is very beautiful, not only to look at but also has a beautiful texture, a little bit like skimmed milk in terms of the density on your palette, but it tastes like tropical fruit. It's really beautiful, and you can pair this with many different foods. Now, when you go into sashimi and more delicate fish, you need to go to sakes that are less dense than this, and a bit more elegant. The next one is something that you can have with fish and it's Junmai. So this June mine is called a Red Label and it's a beautiful expression of sake. Junmais are very interesting and much more clear as you can see, but it's a more modern style of sake. Junmai is pure in Japanese, and that refers to the fact that back in the day to preserve the sake, they added a neutral spirit. Today, for Junmais, we don't add a neutral spirit. It's just the pure expression of the rice, the Koji, and the yeast. This is something more complex than the previous one, and here we have more umami characters, so you get a little bit of earthiness, a little bit of mushroom, a little bit of toastiness, which makes it perfectly . So again, this is the Junmai.Next, we're going to go to the next level of quality, and as this is a Daiginjo, this is my personal favorite. So this is called Kirinzan and it comes from Niigata. The Niigata is a prefecture in Japan that's really famous for the water. They have very soft water which makes beautiful sake. As you can see, the color for this sake, Daiginjo is much lighter. If you were to compare the Junmai with a Daiginjo, you'll see that the Junmai is a little more golden in color, the Daiginjo is much more clear, very pristine. So this is a very old-style of making sake. As I was saying before for the Daiginjo, they add neutral spirits which of course comes from rice. It does not mean the alcohol level of the sake is higher, simply means that the neutral spirit concentrate the flavors and precepts the sake, As you can imagine back in the day before the sakes were pasteurized, and they needed to preserve it for traveling and throughout the year.

So the flavor of the sake is much more full body, so if you were to compare this with wine, I would say this is more like a bold, full body wine. And so Daiginjo sake is better with fried food with beef, When you beef it's excellent with this type of sake. Any food that's richer, you want to pair with this kind of sake, and this is the Daiginjo is from Niigata. And last, we're going to taste the highest category in sake, which is the Junmai Daiginjo. As I said before, Junmai refers to pure in the sense that this kind of sakes do not have any added neutral spirit. So this Junmai Daiginjo is called Minowamon, and it comes from Fukushima. As with the previous sake, here we have something that's more pristine and as quality goes up, so does the purity of the sake. Not only the color is very bright, but really a ethereal. Also the flavors are very, very pure. For this style of sakes, you have a polishing of the rice that goes to a larger extent. They go to the very core of the rice to get rid of more than 50% of the mass of each grain of rice So the rice become, when you go through the very core, becomes a canvas, a white canvas, where you can actually paint this beautiful picture with a yeast and the type of rice. And of course the water, which is very important in sake. So for the Jew, Junmai Daiginjos, you have a sake that's all about purity. Is a very perfumey, and you get more floral aromas and also the aromas and flavors are very precise. This is a Minowamon Junmai Daiginjo in Fukushima. A really beautiful style of sake. Now, Junmai Daiginjo is what I would have with sushi. I would suggest this kind of sakes that are more light and fine to raw fish. So sashimi, if you have Japanese sort of Japanese tuna, right? Bluefin tuna to this kind of sake is just divine. It's so perfect. It's just the purity of flavor, and the intensity of the flavor is just unparalleled. And so I'm tasting all this sakes in wineglasses, it's better for the appreciation of the sake, but normally we go very traditional here at Masa. We use these beautiful bamboo cups, and so the whole experience is a bit more traditional, and reminiscent of Japan, and it's all about nature. So these beautiful bamboo cups are made for Chef Masa in Japan. But when you go to the very high end sakes, this is the traditional glass you would use in Japan to enjoy Junmai Daiginjos. So for instance, this Minowamon we just tasted, I would serve in this glass, and this is the way you would enjoy it in Japan. And it's also the way we serve it at Masa. The core is smaller, and it keeps the temperature of the sake, which in this case could be very cold, similar to a white one. Now, a lot of people always ask me, when do you drink sake warm and when do you drink it cold? And it's all about the level of quality. So this more high-end sake Junmai Daiginjo tend to be more delicate, so when you warm this sake, you raise the temperature but you also get rid of some of the esters, some of the aromas of the sake.

And so it becomes more dull, so this kind of high-end sakes a very delicate and I would not recommend to this have warm On the other hand, something like this, Junmai or the Honjozo style which is another entry level style of sake, are really nice one that warm. The warm sort of like, brings more aromas out of the sake and intensifies the flavors. This type of sakes are made with the rice that is almost whole, the grain of rice has not been polished that much. So you get a little more umami, a little more intense flavors but sometimes when you warm it up it releases some other aromas that are more delicate. So this kind of sake goes really well when it's warm, and I would recommend to do a Junmai like this if you want to enjoy your sake warm. Going back to the first category, the unfiltered sake or Nigori, you going to find very different styles. So this particular one is for Koikawa and it's a dry Nigori. However, there are many other styles of Nigori. Some of them are more fruit-forward, more tropical and even a little sweeter. I prefer the Nigori when it's dry because it goes better with food. However, if you pick something that's more food-forward and a little sweet, it's perfect on its own. So I would definitely grab a sweeter style of Nigori and go to central park and enjoy it. The good thing is, this kind of bottles are all screw cap, so you don't need it wine opener. So it's very easy, it's very practical, so that's also a plus when it comes to sake especially when the season is more sunny and you can go outside, just bring it with you, and it's easy to open. In some other bottles you're going to see that instead of a cork they have this little plastic cap that just fits in, but also you don't need a cork screw, so it's very easy and practical. Now, that you have it. It's a little tasting of different styles of sakes. I would say, if you want to try them, nowadays is very easy, you can find them all over the place. But I'm sure you're going to have my information, I can tell you where you can pick up this bottles but of course you can join us here at Bar Masa, and you can just come and taste the sake with me or one of my colleagues. We have some people from Japan. We have a sake of Sake who is from Japan, so if you want to have the real experience, please come see us and we'll be here, and be happy to open some of these beautiful sakes for you.

Now, I would like to know if you have any questions, or if you want me to go over the sakes one more time, perhaps you have more questions about how sake's made, so please let me know.

Sophia -  Yes, we do have a bunch of questions here, so let's get started on those. The first one, what is your perspective on domestic US manufacturers?

Jonathan - Well, there's several of them and the quality is becoming really, really good. Back in the day, they were concentrated to make more entry level sake, but nowadays, as the consumers become more savvy, you can find really good producers, especially in New York. We have now a brewery in Brooklyn that makes really good sake. And here at Bar Masa, we do carry one from California, which is very, very nice.

Sophia -  All right, next question. A lot of sake in the US is presented based on polishing levels. However, in Japan, it's almost always presented based on regionality, for example, water profiles. Is there any guidance you could provide to better understanding this regionality?

Jonathan - It's a combination of both. I think for us here, a lot of people do not know Japan that well to talk about the different regions, so it might be more complicated. And I think that's the reason why they focus so much more on the polishing, which tells you some part of the story of sake, of course. The rice is very important, but as you said, more important is the water actually. I would say is probably the main ingredient that gives sake it's quality. As I said before, when we tasted this Daiginjo in this prefecture which is Prefecture, they have very soft water. And so the profile of the sake is very silky on the pallet and that's very important. But generally speaking, water is very good in Japan, and it's not as mineral as the ones in Europe, so you don't have any of that minerality or saltiness in the water so that very, very soft. But I would say it's very easy to get confused, so instead of talking about, you know? Focusing only on the the rice polishing, or focusing only on the different prefectures, I think it's more important to find one that you like and learn about the producer. So the different breweries also have a style and the tojis, the people that make this sake, they have their own particular style too. So it's very complicated if you want it to be or it could be very simple if you just want to explore. And then you find a producer that you like, and I would say try different sakes from the same producer and you get a better idea of what that brand and what that producer tastes like.

Sophia -  Awesome, the next question here, Is sake gluten-free?

Jonathan - Yes, it is gluten free. You have a lot of people that also are worried about sulfites and other allergens in sake, but it's very good because it's pasteurized, so they don't need to use any systems or filtration. Sometimes in wine, you find animal product to find the wines and with sake, they don't have to use the sulfites because it's pasteurized but also, they don't use any animal products for the filtration, the more traditional way. They just hang the bags to the ceilings of the breweries and they just let the juice run. It's a very traditional product and it's I would say, very healthy for people that are worried about allergies.

Sophia -  That is great to know, I did not know that. So let's see, next question. How do you feel about aging sake? Am I able to do that or does it even age well?

Jonathan - It is possible but the vast majority of sakes are not made to be aged. There are some styles that are aged, and we have some that are really beautiful here. We have one style that is called Kijoshu, which is aged for eight years, but it acquires certain oxidation so the oxidative character make it very similar to Sherry. This kind of sakes, it's all about freshness. It's about purity and they're not meant to be aged. But those sakes do exist and they can be very interesting, but the profile varies from this which is all about freshness and the enjoyment of something that's very bright and pure.

Sophia -  So we actually have a lot of questions on what are the alcohol levels of the different sakes?

Jonathan - Right, so normally with sake, you have alcohol levels that go between 17 and 20%, so it's a little higher than wine normally. There are some scientists that are lower in alcohol and you can find them. The labels always state the alcohol level, but I would say the vast majority of sakes, 99% it's going to be between 17 and 20% alcohol.

Sophia -  Do you have the percentages for the specific sakes?

Jonathan - Mm-hmm, yes, so this particular ones, and if you can please see the label, this one is 16%, the Nigori. The Junmai, this one is 20%. The Daiginjo is also 20%. And the Junmai Daiginjo, this one is 16%.

Sophia -  I love the bottle on that last one. It's beautiful.

Jonathan - Yes, very traditional label. It's really beautiful, yes.

Sophia -  Do you have the price ranges for each of the different bottles?

Jonathan - Yes, so I'm going to tell you more or less retail, okay? So it's obviously the prices vary at the restaurant but if you were to go to a shop and you wanted to buy this Nigori, it'll cost around $20 a bottle. This Junmai, this will be between 25 to $30 a bottle. And then for the more high-end styles, the Daiginjos, this particular one is around $70 a bottle. And the Junmai Daiginjo also is around $60 a bottle.

Sophia -  Awesome, that's great. The next question, let's see. Could you go over which ones can be served warm and which ones should be very cold?

Jonathan - Yes, so the ones that's supposed to be served very cold, as I said before are the Junmai Daiginjos, especially, and the Daiginjos. So these two examples here, I would always serve these two very cold. When I say very cold though, it's more like a white wine cold, not like Budweiser cold cause you can mute some of the enrollments aromas when the sakes too cold. But at least particular styles of sake are better cold because they're more delicate. So all the aromas, the esters are very, very light and very ethereal, so you want it to be more restrained. If it gets hot you're going to kill some of those more subtle nuances. And then when you go to the lower level to say in a simple way, the Junmais and Junmai Ginjos, these are very good warm, but they're also sort of cold. You can choose what you like but I would definitely want this. If you want to enjoy your sake warm, Junmai and Junmai Ginjos are perfect because they are more resilient, so to speak. So when you warm them up, you release more of the flavor, it feels a little fuller. It's a really nice, comforting taste of it especially in the winter.

Sophia -  The next question is, What is your favorite region for sake in Japan? Do you have a preferred area?

Jonathan - Yes, I prefer Niigata which is where this sake comes from. As I said before, Niigata is a very special, they're very famous for their sakes. The quality of the water is perfect for sake. It's very soft, the water is super silky on the palette. It's kind of sakes, this beautiful texture especially when you buy the more high-end sakes, the Junmai Daiginjos from Niigata are really something I would recommend, it's quite an experience. It is all about the texture and then the flavors are very subtle and it's really beautiful. You get more floral qualities, it's less tropical fruit, it's all about more aromatic, so they're very perfumed.

Sophia -  Do people ever mix sakes together for a certain flavor, and which are better for nutritional value in terms of what you get off of the rice? If that makes sense.

Jonathan - Yes, no, the problem is you have to ferment the starch in the rice, right? So there's very little nutritional value if you wish. There is certainly some new nutrients in sake but I wouldn't try to promote it as something nutritious. I would say sometimes with beer you get more of that because Belgian style beers you get some of the yeast which is very nutritious. The yeast in sake, because the alcohol levels are quite high, it all dies. So you don't get any of the yeast here. However, I would say the most interesting thing about sake making is the fact that in order to ferment the starch, you'd have to convert the starch into sugars. And so they use a little microorganism called koji that breaks the molecules of the starch and makes it fermentable, and that might lead to believe to some people that maybe it's pretty nutritious. However, it's definitely not more nutritious than one.

Sophia -  Can you recommend a specific sake from Ginjo, the category between Junmai and the other sake? Or did you have a reason-

Jonathan - Yes.

Sophia - For leaving out that specific region?

Jonathan - No, no, no, let me tell you, I have some really good ones too. I didn't put it on the selection because I wanted to keep it... I want it to keep the styles very, very specific, so I didn't. But in between the styles, you're going to find a lot of levels and some of them are going to be a little blurry. Cause even within one style, let's say, if we're talking about Ginjos, right? Even within Ginjos, you're going to find styles that make it more similar to a Junmai, right? Than a Ginjo but we have one particular one that comes from Yamagata and it's called Izumi Judan, and it's made by a brewery called Dewazakura. And Dewazakura is a very, very famous brewery, so you're going to be able to find this, but if you can remember this name and also I can email you so you can have all the information. Dewazakura makes beautiful Ginjos so as I said before these kind of sakes have a little more umami quality, so you're going to get a bit more of the earthiness and a glial flavors.

Sophia -  Can you describe the process of making sake and what is that like in really go into that? A lot of people are very curious about that.

Jonathan - Yes, it's quite fascinating because the main ingredients obviously are rice and water, but also the yeast takes a very prominent role, and so each brewery use a specific kind of yeast. And this is something very popular nowadays especially for people that enjoy wine, people are starting to talk about different yeasts in wine. Normally, when you talk about the new wave of natural wines, people talk about indigenous yeast and the ambient yeast and not to inoculate the fermentation with some mass produce or yeast developing in a lab. However, in Japan, there's a tradition of isolating a particular yeast. So each brewery, they have their own type of yeast and we have some beautiful sakes are made with a yeast that has been isolated from the sunflower, for instance. Sometimes they pick a particular flower or a particular fruits and pick yeast, and gets isolated and cultivated in a lab to bring those flavors in the sake, and that's very important. So to give you a picture of this, you have the type of rice, whatever the rice might be, right? And the different strains of rice that are used for sake but usually you want a type of rice that's more resilient because you're going to polished the grain, so you don't want something that's going to easily break. And once you pick your rice, then you have to soak the rice and steam it, and then it's going to be able to create this type of starch that you're going to transform with the koji. So after the rice has been steamed, it's put in this mats, and then these people come, workers at the brewery come, and sprinkle the koji which is going to turn the starch into fermentable sugars. Once that is done, then you can add the yeast and start the process of fermentation when you add the water, right? So it's a very interesting process. It is very similar to beer, but you end up with a product that is more similar to wine. Now, the yeast again is super important because it's going to give the main profile of the sake. So when you're talking about your Junmai Daiginjos for instance, the type of yeast they use, it's really prominent on the flavor profile of the sake, because for this kind of sakes you Polish the rice to its very core. So the flavor of the rice is non-existent. So it's all about the texture that comes from the water and the flavors that come from the yeast.

Sophia -  That is fascinating. The next question here, at what temperature should sake be stored, and is storage temperature critical?

Jonathan - Yes, it is. The more high-end sakes are as delicate as wine, so you want to keep them at cellar temperature normally 60 degrees fahrenheit, right? So sake is no different than wine in that respect. Now, for people that enjoy sake on a regular basis and they just are buying, you know? Everyday sake and nothing really to store it and open for your mother's birthday, or let's say a festivity, those kinds of sakes you can just leave on the counter in your kitchen, that's fine. Provided that temperature doesn't go beyond 80 degrees. After 80 degrees, the quality of the sake start changing. But as I said before, those more entry level sakes, your Junmai your Ginjos is they're more resilient. So these are the type of sakes that you also can warm, you going to enjoy sakes hot, so you can imagine that a little more resilient. So it depends, so if it's entry level sake, I would say, room temperature is just fine, but if you're buying something special that you want to drink later, you have to put it in your refrigerator. Or if you have one of those wine fridges, that'll be perfect at 60 degrees I would say, is the sweet spot.

Sophia -  All right, another really technical question, at least I think it's technical. So how does alcohol content relate to the purity or quality in terms of what proof the different strains are?

Jonathan - Right, so it's a very interesting question because at the end of the day when the sakes finished, the level of the alcohol is regulated with the water. So you dilute a little bit on the sake to bring it to the right level. Now, I would say the more alcohol does not mean the is more pure and the opposite is true too. The less alcohol doesn't mean that the sake is better. It's just, it's going to affect the flavor, and it's going to affect the texture of the sake. But in terms of quality, you're going to find super high-end sakes that might be 20 degrees alcohol, and then you're going to find some great sakes too that are lower like 16%. And so it's a tricky thing because it's not related with quality, it's all worried about the way the sake taste. And so sometimes if you see the alcohol is very low, it could mean that that sake is going to be a little sweeter, but that is not always true. And so because this kind of complication, they have come up with some kind of system, so there is a value is a number they give you for this sake. In some labels, you're going to find it, and they give you a number, it's a plus or minus, but that only refers to the sweetness in the sake. So this complication might turn some people off but I would say, do not focus on the alcohol level, it's better to focus on the category of the sake. So Junmai or if you want to Daiginjo, Junmai Dainginjo and so on. I think that's a more, you know? It's a better teller of the quality of the sake.

Sophia -  We have a question here from Martin, which I love. He says, "My mother's ancestors are from Fukushima and we visited there once. What quality does that region give to the Junmai sake?

Jonathan - So Fukushima is one of the best regions for sake in whole of Japan. And so when you're going to find in Fukushima is that the sakes a little fuller. And so they're full flavor, they're rounder, they're a little heavier. And for people that love sake, it's very particular, cause it's a little stronger, it's more bold. and Fukushima is beautiful in that sense. The other thing is with Fukushima, people sometimes ask about, you know? The quality of the sake related to, you know? The disaster they had with the nuclear plant, but sake quality has not been affected by that. And in fact, sakes are very, very beautiful and it's one of the best regions.

Sophia -  Awesome, the next question here, do you know what ceremonies Japan use sake in celebrations?

Jonathan - Oh, there's plenty, plenty, plenty. And I am no expert on that but as you probably know the Shinto religion is very important and there's many, many ceremonies but I would have to bring an expert to talk more about that. But what I think is beautiful about sake is that it's deeply related to this cultural aspect of the Japanese culture. And so there's so much history, a lot of these breweries are ancient. They have hundreds and hundreds of years. They go back to the time of summarize and even older, so it's a beautiful thing to explore, I would definitely encourage people to read more about that.

Sophia -  I totally agree with you, I love the history behind it. So the next question here is, is there a variety of koji used to produce sakes, or does the koji lend different tastes to the sakes like with yeast in beer?

Jonathan - Right, so the koji is less important than the beer, it's just used to change the starch in the rice and make it fermentable. But the actual flavor does not affect the final product of sake, yeast is the most important.

Sophia -  And there's a lot of questions on once I open a bottle of sake, how long do I have to drink it?

Jonathan - Oh, I would say three days probably, it will last. The more delicate sakes are going to lose a little bit of those nuances, but I would say three days is safe.

Sophia -  And let's see the next one here well, we have a lot, we still have 30 more questions, and I love these, they're rolling in. So let's see, is it possible to find sake that are lower in alcohol or 16 to 20% more typical?

Jonathan - No, yes, you can find sakes that are lower. 12%, there's plenty of them that are made in a more lighter style. And usually they come in individual bottles and the release it'll find. There're styles that are more, you know? Everyday sake is less complicated, so they're made in a way that they're easy to enjoy. They're not made for really like, enjoy with food, it's something more refreshing than you can just drink?

Sophia -  I know we have a lot of clients in California watching right now, so can you share a name of a California sake that you like if there are any?

Jonathan - Yes, there is, there is a couple of sakes. But how about I send you that list? Because there's several of them, and also I don't know if it's possible, if we can continue this via email, I can answer all the questions. We are reaching the time when we need to open the restaurant, so that's why.

Sophia -  Okay, sure, so let's do maybe one more question here.

Jonathan - Mm-hmm.

Sophia - So does sake has have vintages and how long can you keep a bottle? Someone said that they received a bottle about eight years ago and they'd still like to drink it, but they forgot about it.

Jonathan - Hmm, yes. Some sakes have vintages. They're paying more attention to that now for the people that are more into the high-end sakes. Now, there's more talk about that particular vintage, how was the harvest for the rice and so on and so forth. But I think normally, most of the sakes are made in a more universal way, like a particular brewery would always have a style a little bit like champagne, so non-vintage sakes the most common. Some of them will stay the vintage especially the high-end ones. So you know exactly when it was produced, because a lot of these sakes don't age well, and so that meant to be drank on the younger side. But it's not like wine where the vintage will tell you, "Okay, I can put the sake away for 20 years or drink it later. I would say most high-end sakes are better drink when they're young.

Sophia -  Maybe one more question, Jonathan, if that's okay. What is the best way to warm sake?

Jonathan - Yes, so the best way to do it is not really heating the whole bottle. I would put a portion in a container and immerse it in or float it rather in warm water. I would say 80 degrees for the water, and then you leave it there for about five minutes and you reach the temperature. It doesn't have to boil, so the idea of warm sake is to drink even a little less hot than tea. The idea of warm sake, I mean, it depends on each person, right? If you want to drink a very, very warm, that's totally fine. But the idea is just to release some of this more interesting flavors, so 80 degrees in good.

Sophia -  Well, that is fantastic to know and I certainly don't want to keep you any longer because the restaurant is going to open. So if anyone has any further questions for Jonathan, please email and we can connect you with Jonathan via email and provide you with the list of sakes and some of his favorite California sakes and anything else you may need. So again, that's Jonathan, thank you so much for being with us here today. And for everyone else watching, if you would like the recording of the presentation, it will be up on our website in about a week. So, Jonathan, again, thank you so much.

Jonathan - Thank you, it was a pleasure.

Sophia -  All right, have a great day everyone.

Jonathan - Bye-bye.

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