This afternoon, I will be presenting sake to one of the great sushi restaurants in town. It occured to me that sake is one of the more misunderstood items in the adult beverage world. Consider this your "Cliff Notes" version of what this stuff is all about.
The basics are that Sake is made from four ingredients: Rice, Water, Yeast, and a mold called Koji. As for production, Sake is much more like beer than it is wine. The first step is that the outer husk of grains of rice (which contain lipids and protein) are polished betweeen two large abrasive disks. This exposes the central core of the grain, which is composed of carbohydrates. This ground down rice is then made in to a mash with water, and a powder of koji mold is sprinkled on top. Over time, the koji breaks the complex carbohydrates in the rice mash down into glucose. Again, much like beer, yeast is added to the mash. The yeast breaks it down, resulting in alcohol. Water is added, the liquid is filtered, and then you have sake.
Sake is broken down into quality levels, the bulk of it being "futsu" or "table sake". This is the stuff that you drank in your dorm room, or you drank heated up at the crappy sushi restaurant a couple of years ago. The upper end of premium sake (representing about 25% of the total sake production in the world) is divided into two sides. The word that you want to look for is "Junmai". This means "Pure". Sakes that don't have this designation have been "cut" with brewer's alcohol and water in order to make them stretch the production. The quality levels of Junmai Sake are Ginjo, Honjozou, and Daiginjo. These quality levels are determined by the amount of husk that has been polished away. The more of it that has been taken off, the higher the quality level (and cleaner the taste). Again, these represent the upper echelon of sake, and can sometimes rival california cabernets in their pricing.
If you are afraid of sake, based on the movie scenes with drunk japanese guys throwing back shots of it, don't be. In fact, most sakes ring in around 15-17% alcohol, which is the same as a stiff wine. The taste profiles of sake tend to be in the nutty and citrus range, with nigori (unfiltered sake that still has small portions of rice solids left in it) sake being a little sweeter. One recommendation is to buy sake from Japan. There are less expensive versions from California, and Oregon, but I have tried many of them...you get what you pay for. Keep in mind that just because a bottle has Japanese writing on it, doesn't mean it's from Japan! If in doubt, ask the folks at your local retailer.
In light of all this, go out and try the "Living Jewel" and the "Snow Maiden" sakes from the Tozai Brewery in Japan. You can find these at most local retailers, and should cost you around $15 for a 720 ml bottle. Chill the bottles down, and enjoy out of a white wine glass.