We in the West tend to have a fairly poor conception of what this popular Japanese beverage is, and isn’t, and misconceptions abound. If you’ve been scared off by bad sake served warm – which is often, though not always, done to hide the flaws of inferior sake – then it’s time to revisit this classic drink, because the depth and complexities of a great sake are akin to fine wine.
“Generally, Australians still think of sake as being harsh in flavour and drunk warm or hot,” says sake master Toshi Maeda, who owns an izakaya-style bar and restaurant, Sake & Grill Maedaya, in Richmond, Victoria, as well as the online shop Sake Japan, which specialises in premium sake.
Maeda says that this is changing, however, thanks to the growth in local Japanese restaurants and the efforts of importers. “In the last three to four years, suppliers are bringing in more premium sakes… with more smooth and fruity styles being introduced in Australia, people are starting to realise it can actually be a very subtle, refined drink,” he says.
Matching sake with food
Maeda recently ran a series of sake-matching degustation dinners with renowned chef Raita Noda at Sydney’s popular Ocean Room restaurant
. The menu included a trio of caviar paired with a fresh, fruity dry sake from Hiroshima; Fremantle octopus and bottarga served with a light, crisp Niigata-style sake; Wagyu scotch fillet in bonito broth served with Junmai Ginjo
sake and, most surprisingly of all, a traditional-style unfiltered premium sake from Nara served warm with a gorgonzola-scented panna cotta with soy-caramel sauce. The presence of the Koji
mould in sake means that sake can actually marry extremely well with cheese, particularly those that are creamy and mild.
“I would like Australians to understand that it is a beverage they can enjoy with food. People still have this idea that sake is a nightcap after a meal but, in fact, in Japan people drink sake during the meal just like Australians drink wine.”
“There are many ways you can match sake with food. Most Australians like to have sushi and sashimi in restaurants – these usually go well with fruity, creamy styles, such as Ginjo
sake, which is light and delicate and goes well with fresh seafood. For heavier dishes, try some Junmai
sake, which has more body and is good drunk toward the end of the meal when you’ve tasted a lot of flavours already.”
Sake has a high amino acid content, which can help heighten the unami
or savoury characteristics of a dish. It also pairs well with fermented and pickled foods, such as the Japanese staples of soy sauce, miso soup and pickled vegetables.
In Japan, the word sake
actually means any type of alcoholic beverage and thus encompasses Japanese spirits (Shoyu
), plum wine (Umeshu
) and beer. What we tend to think of as sake is a specific type of rice alcohol known as Nihonshu
. It is commonly thought of as rice wine, but, in fact, is a fermented alcohol made from rice that is not technically classed as a wine, as the fermentation agent used is a type of mould (Koji
Sake is made by milling rice down until only the starch remains. The remaining starch is then fermented into sugar, which is further fermented into ethanol or alcohol. Sake bottles display a sake meter value (SMV), nihonshudo
, which represents the sugar in the sake that is not converted into alcohol. Basically, the lower this number is the sweeter the sake will be. When the SMV was first designed, 0 was designated the point between sweet sake and dry sake, but now +3 is considered neutral. Tokubetsu
on a sake bottle is used to indicate premium sake.
Sake appreciation is much like wine appreciation, with sake tasters assessing the colour, clarity, aroma and flavours of the sake. It’s also worth remembering that sake does not keep or age well, so if you purchase a premium bottle of sake, it’s best to enjoy it sooner than later.
Types of sake
Sake types are classified according to the degree to which the rice they are made from is milled; in general, the more highly polished the rice, the more refined the sake. This is known as seimaibuai
. The degree of rice milling is represented as a percentage of the rice remaining. So, if a sake has a seimaibuai
of 70 per cent, it means that 30 per cent of the rice has been milled, leaving 70 per cent behind. The higher this number, the more rice remaining for sake fermentation, which results in more umani
or savoury flavours. Sakes with lower seimaibuai
tend to have more delicate, refined flavours and represent the more premium sakes. Futsushu
– Table sake, which comprises about 75 per cent of all of the sake produced and has no grade. Tokuteimeishoshu
– Premium sake, which comprises only 25 per cent of the market. Within this category there are five main types of sake. Honjozo
of 70 per cent or less. A small amount of distilled alcohol is added to soften the flavour. Generally the taste is light and somewhat earthy. Junmai
– 100 per cent pure rice sake without any additives such as alcohol, sugars or starches. Ginjo
– Has a seimaibuai
of 60 per cent or less and is made with additives such as a special Ginjo yeast, and low temperature and slow fermentation, which gives it a fruity, flowery fragrance and a delicate flavour. Ginjo without any additives is known as Junmai Ginjo
– The most premium sake there is, made with top-grade sake rice and with a seimaibuai
of 50 per cent or less. Has a very complex, refined flavour. Drink chilled or at room temperature. Daiginjo without any additives is known as Junmai Daiginjo
Hot or cold?
Traditionally, sake was indeed served hot, as a warming winter drink. However, this was largely due to the fact that back in its early days it was a much rougher, woodier beverage, brewed in wooden casks, and heating it mellowed it out and hid its flaws. With modern brewing technology and the new strains of sake rice available, which produce much more delicate and refined sake, warmed premium sake can often destroy the refined flavours and fragrances it has been carefully brewed to produce. Most premium sake is best enjoyed chilled – though there are exceptions. On the flip side, over-chilling sake can also hide its true flavours. In this way, premium sake is much like fine white wine – serve it chilled, but not too
Some sakes worth sampling
Seiyko Maboroshi Daiginjo Shirobako (Hiroshima)
From one of Japan’s most renowned premium sake breweries, this is a semi-dry style with fruity, fresh flavours of apple and melon. A good cold sake to start a meal with. Serve chilled. Yoshinogawa Ginjo (Niigata)
A light, clean, dry and crisp sake that pairs particularly well with seafood, especially sushi and sashimi. Serve chilled. Ugonotsuki Junmai Daiginjo Aiyama (Hiroshima)
A beautifully fragrant, complex, semi-sweet sake with flavours of melon, apple, peach and strawberries. Pairs well with fresh seafood. Serve chilled. Shinkame Hikomago Junmai
An aged sake that is dry, yet smooth and mellow with a well-rounded flavour. Serve warm or at room temperature. Chikusen Kounotori Junmai Ginjo
An organically grown sake that has a strong, rich flavour yet is also dry and crisp. Pair with full-flavoured dishes such as Wagyu beef or simmered pork. Serve warm. Suiryu Kimoto No Dobu Nama Genshu unfiltered (Nara)
A slow-fermented sake that has a full body and nutty, rich flavour with a crisp, dry finish. An interesting match with sweet, milky cold desserts. Serve warm.
Sake sorbet summer cocktail
Maeda suggests making an easy summer cocktail with frozen sake sorbet as follows:
Combine 720ml of sake with 180ml of water and freeze in a container overnight. The next day, stir the frozen sake with a spoon until it resembles shaved ice. Divide the frozen sake into champagne glasses. Top with an equal amount of lemonade and a wedge of lime.