The enjoyment of sake is in its infancy in Australia but there’s an undercurrent of sake lovers driving a revolution. For those in the know, sake is the hottest new drinking trend coming soon to a bar near you.
So what is sake anyway? It’s neither a spirit, nor is it rice wine. Sake is a unique beverage fermented from rice. The problem with rice is the sugars are bound up as starch, and if we think back to high school chemistry no sugar means no fermentation, ergo no fun.
Legend has it that about a gazillion years or go in Japan (give or take) the village virgins would chew on mouthfuls of cooked rice and spit them into a bucket where natural yeast would fall and mix with the delicious expectorant. Enzymes from human saliva broke down the rice starch into simple sugars and allow the yeast to create alcohol. The resulting mixture was used as an offering to the gods (probably because nobody was really tempted to drink it anyway).
Thankfully it has come a long way from very humble beginnings.
The Japanese are masters of innovation and they found by inoculating rice with aspergillus oryzae (a type of mold the Japanese call Koji-kin), the starch in rice would convert into sugar. I’m not sure if this was driven by a dislike of saliva or a lack of virgins, but this was “the eureka” moment for sake makers. So the basic ingredients for sake are rice, water, koji-kin, yeast and a whole lot of love.
Sake is a unique and challenging beverage for the Toji – master brewer – to make. In a process referred to as “multiple parallel fermentation”, they must manage the conversion of starch into sugars and the conversion of sugars into alcohol in the same tank at the same time. That’s the equivalent to treading water while playing the piano accordion.
Sake is produced in almost every prefecture in Japan, but local consumption has been in steady decline for a very long time. However in the west we are fast catching on that sake is a delicious and very food friendly drink. It has no tannins, it’s gluten free, has lower acidity than wine and no preservatives.
And it is not just for sushi. Sake pairs well with salumi, cheese, simple pasta, anything with a hint of vinegar and a whole ocean of seafood.
So how to choose? Well firstly a little about the classifications of sake.
In the late 1900’s the Japanese government introduced a classification system for sake. The Tokutei Meishoshu (special designation sake) is a classification system of premium sake making up approximately the top 30% of sake production. The rest is referred to as Futsushu, or regular sake. It varies in quality from cheap and cheerful to quite drinkable.
Futsushu tends to be the cheap one-cups sold in the local convenience store or in liquor shops in milk carton style packaging but there are some bargain basement gems out there if you care to look. Caveat emptor – you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.
Basically if you drink anywhere in the Tokutei Meishoshu your chances of drinking good sake are almost guaranteed. Like anything, there are rules, and like anything worth doing the rules are confusing.
To make sake, rice is milled to varying degrees. The more that it is milled the higher the grade it qualifies as.
Top of the tree is Daiginjo, the rice is milled so that only 50% (or less) of the rice grain remains. Ginjo is the next cab off the rank with a minimum of 60% remaining. Just to make it totally confusing a tiny amount of brewers alcohol can be added prior to pressing albeit for totally altruistic reasons. If no alcohol is added the word Junmai (pure rice) can be added in front of the words Ginjo or Daiginjo making two more classes Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo. Honjozo and Junmai (by itself) make up the final fifth and sixth premium classifications.
Although choosing sake from the top classifications is almost a guarantee of drinking well, be aware that sake is best consumed young. Unlike wine when a brewer releases their sake they are telling you, “This product is ready to drink and we want you to enjoy it now”. The now tends to be within about 12 months of bottling and after the bottle is opened it will never taste better than the first few days but can be consumed over about a week.
Although tradition calls for sake to be enjoyed in tiny ceramic cups, we find a wineglass with a small diameter lip is just as good. While writing this I am enjoying a cracking Ginjo sake from a hotel room in a champagne flute.
In terms of hot VS cold, most premium sake is designed to be enjoyed chilled however some are enjoyable over a wide temperature range. For cold around 5-10 °C is a good start and for hot try about 40-45 °C. A reputable retailer or sommelier will be able to guide you as to the best drinking temperature.
For the sake novice, it can be a daunting choice trying to navigate unfathomable labels in a foreign language. Some retailers, such as Chef’s Armoury in Richmond, have developed a unique system of choosing sake. Parameters like sweet to dry, apparent acidity, umami and aroma can be filtered on the website to help the uninitiated make an easy choice.
If all else fails try a bottle of the popular Oita Hida Takayama Junmai Ginjo.