Your Education: Sake

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Sake is often misunderstood; should it be heated, or served cold? Do we only drink it with sushi? And why use those tiny ceramic cups? Whether you’re a sake-virgin, or you’re looking to impress the guys at those sushi-infused power lunches, Edith Au-Yeung, a sake sommelier or Kikishi from Hong Kong, tells us how to best enjoy Japan’s national tipple

There’s more to sake than meets the eye. One of the first steps in making sake is to mill or ‘polish’ the rice, removing the protein and fatty substances in the outer layers of the grain to reveal the starch. This is calculated in the percentage of rice leftover; for example, the lower the milling rate, the higher the amount of rice that has been milled away, leaving a cleaner, crisper, more elegant spirit. Different from wine fermentation or the distilling of whisky, sake rice is then brewed until the rice starch is broken down into sugar, which then turns into alcohol. But making sake is just the beginning.

A Sake Flight

A horizontal tasting is the only way to have a clear understanding of the polishing process of sake, and why you’re paying more for a bottle with a lower milling rate. Select one sake brewer and taste their available classification in one seating; there are different levels of rice polishing – daiginjo, ginjo, honzojo then junmai daiginjo, and junmai. Tasting them in this order will show the effects of higher polishing, which reveals protein, vitamins, and minerals, leaving the pure starchy centre of the grain. In general, the daiginjo or junmai daiginjo will have a lighter, purer taste while higher milling rate sakes will be bolder.

Know Your Brewer

I always compare sake to pinot noir. Each producer may be using the same varietal of grape from the same year and the result can be wildly different. With sake, using the same strain of rice and the same water, one brewer may produce totally different sake than the one next door. This is because the brewing method will yield completely different styles of sake – from bold and rich, to light, crisp, and fragrant. Some see this as a drawback, but personally, I believe it makes sake interesting and an incentive to always try new brewers.

 
 
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Know Thy Sake

Kikishi are taught to separate sake into four main taste profiles: aromatic, crisp, bold and aged. Aromatic sake displays a complex palate and a strong nose, ranging from fruity to rice-like, and these sakes benefit from an egg shape glass, like Riedel’s Daiginjo Glass, to highlight the fruity and floral bouquet. Crisp sake is light and refreshing with a simple and subtle aroma. Bold style sake is the most traditional, with a strong taste of umami and an earthy aroma. This style is best served in a wider rimmed glass or ceramic ware to evenly disperse the woody aromas. Aged sake is speciality sake that has a bold palate and an aroma similar to aged whiskey. You may have also heard of sparkling sake, a more recent creation. These mostly follow the champagne fermentation method where the carbon dioxide produced is trapped within the bottle, but the milling rate, and whether it is junmai or not, is irrelevant. Try the four main styles and discover which you like best. Similar to wine, depending on the food you are eating and your experience, your taste preference will change.

Not Just Sushi

Many people associate sake with sushi and other Japanese cuisines, but sake can easily be paired with food. This is because the main taste profile of sake is umami, which is essentially the backbone of all savoury dishes. Sake has no acidity, like white wine does, and lacks tannin, which you find in red wine. These are tastes that don’t go with all ingredients. Sake is a taste amplifier, and wine is a taste profile partner. For example with the classic pairing of a chardonnay/chablis served with raw oysters, the acidity and dryness of the wine cleanses the palate, and the fruitiness complements the richness of the oyster. If you pair oysters with sake, the sake lengthens and amplifies the umami taste of the dish and makes it last longer. Generally, sake showcases ingredients in food much better than wine.

Experiment With Temperature

Sake can be served at a range of temperatures, and it is good fun to discover your own personal preference. I recommend serving sake chilled first and letting it slowly warm up. If you find it getting too sweet, pop the bottle back on ice and experiment for your preferred taste. Conversely, for warm sake, serve at room temperature first to see whether you like it, then slowly warm the liquid and determine your favourite temperature. To keep hot, sake is better served in traditional ceramic ware. However, not all sake can be heated; the word okan “お燗” is written on bottles of sake made for heating. If you warm a sake that is meant to be served cold, it will be sickly sweet and lose all flavour, and if you serve a warm sake cold, the flavours will seize up and the sake will be tight and unbalanced. Just like decanting; the flavours will open up and make it easier to drink.

 
 

DrinkFred Kirby