Japan: sake for beginners

17th May 2018 | by Guest author

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Sake is one of Japan’s most iconic products – up there with sushi, ramen, miso and matcha for instant international recognition - and when travelling through Japan you’re likely to be offered some of this traditional rice-based brew at least once.

However, unlike some recently repopularised drinks, sake is still relatively off the radar as a go-to beverage outside of Japan. Whereas gin has shaken off its dusty reputation and taken the world by storm, and whisky stalwartly retains its revered global top spot among drinks of discernment, in the bewilderingly broad and diverse sake market it can be hard to know where to start. What should you ask for? How is it usually enjoyed? What does the very best taste like?

What is sake?

Sake, as we know it, is an ancient liquor produced from rice. It's more properly called nihonshu (Japanese liquor), with ‘sake’ literally translating to mean any alcoholic drink.

Unlike wine (which it is commonly classed alongside), sake is fermented in a process similar to brewing beer. The starch in the rice converts to sugars, which then ferment with a type of yeast called koji, in an enriched mash. It’s much stronger than beer, though, often around 15% once bottled, and frequently compared to dry sherry for both its alcohol content and place on the drinking spectrum. It tends to have a lighter, clearer flavour profile than sherry, and even the uninitiated are familiar with the idea of it being served warm, although many varieties are at their best when drunk at room temperature or chilled.

And by ‘varieties’, we mean a truly vast array of sake possibilities. There are different quality grades, different filtration levels, different processes that (like whisky) each affect the level of refinement and taste. There are clear ones, cloudy ones, aged ones, fruit-infused ones and even fizzy ones. Every devotee has a favourite brewery, there are different styles for different occasions, and new, innovative variations spring up with increasing frequency in a sector brimming with creativity.

A little history…

Like the mead brewed by monks in Medieval Europe, sake has been used for religious ceremonies and formal celebrations for hundreds of years, although its origins and enduring use as a recreational drink stretch back much further.

Having been under governmental and religious control for centuries, popular sake production enjoyed its first modern era boom during the Meiji era in the 1800s. Tens of thousands of breweries initially sprang up but, as the government of the day got wise to sake’s economic influence and started collecting large taxes on it, a lot of them closed down, and the sake bubble burst. Of the breweries that remained, many were owned by wealthy landowners who would use surplus rice crops left at the end of the season to produce sake and reduce waste. Some of those early Japanese producers, such as Sudo Honke, are still in business today and their premium products are highly revered and sold at a suitably premium price.

Bringing us up to date…

As brewing methods have advanced, thanks to technological leaps forward, the big boys have had to move over and make room for a flurry of plucky start-ups moving in on their territory with new energy and ideas.

Though sake’s popularity in Japan has waned a little (it has been overtaken as the alcohol of choice, especially for younger generations of drinkers, by the chic and inexpensive spirit, shochu) it’s beginning to have a renaissance amongst connoisseurs. With increasing international interest, wine bars around the world are offering sake tastings, small producers outside of Japan are getting in on the action, and sake is stepping out of its corner as a niche drink. There’s such a buzz around it that the ever-expanding festivals dedicated to sake are going strong both inside and outside of Japan.

Craft and artisan sakes are becoming a worldwide trend, with highly-praised products coming from small producers across the US, in Norway, and even Peckham, London. Sparkling sake is making a play to nudge into the champagne/ prosecco corner of the market, and fruit-infused sakes are appealing to the sweet-toothed. The infamous 'sake bomb' trend follows the well-established student custom of dropping a strong shot into a longer drink (in this case, sake into beer) for fairly crude bravado points! However, in combination with the other attempts to bring sake to a different audience, and a growing market for sake cocktails, broadening its appeal can only be a good thing.

How to drink it…

Sake is a pretty flexible libation. How you drink it depends on what kind you choose, the season, where you’re drinking it and, essentially, your own personal preference.

It’s still imbibed on its own at ceremonial occasions, such as weddings or funerals, but in everyday circumstances makes a natural partner to traditional Japanese foods like sushi and yakitori; its bold, clean taste enhancing their starchy, salty, rich-yet-focused flavours.

Is it usually served hot? Sake can be drunk warmed, and this can be lovely, especially during winter, but the root of many underwhelming sake experiences might, I suspect, begin with drinking it this way. Warming brings out the bright notes and can mask poorer quality, but chilled sake preserves the subtle flavours and tends to be a smoother drink more familiar to Western palates. Each sake will usually come with a recommendation as to its optimum serving temperature and, though most can be enjoyed in multiple ways, the higher premium brands are less commonly warmed as it can diminish the taste.

As with anything, quality is hugely variable and the cheaper brands tend to be at the harsher end of the flavour spectrum, much like the difference between generic blended whisky and the finest single malt. Due to a change the production methods in the mid 20th century, a lot of cheaper sake has additional glucose and alcohol added to increase the bulk, which affects the flavour. It also has a relatively short shelf life once open (akin to grape-based wine) and, unless you drink the whole bottle in one sitting, it goes off pretty quickly. If your only experience with sake has been a slightly over-sour drink with a strong pure alcohol nose, you might have been served a cheaper brand that had gone beyond its best. Give it another go with a fresher higher quality product, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Tasting notes…

This is where we try not to get too Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden (‘80s wine gurus extraordinaire!) with the flowery flavour comparisons – I’m getting tarmac, lilacs, a hint of tomato soup - and just give you a handful of notes from a layman’s perspective. A few of the team have greater experience with sake (including our Japan Specialist, Andrew, whose knowledge really helped us put sake drinking into a modern context), but many of us have more limited experience and came to it with a novice’s taste buds.

As a rookie, I’d describe sake as being somewhere between vodka and dry white wine, with none of the ‘throat burn’ associated with neat spirits and a pleasantly sweet-sour edge of under-ripe apples (especially in the nigori cloudy varieties).

Tasting several different sakes is a great way to clearly identify the differences between them, and many restaurants offer sake ‘flights’, which are ideal for beginners. We had a triptych comprising a good quality but entry level, pure rice Junmai sake; a top-level, premium sake which had prominent fennel flavours; and a cloudy nigori sake, all served chilled. Opinions were mixed, but we could all taste the difference between the quality grades. The standard brand gave a good basis but felt less refined and had more ‘separated’ flavours, whereas the premium brand was a much smoother drink, even though it had a bolder overall taste which some found too strong. Those with a sweeter tooth enjoyed the nigori, with its fruitier and fresher flavours.

We also tried the Onikoroshi ‘Demon Slayer’ premium Junmai Daiginjo grade sake, which was brought to the table and dramatically poured into a large glass, allowing it to overflow into a wooden masu drinking box in which the glass was resting. Apart from simply being a nod to excess and generosity, this recent fashion for overpouring has the side effect of allowing you to taste the sake in two ways – chilled in the glass, and rapidly rising to room temperature from the box. Consensus was that the wood, in this case, didn’t add anything, especially as it is quite difficult to drink from the wide-lipped box! Chilled from the glass, though, this was a delicious sake, and we ordered seconds.

One unusual effect worth noting was that drinking or eating sweet things didn’t make the drier sake taste sour. In fact, drinking the sweeter nigori then going back to the clear filtered sake made it taste all the more smooth – dangerously so! - in a similar way to vodka. So don’t be afraid of trying several at once, as it won’t spoil the effect.

Neat sake is a classy drink, to be sipped and appreciated rather than glugged. It makes both a good aperitif and an interesting alternative to white wine with a meal.

Where to drink it

When in Tokyo, you’re spoilt for choice for bucket list sake drinking spots: Kozue, on the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, has a broad selection of sake to sip in relaxed, premium surroundings with a stunning view of Mount Fuji on the side; bars surrounding the Tsukiji market (the largest fish and seafood market in the world) often offer a selection of up to 100 different sake to sample alongside the day’s best catch; and the high density of izakaya surrounding the city’s railway stations give you maximum choice.

Kyoto, the home of traditional kaiseki-style dining, is the natural place to drink sake as part of this multi-course dining experience, or you can go modern with a carefully chosen selection of local sakes accompanying premium Wagyu beef at Hotel Kanra’s Hanaroku restaurant. Try over 30 different sake at the cosy Touzan bar in the Hyatt Regency, or alternate glasses of sake and champagne at Shakusui-tei at the Four Seasons.

If you fancy getting acquainted with sake before you go, search out your local Japanese restaurant or izakaya-style yakitori bar which often have a decent selection (including seasonal and fresh varieties) and get your tastebuds primed. World Sake Day is officially celebrated on October 1st, at the start of the sake brewing season, so you’ve got a few months to get your palate prepared...