For the love of saké

In 2007 I got bitten by the saké bug and ended up a samurai. To put samurai into context: I’m not referring to the noble warriors of medieval Japan, rather an esteemed title given by the Japan Saké Brewers Association to folks who promote saké and Japanese culture.  Saké Samurai.  This honor was the beginning of an incredible pilgrimage into one of the most ancient and culturally significant brewing industries in the world.

As a Saké Samurai (and in cooperation with the International Wine Challenge – one of the biggest wine competitions in the world) I have worked with some of the most passionate (bordering on fanatical) people in the saké world.  Our vision: to put Japanese saké on the global stage.

It’s working.  Saké is one of the most talked about alcoholic beverages in the world right now.  However, it’s still one of the most misunderstood.

Like geisha, the truth about saké is both surprising and intriguing.  Sake brewing is a respected craft passed down over centuries, and nurtured like the tiny grains that are its raw ingredient.

Saké is, by definition, a rice wine – a beverage born from the fermentation of rice and water. Unsurprisingly its history is directly linked to that of rice, and its origin is estimated around 300 BC, when rice cultivation was first imported to Japan from China.  Like beer in Bavaria, saké is a critical part of Japanese culture, so much so that it is formally recognised as the national drink.

The efforts and attention to detail in the production of saké border on the extraordinary.  One of the more interesting practices is that of ‘polishing’; a process whereby each grain of rice is polished to increase the quality and the percentage of sugar in the final mix.  Rice polished to at least 50 percent of its original weight has an unparalleled elegance, often showing intense fruit aromas.  It is not unusual for the best sakés to fetch a similar price to top flight Burgundies.

The journey to discovering the beauty and complexity of saké can be a little bumpy and confusing, but like all of the best experiences it is worth persevering.

One of the first misapprehensions I encounter from wine consumers is that saké is fairly homogenous, which is as inaccurate as saying all chardonnay tastes the same.  Broadly speaking, premium saké is categorized into two main styles: saké that has been fortified with extra alcohol, and unfortified saké, or junmai, made using only rice and water.  Sakés within each category are then graded according to the percentage of polished rice, with daiginjo denoting the most highly polished (and therefore premium) saké in both the fortified and unfortified categories.  For those more adventurous consumers there are barrel-aged sakés, bottle-aged sakés, sweet sakés, dry sakés, sparkling sakés, cloudy sakés, the list goes on.

To date, availability has been the biggest obstacle to discovering saké. Japan produces some 800 million 75 cl bottles, but has only ever exported 2%.  Thankfully the Japanese brewing industry along with its government is set to launch initiatives to grow exports by five times before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.  If ever there was a time to discover saké, it is now!

Do not, whatever you do, let the bottle labels deter you (a reasonable reaction to the almost exclusively Japanese script).  A blunt but effective tool to filter the good from the bad is to look at the alcohol level.  The best examples of saké have relatively moderate levels of alcohol (between 14 – 17 percent).  Steer well clear of anything with a throat-scorching 25 percent, and if in doubt consult the sommelier, or do your own research.

I highly recommend Philip Harpers book – ‘The Insider’s Guide to Saké’.

To get you going in the meantime, here are some quick saké truths:

  • If you have the chance to visit Japan (and I dearly hope you do) it is useful to know that the beverage we refer to as saké, in English, is a premium rice wine called nihonshu or literally ‘Japan liquor’ in Japan.
  • A common misconception is that saké is overly alcoholic, however it is always less than20% percent (often between 15-17%) and only ever lightly fortified (if at all) to enhance the intensity of aromas.
  • Saké can be served room temperature, cool or warm – the choice is yours. The quality of the saké and the season are usually factors in the decision, with the best sakés generally served cold.
  • Natural wine aficionados and clean eaters take note: Saké is completely natural. No sulfites, no additives, no preservatives.
  • Saké is low acid and low bitterness making it a more flexible food partner than wine. It complements so many cuisines including modern European, Middle Eastern and – of course – Japanese and fusion Asian styles.
  • In restaurants it can be purchased in smaller bottles so works well for lunchtime dining and sharing small plates.
  • Saké is an entirely different drinking experience to wine – no need to choose sides.