For Goodness SakeSake sometimes feels like one of those things that’s just too complicated to come to grips with, like jazz, the rules of cricket or Ottolenghi recipes. But it’s really not. But what it might just be is the next big thing. So welcome to Sake 101, Harvey Nichols style…
Sake is the generic Japanese name for all alcoholic drinks, so when we say sake in the UK, what we actually mean is nihonshu – Japanese rice wine. This is important for two reasons: if you travel to Tokyo and ask a bartender for a sake, she’s going to look at you strangely. Also, it flags up that what we call sake is in fact rice wine, i.e. it’s fermented like a wine, not distilled like a spirit. This means it’s lower in alcohol than a spirit, and is often treated in much the same way as wine. It trumps wine, though, when it comes to those with a sensitivity to sulphites and tannins; sake usually contains neither of those things.
What is sake?
Sake is primarily made from four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji. Together, these are brewed into what looks like a porridge. Rice may be the famous bit, but koji is what makes the magic happen. To give it its Latin name, aspergillus oryzae is cooked rice inoculated with fermentation cultures that grow into a good kind of mould. It breaks down the starch in rice and turns it into sugar. Without this miracle fungus, we would have no mirin, soya sauce, miso, rice vinegar or sake. So let’s take a moment to be thankful for koji.
How is Japanese rice wine categorised?
Japanese rice wine can be divided into two categories: Tokutei meisho-shu (premium sake) and Futsu-shu (table sake). Here at Harvey Nichols, we love the finer things in life, so are primarily concerned with the former, although wonderful examples of the latter do exist. Tokutei meisho-shu can be broken down into two types: Junmai, the most highly prized, is made from just the four key ingredients. Then there’s non-Junmai, which tends to have an additional ingredient, brewer’s alcohol. This sounds like it might make things harsher, but the opposite is true. Although alcohol is added, the sake is then watered down to compensate, making it lighter and smoother, and often a great entry point for the uninitiated.
How does rice become sake?
Then we get back to the all-important rice. Sake rice starts as brown rice, with the starch centred in the core of the grain. Surrounding that are all the fats, vitamins and proteins. These bits give sake a more rustic, umami and rice-y flavour. So the grains are milled or polished to whittle them down to just starch. The more you polish, the cleaner, brighter, and more delicate and aromatic the final sake. The name ginjo denotes that the rice has been highly polished. If you see daiginjo, this means that it has been extremely highly polished, so less than 50% of each grain remains.
Although sake is more like a wine than a spirit, one similarity it shares with its higher-alcohol cousins is that the more you pay, the smoother and more refined it gets. So if you are looking to try
To make choosing sake simpler, our expert buyers have made some selections below:
Sake for the classic wine lover
Traditional Japanese cups are a thing of beauty, but a Sherry glass or small, tulip-shaped white-wine glass will focus the aromatics of a sake. Furthermore, from a flavour perspective, many new rice wines may rival your favourite wine. The delicate notes of green apple, citrus, tropical fruit and jasmine in Kikusui’s Mukantei Gingo Sake make a wonderful alternative to Riesling; while the suggestion of salinity in Tosatsuru’s Azure Ginjo Sake could easily replace a Sancerre or Chablis with seafood. Provence rosé fans may wish to consider Amabuki’s Rosé Junmai Sake, made with an ancient black rice and yeasts extracted from Pink Nadeshiko, a type of Dianthus flower. And finally, sparkling-wine drinkers will love International Wine Challenge Gold Medal winner Ichnokura’s Suzune Wabi, which is very much the Champagne of sparkling sake.
Sake for the natural wine lover
As the wine world revisits old-school techniques, sake brewers are reviving ancient methods and creating funkier styles. To create their Shirakabe Gura Kimoto Ginjo Sake, Takara Brewery uses the kimoto method, a labour-intensive approach, adding a creaminess and a touch of umami. Kikusui’s Funaguchi Kikusui Ichiban Shibori contains a punchy style of sake that, before the can, you could only taste at the brewery in Niigata. This undiluted sake evolves every day, so each can is slightly different. Kiku-Masamune ages its Taruzake Junmai Tokkuri in Yoshino cedar barrels, a heavily scented wood used for temples, resulting in sake’s answer to reposado tequila. For the true adventurer, there’s Amabuki’s Tete Japan Botanicals Aromatic Plum 2016, a vintage plum sake infused with citrus peel, ginger root, sansho pepper and dried bonito; it has to be tasted to be believed.
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Sake for the connoisseur
Those who really know their sake should be all over this lot. First up, two bottlings from Katsuyama, made using Yamada Nishiki – seen by many as the king of sake rice. These are the fine wines of sake world; they come in wine-style bottles and have been served to Japanese high society since 1688. Sookuu Junmai Sake comes from ENTER.Sake, a boutique collection curated by musician Richie Hawtin that’s established a cult following. It was made at Fujioka Shuzo, a brewery that only makes 20,000 bottles a year, making this one of ENTER.Sake's rarest types. The gentle spritz, coupled with a mixture of nashi pear, roasted mushroom and cocoa flavours, make it a must-try. Our final one is Snow Crystal Junmai Ginjo Sake from Yuki No Bosha, a producer that has been honoured by the Emperor of Japan and is famed for its fukumi-ka – the fragrance as you hold the sake in your mouth and breathe.
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Sake for the foodies and wannabe bartenders
As anyone who has been to an izakaya in Japan will know, sake is all about socialising, sharing and eating. This makes it an excellent choice for food pairings and mixing into cocktails. Keigetsu’s tangy Yuzu Liqueur – made with a base of junmai daiginjo sake – matches wonderfully with ceviche, Vietnamese lemongrass noodles or spicy Mexican sopa di lima. Takara’s Shirakabe Gura Kimoto Junmai Sake has a creaminess and crisp acidity that’s expert at cutting through the broth of tonkotsu ramen, and is equally adept at handling rich dishes such as carbonara, cacio e pepe or grilled Dover sole. For cocktails, Gekkeikan’s Kanjuku Umeshu Genshu Plum Liqueur makes a summery, lower alcohol alternative to a G&T with red apple and peach flavours. And last, but not least, the Mio Sparkling Sake makes an intriguing swap for sparkling wine in a Mimosa or Bellini, or for soda in a Mio-jito.