Sake

I always considered Sake as the hot drink with no definite flavour but with a potent punch that left me with scalded lips. As such, I never believed Sake to possess the amplitude of aromas found in grape-based wines.

Then, I visited friends in Beverly Hills who took me to the celebrated Nobu Matsuhisa restaurant where I encountered my first ever, ice-cold sake alongside a foie gras topped off with shitake jus – The wine, fresh and minty, was the perfect foil to the dish. I returned home to find more than a hundred kinds of Sake in the marketplace. Aromatic sakes, floral versions, Sakes with nuances earth, powerful Sakes, delicate Sakes, sweet Sakes, bone-dry sakes and even the rare matured Sake. I quickly discovered that light and dry versions of sake are suited to fish and white meats in delicate sauces whilst the heavier Sakes are perfect for dark meats and heavily sauced dishes, whatever their national origins.

Yet, without the knowledge of Japanese, I was unable to tell which sakes on the shelves are dry, medium or sweet. Fortunately, Lin, who had spent time in Japan came to the rescue and pointed out that the level of sweetness of sake is specified on the label. They are graded from a bone-dry (-4.5)  to a sweet (+15).  In addition serving temperatures are also indicated (5-10 C and 55C).

With Sake, following serving suggestions to the tee is necessary. A sake that is meant to be served cold does not taste very palatable if it is warmed up.  For hot sakes, if steam rises from the sake during the warming process, flavours would be degenerated (In retrospect, I should not have trusted the microwave but instead used gentler heating methods such as a bain marie of hot water).

Sake Savvy

History

Sake making began in Japan during the 3rd Century. All members of a village would gather and chew up in their mouths, rice, chestnuts and millet, which they subsequently expelled into a tub. Saliva converted the starches in the rice mixture into sugar and as soon as the tub was filled, a natural brewing process began. It turned the gooey, mouldy mixture into rice wine called Sake.  If the process sounds unhygienic, take heart that only virgin girls were allowed to finish the brewing as the ‘use’ of Sake in Shinto is considered to be a highly significant aspect of the religious festival. Today, sake is brewed in factories using sterile methods.

Sake types

Like Beaujolais and nouveau wines, Sake is usually bottled and sold the year it is produced, and often consumed within six months. All sake is pasteurized except for ‘Nama’ sake whose delicate constituency demands it is not subjected to heat or oxidation – it spoils easily and should be consumed as soon as it is released. Traditionally, the best sakes are brewed during the coldest days of the year, in winter. ‘Kan-zake’ indicates cold brewed sake whilst ‘Haru-zake’ refers to the spring-season brewed sake.

There are exceptions and various unusual versions of sake – Genshu is undiluted sake with up to 20% alcohol by volume; Kijoshu is port like and Happo sei seishu is a sparkling sake! Milky white ‘cloudy’ nigori is a talking point although aficionados seek out the rare ori cloudy sake. There is also sake made for ageing. The koshu (“old”) sakes are aged in stainless steel from three to seven years; this gives them complex aromas and flavors ranging from soy and nuts to molasses and raisins. Jukuseishu is another term for aged sake. Taru sake is a variation, aged for a shorter time and in cedar or wine casks. There’s also vintage sake. I once tasted a rare vintage 1983 sake that accompanied a steak. It was golden in colour, with bottle bouquet flavours that I had not expected to find in a ‘brewed wine’. I detected soy sauce and mushrooms. The wine reminded me of an aged Riesling-Sherry combination, exhibiting oxidation aromas, an incredible balance of acidity and sweetness, and strong mature wine flavours.

Sake comes in bottle sizes of 160ml, 300ml, 720ml and 1.8 Litres. There is even the tan rei pack, presented in a large milk carton.

Note on The Classifications

Premium: Junmai is made from rice with at least 30 percent husk milled away, and so is Honjozo (premium sake with added alcohol) and Futsu shu (regular sake with added alcohol). Slightly higher grades of sake have the term ‘tokubetsu’ – e.g. Tokubetsu Junmai, or Tokubetsu Honjozo, which indicates more highly polished rice (up to 40%), or the use of very special sake rice.

Super Premium: Junmai Ginjo, and Ginjo (with added alcohol) is made form rice that has at least 40 percent husk milled away.

Ultra Premium: Daiginjo (with added alcohol) and Junmai Daiginjo both have at least 50 percent milled away. Some are made from rice that are 65 percent milled.

Note: There is much overlap within the classifications. A Junmai can be fragrant whilst a Daiginjo could be reserved. Cheap sake has copious amounts of distilled alchohol added to it at the final stages for balance yet a small amount of alcohol added to the final stages of brewing helps to ‘set’ and preserve desirable aromas in ginjo and honjozo sake. The addition of alcohol also inhibits the cultivation of lactic acid bacteria (putrefactive hiochi-kinbacteria), which tends to compromise the flavours of sake.

More on Sake

Fine Sakes are a world apart, just as cheap plonk is different to Grand Cru grape wines. My two favourite high-end Sakes are Isojiman ‘Junmai Daiginjo’ Nakatori 35 (Shizuoka prefecture) and Kokuryu ‘Daiginjo’ Shizuku (Fukui prefecture) – both are a little expensive.

So what makes a sake better or different to another?

Well, Sakes are classified according to how much the rice grain husks are milled and the more the husk is polished away with stone-rollers, the ‘better’ the sake’s grade. Dozens of new yeast strains have also been developed for sake and have been put into use. Each unique yeast strain will give rise to its array of chemical compounds, like esters, alcohols, and acids that affect the nuances of fragrance and flavour.  They have been acknowledged as an important factor for the flavour and especially the aroma of sake. Sake brewers declare water quality as the next differentiating factor that influences the overall taste of the drink. Since ancient times, brewers divined certain pure spring water sources to be the secret to good rice wine – resulting in many of Japan’s best sake prefectures locating their operations near those water sources. Recent findings, based on scientific analysis confirms that, mineral-rich, hard water from springs do make a difference. The resulting sakes have a robust character. These days, with modern filtration and water treatment technology, ideal water is readily available anywhere – and some sake brewers have been known to blend hard and soft waters to achieve the desired balance in their rice wines.

Blind tasting notes of sakes (thanks to Daniel Chia, Lam Chi Mun, David Teo and Hiro who participated)

Rating guide    3 Stars=Outstanding, 2 Stars=Excellent, 1 Star = Good

No

Name of Wine Company /

Sake

Tasting Notes

Prefecture

Rating

Agent / Distributor

1

Whistler

Tosazuru Karakuchi

Honjozo

Kochi prefecture, located on the south coast of Shikoku island is famous for dry styles of sake with a subdued fragrance.

Light florals and hint of rice, dry punchy finish, alcoholic but smooth and clean.

KOCHI

1 ½ stars

2

Whistler

Kuromatsu-Hakushika Yamadanishiki

Honjozo

Hyogo prefecture, of which Kobe is the capital, produces a quarter of all the sakes in Japan. This sake has apple and goma nuances lightly spicy but hot and clean with a vodka like finish.

HYOGO

1 ½ stars

3

Whistler

Momokawa Junmai

Iwate, in the northeastern corner of Honshu is famed for its sake brewing technology – thanks to a businessman in 11678 who introduced sake brewing to locals.

Spice, with mild warm taste, balanced and good for accompanying food.

IWATE

2 stars

4

Whistler

Asabiraki

Junmai

Yellow gold in colour, with barnyard and fish flavours, simple, warm with acidity. Good for grilled food.

IWATE

1 star

5

Whistler

Nanbubijin Tokubetsu Junmai

Aomori prefecture, located on the northern tip of Honshu, is Japan’s as the biggest producer of apples. Light pale yellow in colour. Exuberant with rice flavours mixed with pear, melon and other fruits. Alcohol gives a backdrop of fat richness and savoury warmth.

AOMORI

2 stars.

6

Whistler

Chiyonosono

“Kumamoto Jinriki”

Ginjo

Chiyonosono is located in Yamaga City in the Kumamoto Prefecture of Kyushu island. This prefecture has it own yeast – a vital component for Ginjo sake. Tinge of yellow. Pear, light florals with flavours of wheat, rice and spice chiming in. Fragrant, round, with a dry astringent and acidic finish.

KUMAMOTO

1 ½ stars

7

Makoto-ya

Kiku Masamune Junmai Ginjo

Made from Yamada-Nishiki rice, recognized as the best sake-making rice. It came about in 1923, after Yamada-sui rice was artificially fertilized with pollen from the Tankan-Tosen strain. The rice has larger grains, has more starch, protein and fat. Pear, ginger and sweetcake with citrus and melon. Broad, warm and dry with a minerally taste. Dainty and perfect for sipping despite 16% alcohol.

HYOGO

1 ½ stars.

8

Whistler

Miyasaka “Bessen Kinju” Junmai Ginjo

Made from 80% Miyama Nishiki- and 20% Hitogokochi-rice. Miyama Nishiki rice was developed in this prefecture as Nishiki was too small a grain. The Miyama rice brings an elegance to sakes. Berry bruit, apple, persimmon, yeast, meat and rice aromas. Dry, fresh, with a slightly rough edge but with a round finish. For quaffing.

NAGANO

2 star

9

Whistler

Tedorigawa “Yoshida-kura”

Dai Ginjo

The Ishikawa prefecture is cold (its Noto Peninsula juts out into the Sea of Japan) and perfect for brewing. Best sakes are consumed locally. Over the last four decades, the sake style has shifted from sweet, heavy, full and complex to dry, crisp and fragrant.

This sake has a light yellow tinge. Pungent with florals, pear, apple, rice. Full and balanced with sweetness, develops flavour, complex, and long finish.

ISHIKAWA

2 ½ stars

10

Inter Rice Asia

Obata Shuzo “Manotsuru Daiginjo”

Cold winters, clean water and air, and plenty of rice, and investment in technology is Niigata’s formulae at being one of the favourite sakes in Japan. Gohyakumangoku rice from Niigata, (also from Fukushima, Toyama, and Ishikawa) produces a smooth and clean and dry and slightly fragrant. This sake is warm, round, with rice, peach, florals banana, green vegetables, and a touch of spice and sweetness. It is full and elegant.

NIIGATA

2 stars

11

Whistler

Hakuryu

Dai Ginjo

Niigata’s sakes have been awarded more medals than other prefectures in the last decade. Fruit hints with liquorice, honey, jam, yeast rice, apples, banana, minerals, anis and florals. Smooth, exciting soft yet with grip.

NIIGATA

2 stars.

12

Whistler

Aihara

“Ugo No Tsuki” Dai Ginjyo

Hiroshima’s soft water, low in calcium and magnesium have been cited as a condition for fragrant and soft sakes. This one had a sweet nose, reminiscent of auslese Riesling. Amalgam of apples, melon, florals, and a robust palate with a touch of bitterness. Cool mint style, fragrant and exuberant.

HIROSHIMA

2 ½ stars

13

Whistler

Kokushimuso

Dai Ginjo

The winters are bitterly cold in the middle of the north island of Hokkaido. This sake is slightly sweaty with apple strawberry and yeasty nose, it is warm, round and lightly sweet with some astringency, spice on the finish.

HOKKAIDO

2 stars

14

Inter Rice Asia

Obata Shuzo “Manotsuru Maho” Dai Ginjo

The brewery is located on Sado Island, across from Niigata. Made from the famous Yamadanishiki rice, this has rich aromas with mild cherry brandy overtones. It is full, long warm with astringence and acidity.

NIIGATA

1 ½ stars

15

Whistler

Umenoyado “Bizenocho”

Junmai Dai Ginjo

Nara boasts lots of small breweries but also has a history. In 689, the then-imperial palace in Nara formalized the brewing of sake by establishing a brewing department and a range of sakes were made.

Apple, gooseberry, basket of mixed fruit and rice. Forward acidity, big bodied with spice, vibrant, silky, multi-dimensional – more like grape wine.

NARA

2 ½ stars

16

Whistler

Kitagawa “Tomioh Gin No Tsukasa”

Junmai Dai Ginjo

Thanks to railways (since Kyoto lacked a seaport), Kyoto began producing sake on a large scale in the late 1800’s, and as the 2nd largest producer, Kyoto makes 13 percent of the nation’ sake today. This sake had melon, was fruity, subtle, savoury, was balanced and was soft and light with spice, acidity and warm finish. Panelists were divided on scores here.

KYOTO

2 stars.

17

Makoto-ya

Miyaizumi “Koten Sharaku” Junmai Dai Ginjo

Fukushima is situated next to Niigata and brewers both boutique as well as commercial, make a slightly dry sake with a hint of sweetness. Scent of fresh cooked rice, fruit gym, pandan, banana – complex with mouth-filling flavours, sweet yet dry, lean yet complex with layers, multidimensional, clean lines and multidimensional with a nice tail.

FUKUSHIMA

3 stars

18

Makoto-ya

Tamano Hikari

Junmai Dai Ginjo

Cheese, banana rich and complex but astringent and disjointed – perhaps it’s the hard spring water. Warm finish.

KYOTO

1 ½ stars

19

Whistler

Kitaya “Kansansui” Junmai Dai Ginjo

On the northern part of Kyushu, Fukuoka is sheltered and good for rice growing. Yet not many have heard of the prefecture’s sakes. There are more than 70 breweries in this area. Bubblegum, cherries, white chocolate, pineapple, nashi, dry with back palate sweetness, sharp, and hot, easy drinking.

FUKUOKA

2 stars

20

Makoto-ya

Okuno-matsu Junmai Dai Ginjo

Fukushima prefecture’s sake research institute isolated a special yeast that is responsible for fragrance, lower acid and elegance. This sake, hit high notes with tasters who enjoyed its fragrant rice aromas, forward pear and floral nuances, the lightly sweet yet dry taste, the silky texture, gentle alcoholic finish that was not lacking in acidity either.

FUKUSHIMA

3 stars

21

Inter Rice Asia

Fukugen “Fukumimi” Junmai Daiginjo

The Nagano prefecture in central Honshu is surrounded by high mountains, and ‘Alps’ yeast was developed to bring out fruity, and floral fragrances in the sake. This sake made from Hitogokochi rice showed asparagus, banana, melon, pepper, flowers, melon and rice with a nutty taste. It was warm rich, bold yet delicate with a dry Muscat type taste. Flirty, sweet, yet dry.

NAGANO

2 ½ stars