Don’t be intimidated by Sake – it’s more approachable than you realize
Intimidated by sake? Take heart: You’re undoubtedly not alone.
In fact, with an estimated 40,000 brands of sake in Japan, you’d probably be a little foolish not to be worried that wading into the world of rice wine might land you in deep water pretty quickly. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to get better.
Some of the confusion comes from the fact that we think of sake as rice wine, when, for starters, it’s a brewed product, making it more analogous to beer.
“Sake is not classified by the rice strain that they’re using so it’s not like wine, where the grape varietal is predominant in identifying it,” says Miki Ellis, sake specialist for Vancouver and Toronto’s Miku restaurants. “Which can actually be a little more consumer-friendly since you don’t have to learn names like Miyama Nishiki, Omachi or Gohyakumangoku — you know, crazy Japanese words for all the different strains.”
Unless, of course, you really want to, or are determined to master the next-level details of sake production, since, to the top experts, the rice does matter. But, as Ellis explains, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the “polish,” which refers to the level of milling the rice has been subject to prior to fermentation. The process removes the husk from the rice (where the proteins and oils live), leaving mostly starch that can be converted into sugar.
“I read a sake label like I would an Italian wine label, in that once you figure out what each word means, it’s kind of like putting a recipe together, and that’s what you have in the bottle,” she explains. “So if you had a label that read ‘junmai-daiginjō-nigori-genshu,’ when you break it down, you find out that junmai means pure rice, daiginjō means high-polish, nigori means cloudy and genshu means cask-strength. What you’re going to have is ‘x.’”
Although there are some funky, unpasteurized, cloudy and unique sakes being produced that have a serious cult following, Ellis leads novices towards the gold standard — a clear, high-polish sake — so they can establish a good baseline.
And whether it’s a funky sake or a clear and polished one, she strongly suggests that, when making cocktails with it, bartenders should showcase the specific brand’s unique flavour — often melon, pear, apple mixed with floral and herbal notes — as opposed to try using it as a vodka substitute. In other words, put away your saketini recipes and learn to love this Japanese icon for its own sake.
As an excellent example of a sake-forward cocktail, Ellis shares her Aburi Pearl with Quench:
1 1/2 oz Momokawa Pearl
1 oz Pama (pomegranate liqueur)
1 oz spiced ginger syrup (simple syrup with fresh ginger and bird’s eye chilis)
Tōgarashi sugar (Japanese chili spice with sugar — for the rim)
Shake all ingredients — except ginger and tōgarashi sugar — over ice. Rim a rocks glass with tōgarashi sugar and fill with crushed ice. Strain cocktail into rimmed rocks glass and garnish with candied ginger on skewer.