West Drinks East
No longer found only in major cosmopolitan centres, Japanese restaurants and sushi bars are popping up all over the place, even in staid Atlantic Canada. Little wonder then, that Japan’s best known alcoholic beverage, Sake, is finally getting some well-deserved attention. Until quite recently, the Sakes available here were mostly garden variety stuff, at the lower end of the quality spectrum. You might have tasted one or two of these, perhaps served warm at a Japanese restaurant, and not been overly impressed. Today, though, Sake is beginning to gain respect as more complex and interesting versions are finding their way into the country.
Aficionados will tell you that Sake can be every bit as complex and interesting as wine. Likewise, it has ancient cultural and historical roots. Derek MacKinnon, a trained Sommelier working with Premier Wine & Spirits, a private wine store in Halifax, is a passionate Sake enthusiast. Derek’s wife hails from Yokohama and through her he has developed a strong affinity for Japanese cuisine and, of course, Sake. As he explained, Japanese culture is undergoing quite a revolution and traditional approaches to food and, especially to Sake as a result, are also rapidly changing. A younger, less traditional generation is exploring new, more imaginative approaches. As we in the West have been influenced by Oriental and “fusion” cuisine, parallel influences from the West, are at work in Japan.
A major factor in making Sake more accessible in North America is the emergence of high quality producers in California, including large, but respected brewers like Gekkeikan. This is important for several reasons, not the least of which is getting the product to market in good condition. Top quality Sake is not pasteurised and, unlike wine, does not age particularly well. Shorter transportation time does make a difference.
The arrival of North American-made Sake brings to mind an interesting parallel with the history of wine in the New World. At first, North American made wines were considered clearly inferior to the great wines of Europe. With time, though, they came to be appreciated for their unique qualities. More traditional Japanese devotees apparently still take a dim view of California-made Sake. These New World producers, though, are intent on ensuring the highest possible quality and are rapidly gaining new converts. Cheaper, local ingredients also mean that good American made Sake can be had for about half the price you would pay for Japanese Sake in the West.
While all Sake is made from rice, it is worth understanding a bit about the process and how it defines quality. A special, large grain rice variety, which produces more starch, is used, offering better alcohol potential. The rice is then milled to rid it of disagreeable fats and oils in the outer shell, known to adversely affect flavour. Basically, the more finely milled the grains, the higher will be the quality. While inferior quality Sake will have about ten per cent of the husk removed during the milling process, higher grades will have forty per cent, and the highest quality up to seventy per cent removed.
Although the final result more closely resembles wine than anything else, Sake is achieved through a brewing process more akin to beer-making. Master Sake Brewers are greatly revered for their skills. The variables in the process are very difficult to control and as a result, there can exist significant variation between batches. Unlike the malted grains used to make beer, which will begin to ferment once yeast has been added, Sake rice requires both yeast plus an additional enzyme sprinkled over it, to induce fermentation.
The Basic Styles of Sake
Having been around since ancient times, and with some 1600 Sake brewers in Japan alone, each producing several different brews, the world of Sake is very complex. There are, however, four basic styles, each encorporating a different brewing method. Alcoholic content typically ranges from fifteen to seventeen per cent. Each will have different flavours, although the nuances can de quite subtle, especially to the untrained palate. Like wine regions, Sakes have evolved in different parts of Japan, and as a result, naturally show greater affinities with the local foods. Most Sake is clear, but there do exist unfiltered versions that will appear cloudy.
The first is “Junmai” which means only pure rice has gone into the Sake with no addition of distilled alcohol.
“Honjozo” is made with the addition of a small amount of distilled alcohol. At least thirty per cent of the outer shell of each rice grain is milled off. The addition of alcohol does not determine nor indicate quality; it is simply a different style. It might be compared to fortified wine except for one key difference. Water will also be added to bring the alcohol content back to the same level as Junmai Sake. Honjozo Sake tends to be somewhat sweeter on the palate.
“Ginjo” is a higher grade of Sake using even more heavily milled, hence purer rice, with better flavour. It can be made with or without the addition of distilled alcohol.
“Daiginjo” is a more refined version of “Ginjo.” In this case, sixty-five per cent of the outer rice grain is milled away. It is also made according to meticulously high standards.
“Namazake” indicates that the Sake has not been pasteurised. All the above-mentioned types can also be found and referred to in the “Namazake style” and should be stored cold to preserve its more fragile qualities.
Most of us think of Sake being served warm. In fact, this is really a matter of taste. In Japan, serving temperature has traditionally tended to vary according to season and weather conditions. Contrary to what you might expect, this meant warming it up in the summer and cooling it down in winter. These days, though, you should feel free to experiment. Try serving it at different temperatures and decide for yourself what tastes best. “Once you properly understand it,” says MacKinnon, “Sake is fantastic. I have it every day.” Another of its great advantages he notes is that all premium Sakes at least, are free of the congeners, preservatives, sulphites and other additives that are known to cause hangovers.
When serving Sake, MacKinnon prefers to use bowl-shaped wine glasses rather than the small ceramic cups traditionally used by the Japanese. The larger glass helps to concentrate the floral scents. Aromatic character is so pronounced, though, that swirling to bring out the bouquet is unnecessary. He suggests tasting good quality Sake first slightly chilled (about one hour in the refrigerator) then at room temperature and, lastly, warm. Sake should be warmed by placing the bottle in a hot water bath for a short period.
Sho Chiku Bai Classic Junmai Sake 15% alcohol, Japan ($13.95/750 ml)
“This,” says MacKinnon, “is everyday Sake, the kind you can buy at the grocery store.” At room temperature, the bouquet gives lightly nutty, slightly oily scents with attractive floral overtones. It is lightly sweet and very smooth on the palate with a nutty and raisiny fruit character. There is no sensation of alcohol while the nutty, light fruit sensations linger on the finish. When tasted slightly warm, aromas were more pronounced and the impression of sweetness increased.
Gekkeikan Draft Sake 14% alcohol, USA ($6.95/375 ml)
An unpasteurised version, this one is micro-filtered twice. The bouquet is subtler, showing a trace of almond and an aroma reminiscent of baked squash. It also displays more delicate fruit on the palate and was clearly enhanced when slightly chilled. When heated, more alcohol showed on the nose and delicate flavours were flattened out.
Sho Chiku Bai Premium Ginjo Sake 15%, USA ($11.95/300 ml)
Sweet fruit with nutty and floral scents are more refined and flavours are more concentrated, finishing with dried fruit sweetness. A small amount of soy sauce, which would kill the taste of most wines, actually enhances overall flavour. Add Wasabe (Japanese horseradish) and it is even better, bringing out very fragrant and savoury notes. This one too was better slightly chilled.
Sho Chiku Bai Nama Sake 15%, USA ($11.95/300 ml)
Made from organic rice and unpasteurized, this one was made using water derived from the snowcaps of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Like Scotch whisky, the water used can greatly affect the taste and quality of Sake. It is quite different from its predecessor, with sultana-like fruit, more floral scents and less of the typical nutty aroma. Lightly sweet, with more body, the fruity-nutty flavours really linger in the mouth. Best chilled. Warming brought out increased sharpness and reduced its delicate appeal.
Horin Gekkeikan Sake Ultra-Premium Junmai Daiginjo 15.5%, Japan ($23.99/300 ml)
Seventy per cent milled and painstakingly made, this is an example of very good quality Sake. Bouquet seems less intense but has deeper, lightly sweet character similar to roasted chestnuts. Flavours are richly nutty, texture incredibly smooth and finish is almost ethereal. A small trace of soya cut some of the richness while bringing out other subtle flavours.
A Final Note:
Derek MacKinnon welcomes many of the new trends with Sake, including current experiments with a sparkling style. He deplores the notion of Sake cocktails, however, because as he says, “whatever it tastes like, the subtle flavour of Sake will have disappeared.”