How do you make a 1,200-year-old drink, hip? One way is by calling it the “new wine” and making it an essential ingredient in killer cocktails. That’s what’s happened to sake, the rice-based liquor that is associated with all that is traditional about Japan. Yet from its origins in Shinto ceremonies in the 8th century and its place modern-day weddings, it is currently undergoing a revival.
It may be a laggard compared to sushi in its global appeal but it is increasingly popular among connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine, says Kelvin Zeia, the sake sommelier of Japanese restaurant Zuma in Hong Kong.
“The palate goes from sweet to dry, but there are subtleties between different types of sake,” he says. The alcohol content of around 15% also means it can be a discreet mixer in cocktails.
While it can’t compete with wine for breadth and variety, nor vintages (sake is best drunk “fresh” – within a year or so be being brewed) sake does have a number of grades and types. The complexity of the flavor is dependent on a number of factors; from how much the rice has been polished (to remove the proteins and oils), to the type of water used.
Regional difference then can be detected, says Zeia, as sakes with a cleaner taste will often be made in regions close to mountains with supplies of spring water, rather than lower-lying areas that used more mineral-intense groundwater.
But for novices to begin enjoying sake the essentials come from knowing the three main varieties. For those looking for the Chateau Lafite of the sake world (and looking to splash the cash) there’s Daiginjo, generally believed to be the finest using the highest percentage of polished rice. Like the majority of sake it should be drunk chilled, says Zeia, as heating generally masks the delicate flavors. Generally anything colder than 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) is too cold; hotter than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), too hot.
Junmai sakes can have a variety of flavors and are seen as the middle ranked of the three varieties of sake. Made with only rice and koji, the rice mold mixture essential for fermentation, no other alcohol is added. The last main type is Honjozo, that doesn’t use rice polished to the same degree as Ginjo and Junmai sakes. It also has added distillation alcohol and is the type more likely to be served warmed as it has a lighter taste compared to the others.
But better than just drinking sake in its own is pairing it with with food; a sake can be found that complements pretty much anything except for really spicy dishes, says Zeia.
“With white fish, seafood or sushi, go for a Junmai,” he suggests. “With grilled meats, go for a long measure, Junmai Daiginjo sake, like the brand Born, aged in the bottle for about 18 months.”
With these basics in mind, the world of sake can be explored. But ultimately, says Zeia, finding the right sake to suit your own taste is half of the pleasure.