“In water one sees one’s own face; but in wine one beholds the heart of another” ~Japanese Proverb~
Many Asian delicacies are acquired tastes for Westerners. Raw fish? Seaweed? Hot wine? But most urban diners have given raw-fish-wrapped-in-seaweed a try and come back for more. And in the process, many have learned to love sake, though they may not know it is technically not wine, it’s a brewed product. Sake was traditionally served warmed. This was related to the fact that sake was, until about 30 or 40 years ago, much rougher, sweeter and woodier than it is now. Warming masked the poor quality.? So now, sake of premium quality, such as Junmai Gingo and Junmai Daiginjo can and should be enjoyed chilled like white wine. As far as aged sake, it’s hard to get, expensive, and overall a totally different animal than regular sake – and certainly NOT better in any unequivocal sense. By and large, sake does not improve with age. Drink it young.
If we google earthed Japan, it appears to run sort of north-to-south yet sort of east-to-west. Bearing that in mind, as a rule sake flavor profiles tend to be tight, compact, and fine grained in the north-east, and as one moves further south and west, the flavor profiles get broader and more unctuous. This is a broad generality and exceptions of every kind abound as there are roughly 1600 sake breweries in Japan. Sake is made in the depths of winter, when the frozen climate is at its most pure. Many sake breweries are situated in locations expressly designed to capitalize on the pristine qualities that winter can bring to the sake brewing process.
In general, the more the rice used in brewing is milled before being used, the higher the grade of sake. In fact, this is the clearest definition of the ascending grades of sake. Junmai-shu, a full, rich flavored profile, clean and well structured, and Honjozo-shu are made with rice that has been “polished” or milled, to remove at least the outer 30% of the original size of the grains. This means that each grain of rice is only 70% or less of its original size. Junmai Ginjo-shu, Light, fruity, refined, and Ginjo-shu are made with rice polished 40% leaving 60% of the original size of the grain. Junmai Daiginjo-shu, the pinnacle of the brewers’ art is generally light, complex and fragrant, and Daiginjo-shu are made with rice 50% of the original size of the grains. By milling the rice, unwanted fats, proteins, and impurities can be ground away before fermentation begins. This leads to cleaner, more elegant and more refined sake. It also allows more lively aromatics to come about. So the more refined the rice, the more refined the sake. The Junmai designation on a bottle indicates that no distilled alcohol has been added to any style of Junmai sake, and by the way adding alcohol does not make a sake lower grade; it is part of a process of brewing that produces specific results such as lighter, more fragrant sake with a more robust structure and perhaps longer shelf life. Premium sake has proven itself to be worthy of appreciation on the same level as fine wine, although the range of these flavors and fragrances, while admittedly within a more narrow bandwidth than the wine world, are incredibly diverse.
Sake is deceivingly complex. Its flavors and fragrances are more subtle than overt. A sake with a prominent fruity fragrance, like some daiginjo sake, will work well as an aperitif. Sweetness in a sake, within reason, can support a more full flavored dish, accenting richness and saltiness in the dish. Dryer sake can create a nice stage for the freshness and light flavors of fresh seafood. Sake with a piercing acidity works wonderfully with slightly oily foods, like tempura or some baked fish. Low-acidity sake, with its soft touch, blends well with food with a soft tactile facet to it, like sashimi, remember, temperature of the sake greatly affects the sense of acidity. Nigori (translated as cloudy) is an unfiltered sake, resulting in a cloudy or pearly appearance and is generally the sweetest and richest of all sakes. I’ve had Nigori with spicy Thai cuisine and for desert with strawberries, raspberries and chocolate and it was intriguing. Serve this sake well chilled to keep it from warming between servings, and consume it as fresh as possible, most labels will be dated.
Sake has a plethora of textures that can be a true joy to play with when dealing with food. One such tactile polarity is softness versus crispness . A soft sake that absorbs into the palate can serve to refresh it and cleanse it for the next taste, absolving it of any lingering flavors. A more crisp, lively sake can function instead as a contrast to equally assertive food flavors, like pronounced green spices and pepper. Fresh-feeling, refined, light sake rings solidly true with fresh seafood and light vegetarian fare, in particular sashimi and vinegar-laced dishes. Sake with a settled, earthy touch, manifested in traces of bitterness and tartness, acidity and extremely well-rounded tones comes as close as sake can to being a great accompaniment to light meat and poultry.
Naturally there are some things that will not likely go well with sake and its subtleness; strong red meats, massively spicy food, and richly flavored sauces are a few such examples. Within a range and within reason, it is hard to have a total miss, realize that sake is not limited to Japanese or even Asian food. Western food offer so many potential ties to good sake, not to mention the offshoots of fusion cuisines so commonly seen. So with a bit of ingenuity and vision – It should be fun, precisely because it is imprecise and calls for imagination. Check out www.esake.com or www.sake-world.com for two great resources to explore further the gratifying beverage of Japanese Sake. A sake I have been enjoying for the past 20 years Otokoyama “Man’s Mountain”, a Tokubetsu Junmai from Hokkaido Prefecture can be found at Jasons Market Place who, by the way, stock an excellent range of Sake.
Mark encourages your inquiries and questions on the world of wines and spirits and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org