On the rice wine trail
The Japanese island of Honshu is fertile ground for sampling sake
WHAT I know about sake could fit on the sliver of tuna in a food court sushi roll. Basically, I like it cold. So it isn’t as if I am any kind of expert when I sign up for a weeklong tour of sake breweries and bars in Japan. We are a tiny cohort of two couples and two guides as we traverse Japan’s main island of Honshu from the southeast to the northwest, visiting four family-owned breweries and some great little eateries. We explore historic villages, catch trains so small we are the only passengers, become familiar with public bathhouse etiquette and learn quite a bit about sake.
The main misconception about sake is that it’s as boozy as a spirit. Visions of sake-sozzled salarymen snoozing on a midnight subway have many wine drinkers convinced sake is a knockout. Yet straight sake is 19-20 per cent alcohol, whereas spirits are about 40 per cent. Most rice wine is then diluted to about 16 per cent. Compare that with, say, shiraz, which is often 15 per cent. Undiluted sake is called genshu and, as you would expect, it’s a punchier mouthful. It works really well as an aperitif and is on the lists of a few leading restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, served chilled.
Hot sake gets bad press in Australia. There’s a belief that the inferior stuff is heated and the good stuff is refrigerated. Yet most of the sake brewers we meet prefer to drink it warm. One of the theories on optimum temperature and sake goes to origins — coastal sake should be drunk chilled and mountain sake consumed hot.
At the Benten Musume brewery in the mountains of Tottori in Honshu’s west, hot sake certainly makes sense. Through the open door we can see snow piled up against the dormant trees. It’s chilly out there but it’s colder inside, so it’s not until the sake warming on a hob finally reaches the right temperature, and the cups are passed around, that my toes stop sending urgent escape messages to my brain.
Benten Musume’s owner, Yoshito Ohta, looks bemused when I put the temperature and origin theory to him over dinner at a tiny bar-restaurant. He likes his sake hot and subtle, so it partners food in a wellmannered way. Our chef, in a white lab coat and tie, works efficiently behind the tiny bar to serve us a menu of small, perfectly formed seasonal dishes — lotus root dumpling stuffed with eel; clam soup with fresh wakame; and firefly squid. The sake, which is austere when cold, blossoms with the heat and the food, and it’s all delicious.
Even the smallest Japanese supermarket has a good collection of chilled and room-temperature sake in sizes ranging from 180ml to the traditional 1.8-litre bottles. The latter is not as scary as it looks, as sake doesn’t go off like wine, so an open bottle can be left on the shelf all year. (The exception is unpasteurised nama sake, which is best kept in the fridge and drunk within a month.) You can even buy sake ring- pull glasses from vending machines (it’s better than you’d think). Most fun for a sake tasting, though, is an izakaya dedicated to sake, such as the one we visit in Osaka.
Chef Itogawa at Komnobe izakaya has a great selec- tion of sake cups and jugs, including the beautiful etched tin variety considered the best for heating rice wine. He also has furious burns of different ages and colours up his arms, and a kitchen so small that none of the saucepans can afford handles. After a delicious seasonal meal, I ask about his food philosophy. Hesays he just wants everyone to enjoy sake.
Our tour has been organised by Sydney sake importer Sakae Takahashi, who is a fan of small, family-owned breweries. Most modern breweries are stainless-steel factories run by computers, but those we visit are still hands-on.
The final one on our itinerary boasts the only nonJapanese toji (master sake brewer) in the industry. Philip Harper fell in love with sake when he came from England to Japan to teach English in the 1980s. He says there is a sake for all occasions and that it’s an easy match with any food. Blue cheese threw him for a few years, but he thinks he’s finally cracked it with a genshu sake of not overly polished rice, left to develop for longer than usual.
Harper’s take on the hot-cold question is that you should try a sake at all temperatures and work out what you like. He shows us what he means over a feast of seasonal snowcrab in a private dining room in our ryokan.
I am convinced. After my week-long tour I now know a whole lot more about sake, including that I like it warm, hot and cold.