What’s the deal with sake?

The Ja­panese favourite of­fers a world of taste

The Irish Times Magazine - - DRINK - JOHN WIL­SON

Sake opens you up to a dif­fer­ent world of tastes and flavours. It is a drink quite like no other, sub­tle, some­times fra­grant and fruity, at other times rich and al­most funky. It has been made in Ja­pan for mil­len­nia. In­ter­est out­side of Ja­pan has ex­ploded over the last decade, es­pe­cially in the top restau­rants of Lon­don, New York and else­where. Here in Ire­land, we be­gan to show in­ter­est dur­ing the Celtic Tiger years, but it is only re­cently that wine im­porter Colly Mur­ray set up Ret­rosake ( sake. ie), and be­gan to im­port qual­ity sake. He now has a port­fo­lio of more than 40. He treated me to a fas­ci­nat­ing tast­ing in Dy­lan McGrath’s Taste, where din­ers can chose from a huge se­lec­tion.

The word “sake” means al­co­hol in Ja­panese; rice wine is called ni­hon­shu, but is la­belled as seishu. Made by brew­ing a spe­cial strain of rice, it is tech­ni­cally closer to beer than wine. The rice is steamed and in­jected with a spe­cial fer­men­ta­tion culture known as koji. It reaches 14- 20 per cent al­co­hol, but is usu­ally di­luted with wa­ter to about 15 per cent al­co­hol. It can be dry or sweet; the ni­hon­shu- do on the la­bel gives an in­di­ca­tor of sweet­ness. Sake does not ma­ture with age ( although Koshu sake has been aged in a tank prior to bot­tling). The clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem is com­pli­cated; it makes wine nomen­cla­ture look like child’s play. Cheap sake ( fut­suchu), which makes up 70 per cent of the mar­ket, con­tains ad­di­tives, in­clud­ing al­co­hol and sugar. Jun­mai mean­ing “pure rice”, is sake made from pol­ished fer­mented rice. Hon­jozo has a lit­tle brewer’s al­co­hol added to the fer­ment­ing rice.

With pre­mium sake, the rice is first pol­ished to re­move the outer bran and proteins, los­ing 30 per cent or more of its orig­i­nal size. Daig­injo sake has had 50 per cent re­moved through pol­ish­ing. The more you pol­ish, the more el­e­gant and re­fined the sake be­comes ( and more ex­pen­sive too!). All pre­mium sake is ve­gan, free of lac­tic acid and con­tains no ad­di­tives.

Sake can be served warm, cold or at room tem­per­a­ture. It de­pends on your pref­er­ence, although heat­ing in­fe­rior sake can be a way of mask­ing the flavours. Many afi­ciona­dos will drink it warm in win­ter, cold in sum­mer, and their finest at room tem­per­a­ture or very lightly chilled. An opened bot­tle will keep in the fridge, but should re­ally be drunk within a few weeks.

Restau­rants in the West ( in­clud­ing Chap­ter One and The Green­house in Dublin) often serve sake dur­ing a meal. The Ja­panese pre­fer to drink it as an aper­i­tif, with sashimi and lighter canapes or with starters. As many sakes have plenty of umami, they open up op­por­tu­ni­ties for all kinds of food. If all of the above seems a lit­tle con­fus­ing, take heart; the best way to learn is to drink it. The fol­low­ing sakes are not cheap, but they are fas­ci­nat­ing, com­plex drinks and well worth try­ing.

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