Peter McCombie, Master of Wine, ran a very informative sake tasting session at the recent Restaurant Show in London. He started by outlining the production process of sake (which is outlined in detail in the Saucy Dressings post, Guide to Sake, by Museum of Sake founder, Natsuki Kikuya). He explained that a brewing process is used, which is closer to beer making than wine production.
And he also pointed out that, although it’s likely that sake originated in China, the drink is now synonymous with Japan – indeed the word ‘sake’ in Japanese means ‘the wine of Japan’. Like many of the best alcoholic drinks in the West (Champagne… Benedictine…Trappist beer to name just a few) sake was also originally developed by monks.
Sake is made of rice – the more it’s polished, the more refined it is. Koji mould is the ingredient used to ferment it.
You can find a post on sake tasting, Sake Beyond Sushi, on Peter McCombie’s blog, here.
The main types of sake are:
- Junmai – polished to 70% (ie 30% of the rice has been polished off). Acid levels are low. This generally goes well with seafood and sushi.
- Honjozo – same amount of polishing, but smoother, rounder.
- Ginjo – 68% polishing
- Daiginjo – the most expensive and the highest polished at 50% – half the rice gone! This needs to be served chilled. Pairs well with meat.
How to taste sake
Throw away any preconceptions you may have if you are a wine taster! Sake has buttoned down, precise, clean flavours.
Pairing sake with food
Sake contains umami. Most wine goes very badly with foods with a lot of umami such as salads, but sake pairs well. As a result many non-Japanese restaurants are now offering it, and it is increasingly used in tasting menus. Umami occurs a lot in Italian food, and Peter McCombie told us that an Italian friend of his used it when cooking a ragú (and, heresy, also drank sake with it).
Then we got on with the tasting!
How long does sake keep?
Once open it will keep for about a week in the fridge.
The eight sake we tried
No 1 – Futsu-shu
This sake is presented in a Tetra Pak carton! 50-60% of sake production is sold in these cartons, some is good (the simplest) …. and some not so good! It smells, not surprisingly, of rice! It’s best served warm or at room temperature, and is normally 14 – 16% ABV. This particular sake is 14.5%. It smells of orange blossom, melon rind, honey… and it’s a bit yoghurty.
No 2 – Honjozo ‘Sky Conqueror’
This was a serious step up from the Futsu-shu. ‘Karakuchi’ means ‘crisp’ and this had a clean, peppery taste with a hint of coriander seed.
It would pair well with strong tasting food such as calamari, tuna, any Thai cuisine…. or anything with a peppery, spicy sauce.
No 3 – Tokubetsu – Honjozo
‘Tokubetsu’ means ‘premium’, or ‘best’. This sake comes from Niigata. It’s 16% ABV, with a polishing ratio of 60%. This sake has more power and weight than the previous sake, and “the balance is lovely.”
No 4 – Konishi Silver – Ginjo
This sake comes from a brewery owned by the same family since 1550. It’s located in Kyoto, which is one of the most important prefectures for sake production in Japan. Water quality is important in sake, as it is in whisky. This sake was the most intense we’d tried so far. McCombie commented that this sake was the most intense so far tasted, “there’s something slightly exotic about it…tropical fruit? Gingerbread?”.
He advised that it would pair well with meaty shellfish such as oysters, scallops and crab.
No 5 – ‘Hidden Glade’ – Daiginjo
This sake comes from the Akita area of Japan – an unrepentantly cold and chilly part of the country. It has a gentle power… it’s not heavy, with a 60% polishing ratio although it tastes as if it is less polished. There are flavours of cucumber, liquorice, apple, and melon.
It would pair well with roast duck or chicken. It has strong umami flavours, and would also go well with umami-rich foods such as tomatoes and Parmesan.
No 6 – ‘Purple Warrior’ – Junmai Yamahai
This sake was much darker than the others, and McCombie advised against tasting it – “it’s been too long in the bottle and now tastes woody…funky..”. When in the correct condition this has an old-fashioned, more punchy style than the others. It’s 68% polished, 15% ABV, and costs around the £30 mark.
No 7 – ‘Stream’ – Junmai Daiginjo
This sake comes from a 150 year old facility, and it’s made from sake-specific rice. McCombie told us that it was “the most ‘winey’ so far. But it has a savoury note that you wouldn’t expect to find in wine”. Flavours were of Sauvignon and elderflower. “This sake has a restrained intensity…it’s not flashy…serve this cool,” McCombie advises.
It would pair well with asparagus or ceviche.
No 8 – Hideyoshi – Junmai Daiginjo
This is a sake that was brewed this year in winter, so it has more stability. Making sake involves a lot of physical hard work – there’s a lot of lifting. This sake is alluring and fragrant, containing melon, cucumber, cool, savoury, ricey flavours. This is ‘the best of the best’.
The rituals of politeness surrounding the drinking of sake
McCombie explained that there are certain traditions surrounding the drinking of sake.
- Unless of course you are drinking alone, be careful not to top up your own glass! (McCombie said he often forgot about this one). Sake should be served to you and vice versa
How to serve sake
- It’s fine to serve chilled sake in wine glasses, but only in small amounts.
- Otherwise it may be served in tokkuri (porcelain flasks), and then poured into sakazuki or choko (little ceramic cups)
- Alternatively it may be served in masu (a small box used to measure rice). A cup is then put inside the masu, and filled with sake. The cup needs to be filled to the top to indicate generosity.
I attended other great panels and sessions at the 2019 Restaurant Show. This included panels about branding and storytelling and training in the hospitality industry, and a tasting of low and no alcohol beer.