Heaven’s sake

We call it sake, but, in  Japan, sake means any  alcoholic beverage. The  word the Japanese use for  rice wine is nihonshu.

We call it sake, but, in Japan, sake means any alcoholic beverage. The word the Japanese use for rice wine is nihonshu.

For a country that prides itself on its collective ability to imbibe alcohol, we know surprisingly little about sake. Ben Canaider dishes the rice.

Sake suffers from more misconceptions than perhaps any other alcoholic beverage in Australia. Ask a collection of imbibers at a bar or around a dining table what they know about this drink, and about the only things they will get right is that sake is made from rice and that it comes from Japan.

Furthermore, sake seems to have a reputation as something of a brain dissector. I’ve had people confidently tell me that it is like grappa, or tequila, or vodka … or worse. Maybe even in a league of its own.

Such comparisons are far from the truth, for sake is Japanese rice wine. It’s not a distilled beverage. It is a clear liquid that sits somewhere between beer and wine, so, in that case, it actually is in a league of its own. It is a drink that usually comes in at around 15 per cent alcohol by volume, and, according to one manufacturer, doesn’t give you a hangover.

This last point—which I think is disputable—might have something to do with how sake is made. Japonica rice is where it begins. This rice is milled (or polished) down to 75 per cent, 60 per cent, or even 40 per cent of its original kernel size. The idea here is to remove the bran layers on the outside of the kernel, thus removing any bran oil from the rice. The more you polish the rice, the purer the sake will be. It’s the more heavily polished sake that is drunk at cooled or room temperatures, and the less polished sake that’s often warmed up to 50ºC before being drunk at about 35ºC to 40ºC (the idea being that the heating process masks some of the more imperfect flavours). Heated sake is also a winter beverage, of course. But let’s get back to the sake-making process.

Once the rice has been polished, it is washed, steamed, and then incubated with water and yeast to start the fermentation. (In this regard, it is a bit like how whisky starts its production process—and beer, for that matter.) After an initial filtering, the sake is left to briefly rest so that any further sediment might drop out of the solution. It is then filtered again before being pasteurised. So, in a way, a little bit like freshly made and bottled sauvignon blanc, sake is best consumed relatively soon after manufacture. However, unlike sauvignon blanc, it doesn’t contain any sulphites or preservatives. And being made from rice, sake claims to be anti-allergenic and histamine free. Yes, it is starting to sound like a bit of a health tonic, isn’t it?

The problem lies with appreciating it. Even stalwart sake imbibers and sake brewers themselves admit that sake is an initially tricky drink for westerners to get their heads around. Which is why sake is often approached as if it is a wine. Certainly sipping sake is the way to go, and using wine glasses like XL5s are OK; but some restaurants prefer to use Riedel stemware. The Riedel Vinum Series Sauvignon Blanc glass—sorry, stem—is a glass that seems to do the sake thing well. Then again, you could always get some Riedel sake glasses, which look a little bit like egg cups.

Treating sake like wine also makes sense in the way we describe it and the way sake is a very natural—almost necessary—partner to food. Two characteristics dominate sake’s flavour and aroma profile: acidity and yeast. Around these qualities fall the myriad terms of the botanical world that we so often use to describe wine. With sake, it is the botanicals of white wine that are most prevalent. Citrus notes, some nuttiness, tropical fruits, grains. Other common tasting terms include honey, banana, steamed rice and (surprise, surprise) soy sauce. Such terms and such an approach in general shouldn’t make us too surprised to learn that sake sommeliers now exist within Australia.

With acidity the key to sake’s flavour, it is no wonder that the Japanese think their drink is more of a palate cleanser than a flavour platform in its own right. And if you think of the subtle intrigue of so much Japanese tea, then this will make sense. What is also going to make sense is that you will never win the hearts and minds of Barossa shiraz lovers by trading them up (or is that down?) to a bottle of sake with their dinner …

Different styles of sake exist. The posh style is called ginjo —this is premium gear made from rice polished down to 40 per cent. Genshu is more full-bodied than ginjo; and there’s also a style called nigori, which is a little cloudy, due to its coarser filtration. Sake also varies wildly according to its SMV—its sake meter value. This is a positive or negative value given to sake based on its dryness or sweetness. Positive values of +10 are very dry; values of -4 are quite sweet; and a score of about +3 is considered neutral. As you can see, understanding sake soon starts to make wine appreciation look a little simple. ≤

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