The last few years have seen a big increase in saké listings beyond Japanese restaurants, suggesting the category could be on the verge of something big. Choose ginjo, choose umami and serving cups. Choose rice… says Anna Greenhous, as part our our current focus on Japan
This is hardly surprising given the diversity of premium styles now available, and saké’s suitability for both food matching and cocktails.
Made from rice, saké is not distilled but brewed, a bit like a beer. Koji, a mould, is used to break down the starches into sugar for fermentation, in place of malting. Stylistically, saké drinks are probably the most similar to wine, meaning, annoyingly, that it doesn’t quite fit any drinks category.
Saké holds an intrinsic place in Japanese culture. Historically made by priests in Shinto shrines, later in breweries, saké’s popularity peaked in 1970s Japan before suffering a sharp decline.
The seeds of its fall were sown during the Second World War when, due to rice shortages, brewers churned out cheap, poor-quality saké, increasing yields by adding lots of distilled alcohol and sugars.
Later on, as foreign drinks such as beer, whisky and wine rose in popularity, saké became unfashionable, seen as a hangover-inducing drink for old men.
As the saké market shrank dramatically, almost 2,000 breweries, often owned by the same family for generations, were sadly closed forever.
The remaining saké breweries’ fight for survival shifted focus from quantity to quality. Modern technology, combined with research into new and old brewing techniques, led to the rise of premium and more varied saké styles as breweries attempted to make their products stand out. These sakés have attracted a new generation of saké drinkers, both in Japan and elsewhere.
The brewing process affects the flavour to a greater degree than the rice, with yeasts carefully chosen to create specific flavours.
Amongst other factors which impact the final style are the koji mould used, water hardness, maturation, and brewing, pressing and filtration techniques.
Rice varieties do give different flavours, but not to the same degree as grapes for wine. Amongst 60-plus saké rice varieties, Yamada Nishiki is often considered to make the most elegant saké. However, saké is increasingly being made using other, often local, varieties to create more varied, terroir-driven styles.
The degree to which the rice is polished down (outer parts, which can give off-flavours, removed) impacts the style too. Sakés are graded according to how much must be polished away, ranging up from basic Futsushu, to Honjozo (70% remaining), up to the most premium Ginjo (60%) and Daiginjo (50%).
Ginjo and Daiginjo have a little alcohol added, not to increase yields, but to draw out flavours, making them particularly aromatic and light. Junmai sakés have no alcohol added creating more solid, often ricey styles which some hold in higher esteem.
Serving Japanese style
In Japanese restaurants people tend to enjoy the cultural experience of pouring saké from Japanese flasks into ‘ochoko’ cups. It is traditional to share, pouring for each other, with small cups enabling you to show your attentiveness. In non-Japanese restaurants and bars, serving saké in a wine glass works well, and can change people’s perceptions of the drink, encouraging them to try it.
Serving temperature depends on style, personal preference and accompanying food. There’s a whole spectrum of serving temperatures with evocative Japanese names from ‘yuki-hie’ (‘like snow’: 0-5C) to ‘tobirikan’ (‘jumping’ hot: 55C).
Delicate and aromatic styles tend to taste better cold, those with fuller flavours at room temperature or warmed. One saké can taste different at various temperatures. Generally, the colder the saké, the drier it tastes; the warmer, the sweeter. The label will often give one or more suggested serving temperatures.
To warm saké, you can use machines which automatically heat it to the required temperature. Alternatively, place the saké bottle in a pot of hot water, swirling to ensure the heat is evenly distributed – making sure to check the temperature with a thermometer.
Saké and food
Saké is incredibly food friendly, matching well to a wide variety of foods and cuisines. Due to its high amino acid content and umami, it actually boosts the flavour in foods, particularly those with high umami content such as soy sauce, miso, mushroom and cheese.
A similar approach to wine pairing can be taken, such as matching similar intensities of flavour, sweet with puddings, contrasting sweet with salt, and acidic to cut through fat.
Styles vary, but Daiginjo and Ginjo are often light, aromatic and fruity, working well with sushi, seafood or as an aperitif. Namazake is unpasteurised, giving it a distinctive fresh, lively taste. It’s great as an aperitif or with sushi or cheese.
Junmai sakés typically have a more solid flavour profile, with ricey notes that help them pair well with a range of fuller flavoured foods like meats. Honjozo and Futsushu are more simple, but often staple, inexpensive, everyday sakés, pairing well with certain foods.
More unusual styles include sparkling sakés, which are great served like champagne or in cocktails. They range from simple, light, sweet-sour styles, popular with those new to saké, to more sophisticated, usually drier styles, created by re-fermentation in the bottle.
Koshu-aged sakés tend to be full flavoured, with complex nutty, caramel, soy sauce-like notes. Those aged slowly at cool temperatures have a milder flavour profile. Depending on the style and sweetness, they work well as a digestif or with richly flavoured dishes like black cod and dark chocolate puddings.
Bodaimoto, Yamahai and Kimoto are old, labour-intensive brewing techniques producing acidic sakés with earthy flavours that work with fatty foods like wagyu beef and cheese.
Tarusaké is an often inexpensive, traditional style, matured in cedar casks giving spicy cedar notes. These pair well with rich ramen and meaty casseroles.
Nigori sakés, cloudy with rice sediment coarsely filtered, are often a little sweet with distinct ricey notes. The rich sediment gives an interesting mouthfeel and appearance which can vary from a light mist, to opaque and creamy. Nigori are surprisingly good with a range of foods. They are really good for experimentation, as the sweet style is great with creamy puddings like tarte au citron.
Finally, there’s infused sakés – most commonly paired with fruits like plum (umeshu), yuzu and peach. They work perfectly as dessert wines, particularly when paired with fruit cheesecakes. Infused sakés also work in cocktails, or topped up with a splash or two of soda or tonic water to make a low-alcohol refreshing spritzer.