Sake. It’s Japanese wine, isn’t it? No it’s their beer but no bubbles. No no, it’s Japanese whisky, right? Firewater! Dangerous stuff!
Well, not quite.
TML’s early experiences were of a warm, sometimes hot, clear liquid with a weak sherry taste served in a small pottery flask sipped from ceramic cups at our local Japanese restaurant. We enjoyed it at the time but thought that was all there was to it.
A few years back, some new friends who had lived many years in Osaka introduced us to the inside, outside, length, breadth and depth of this fascinating drink. The manufacture, the history, the serving and sipping traditions.
All this happened just before TML was on a stopover to Europe at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. We arrived at something like 4 in the morning and had the lounge to ourselves. A surprising welcome was set up in one corner, an unsupervised tasting of sakes!
Hmmm. Never too early for a tasting.
There were seven of them, the first three chilled and, unable to read the language, I could not determine a difference in district, method or quality level on the label. They were quite similar with a gradation of intensity but all were very fine and clean, a touch citrussy and frisky. The last four were served warm and were much more differentiated, more character with each succeeding bottle.
I was tasting left to right. Was I correct?
The last one looked and tasted like a bucolic sauternes. Robust and generous.
Shame I couldn’t read what I was appreciating.
Where to begin?
There are references to alcoholic rice derived beverages in Japan and China a couple of thousand of years ago, and sake-style beverages were mentioned in Japanese writings in 712 AD, but it appears the sakes we know today were really only properly codified in the 20th century.
There are presently many styles and levels of quality from many Japanese ‘breweries’, variations as great as you might expect from Scotch whisky distilleries or indeed Australian wineries but there are only four ingredients in modern sake.
Rice, water, yeast and koji. The first three you will be familiar with; koji is a mould derived from the rice.
It’s a special rice (there are many as 80 varieties of sake rice) not suitable for daily eating but perfect for polishing to remove the outer bran with its proteins and oils. What is left is pure starch and the quality of the final product is affected by how much of the outer shell is polished off. 50% is not quite as good as 60% or 70%.
The reduced rice is steamed. The added yeast and koji work their magic, fermenting into myriad flavours and alcohol. The process is more like beer brewing than wine or spirit making.
There are obviously many intricacies involved and adapted by each maker, but the final product which may be clear or cloudy is about 20 % alcohol. This is usually reduced with pure water down to 15% for the ones you will buy here.
The honorable beverage
Sake occupies a noble place in Japanese history and culture. It is respectfully served at State and religious festivals and the leading brewers are feted like musicians or artists. The limpid liquid of their labours may be honoured at Royal banquets or sipped in working men’s bars.
Sake is served in a takkuri, a ceramic flask. It can be chilled, room temperature or warmed, depending on the occasion, the quality and the preferences of the host. It is poured into a small ceramic cup called a choko. Or sometimes into a small square wooden box called a masu. A generous host will pour into a choko inside a masu so the sake overflows into the box. You are favoured.
The toast offered is ‘kampai’ which means ‘empty glass’.
A new champion is named
Recently TML attended a gathering at Sydney’s Star to congratulate Yukino Ochiai only the third person in Australia (the first was the legendary Tetsuya Wakuda) to achieve the top global honour in the sake industry. The Japan Sake Brewers Association has named her a Sake Samurai.
This does not compel her to come out swinging a sword, and she has been recognized not for doing exam papers but for being a true missionary for the product. There are only 50 Sake Samurai in the world, 16 of them women.
Ochiai talks about her 5-year journey to this point. Not being a perfect mum because of the travelling and study. She thanks her own mum, her kids, her husband for their patience. Yuki as she is known is wearing her mother’s kimono in vibrant white with peach, ochre and blue panels. She wore it as a mark of respect on the night.
Yuki and her husband Andrew Cameron set up Deja Vu Sake Co in 2012 planning to introduce lesser know brewers to this country. They now represent five of them and showcased them this evening. Yuki spoke about the variations in style which, similar to wine, are affected by the district, the water especially (hard water gives a drier sharper style, soft water is more gentle, leading to a softer palate) and the subtleties of approach taken by the brewers.
The tasting notes.
Here is our summary, in the order they were presented to us, all served cool not chilled. They were matched with mild to generous flavoured snacks which confirmed the food pairing ability of the variations.
Amanoto Junmai Gingo
Traces of a dry sherry aroma. Gentle to our palate, very soft almost shy. Quite full in the mouth but light and delicate. Suggest this to be enjoyed on its own, or with simple seafood.
Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo
A pleasant uplifting nose of sweetish ripe Oriental fruits. Rich and full- bodied with hints of yellow and green vegetables. A nice crisp ending of floral acid.
Houraisen Kasumizuki Junmai
This one seems gentler with elegant fruitiness. Lovely round and full like an aged Hunter semillon. A zing of real umami flavours to end. A good food match
Tengumai Yamahai Jikomi Junmai
Gentle with citrusy notes. A touch of straw and hay. The very essence of sake. Nice round, mid-weight with a soft finish.
Yoshinogawa Gensen Karakuchi
Ripe and fruity, young and zestful. A fine whoosh of flavours. Savoury and exhuberant. In a glass tasted blind it might be a white wine you can’t quite pick.
A sake in every glass.
The Deja Vu ambition, already well on the way to achievement, is to bring sake out from its natural niche in Japanese restaurants to a much broader audience, so we enjoy all it has to offer with all kinds of cuisines. Sake has less acidity than most wines and the extra touch of umami flavours makes it a splendid match with a wide range of foods. For example the umami makes it a natural with cheese and olives, Yuki says.
Yuki says she will be happy when she sees Aussies happily chatting with a glass of sake in one hand and pizza in the other.
For more information go to www.dejavusake.com.au