If you think sake is only that lukewarm beverage that looks like water but does NOT taste like water and is served in small shot-like glasses, that accompanies any authentic Japanese meal, then it’s time to get over that idea and think again.
We recently went along to Nic Watt’s MASU restaurant, which has dedicated sake evenings where you'll discover that there’s a whoollleee lot more to this drink than you might think. So much so, that their charismatic restaurant manager Fumi Naka—who, incidentally, is an esteemed Sake educator—hosts an excellent #FumiSakeClub in their private dining room. Here you'll come on intimate terms with the delicious brew, understanding the impact a good polishing of the grain has on taste and the whole process it undergoes on its way to your sippin' pleasure. The club aims to get people comfortable when ordering sake, which is becoming a staple on drinks menus in many non-Japanese restaurants and bars around town.
We discovered that sake can taste like anything from a Sauv blanc to a dessert wine and the first and only sake brewing house in New Zealand is in Queenstown. Zenkuro is run by head brewer David and his Japanese wife Yasuko and because their sake doesn't have to undergo any pesky pasturization in order to be imported to our shores it tastes unlike any sake you're likely to have tried before.
And so, whether you’re dining at MASU or elsewhere, it’s always good to have the heads up about how to approach a new bevvie and to help you on your way, we’ve rounded up nine tips to have you drinking sake like a pro.
#1 Is It A spirit? Is It A wine?
It’s a wine! Who knew? Sake, a rice wine, is fermented in a way unlike any other alcohol. Rice (and not your regular Uncle Ben's either—specific sake rice) is stripped, polished and fermented in the presence of enzymes and yeast.
#2 What’s With The Shot-Sized Glass?
Served in large serving flasks called tokkuri, from which the sake is divvied up into smaller cups called ochoko or guinomi. If you ever wondered why the glasses were so small, it’s because they provide ample refilling opportunities in a social context. But don’t just expect glass—you can even drink sake from divine cedarwood boxes, which are called Masu—the inspiration for the name of the restaurant.
#3 Refill Like A Pro
Tradition says, the tokkuri must be held with two hands when pouring and the person receiving a refill should reciprocate by lifting their glass off the table, holding it with one hand and supporting with the other.
#4 What Never To Do
Always allow someone else to fill your sake cup for you, even if you poured the sake for the rest of the party. It’s all about manners.
#5 Sip, Don’t Shot!
The most common mistake that people make when drinking sake is drinking it like a shot. Easy mistake given the shot-sized vessel, but sake is supposed to be savoured slowly. Before you take a sip, hold the cup close to your face and take in the aroma. Take a small sip and let it linger in your mouth before you swallow. Mmmmmm….
#6 Don’t Overheat
Heat can make the sake lose its flavour. Usually restaurants will advise the lowest-quality sake grade for hot sake, as the heat will destroy most of the delicate balance of flavours anyway.
#7 Scrap The Cheers, Say ‘Kanpai’ As Your Glasses Clink
When drinking with someone of higher status, make an effort to keep the rim of your glass below the rim of theirs as your glasses meet.
#8 Never Leave A Vessel Empty
Be prepared for constant top ups of your ochoko! If you don’t want any more, place your hand on the top of the cup or leave the cup full.
#9 No Words, No Worries
Can’t quite describe the flavour of sake? It’s probably because it’s the only beverage in the world that is considered to have umami, the elusive fifth flavour descriptor.
All this sake talk got you hungry? Slide along to one of Auckland's top Japanese restaurants.