Simply mention the word ‘sake’ to your average Australian diner, and it will probably conjure up disturbing, forgettable memories of throat defiance and gut spasms for most that you dare to ask.
The mysterious tipple offered at Japanese restaurants can be a somewhat dreaded experience, and most will politely decline the kind waitress’s offer.
However, like most things exported from Japan (sushi, sashimi and wacky game shows to name a few we love) it’s only a matter of time before the craze strikes and takes hold forever more. Perceptions of sake (pronounced sah-keh, not sah-kii) are already changing, and they’re changing very quickly—consumption in Australia is currently growing 10% year on year.
So let’s get the facts straight first and foremost… What is sake? It’s a not a spirit, it is sake! Made from rice and water, it’s completely preservative free, best served at 40-45 degrees (depending on the type of sake) with an alcohol content at a quaffable level of 15-16%. The more the rice is polished during production, the more elegant and pure the drink.
In fact, appreciating sake is much like appreciating wine. First look at the colour, appreciate the initial bouquet and you swirl it in your glass. It’s a product of quality and refinement. What’s most important though is that you appreciate it as something new, and leave your preconceptions at the door. Oh, and no shotting it either, you lout!
Yukino Ochiai of the Sydney Wine Academy is a major advocate for this growing trend, and highlights some key points for beginners. “80% of a sake bottle is water, making the water quality very important… Japanese mineral water is one of the softest in the world because of it’s low mineral content”.
Ochiai also reminds us that, “sake quality is often associated with price, so make the investment in a slightly more expensive bottle—you’ll thank me for it!”.
So… where to start? Starting off with a junmaiginjo is recommended; it’s a particularly aromatic sake with a more accessible flavour. While sake goes well with Japanese food, it's versatile enough to be matched with a myriad of other dishes. We suggest being a little adventurous and open to experimentation beyond purely Japanese food. For example, it goes surprising well with goats’ cheese, and stripped-back, simple cuisine but could even replace a white wine with shellfish.
In order for sake to become a staple in our dining diets, a little more education and budget from the breweries' marketing teams is required. We have no doubt that it’s going to be almost impossible to avoid soon, so rather than fight it, open up your mind and let your palate have a sake party.
You could pick up your own bottle from most decent bottle shops in Sydney, or you could try one of these tried and tested spots in the city:
So you want to be a sake sommelier (it’s a thing)...
Firstly, you need to like Japanese sake! Brush up on your knowledge on sake basics (how its made, the history and regional differences) and then check out the Sydney Wine Academy who offer specialised Sake Education courses. Then you’ll be well on your way to becoming a sake sommelier. Kanpai!
Now you know about sake, it's time to learn about Japanese whisky!
Image credit: Yukino Ochiai and Anita Wilhelm