Japan sure knows how to keep us well fed and watered. First it was sushi that got us excited, then they went and outdid Scotland with their award-winning whiskies and now it’s all about Japan's oldest (and best-kept) secret: sake.
Sake has been sipped in Japan for over 1000 years, so it's about time the rest of the world caught on to how damn good this stuff is. Drink it cold, drink it at room temperature, drink it hot; just get to drinking it.
Ask this question in Japan and you might receive confused looks! In Japanese, ‘sake’ refers to beer, wine and all alcoholic drinks, but to the rest of the world, the ‘sake’ that we’re talking about is a heady mix of fermented rice, koji (a yeast that's made from rice) and water. If you happen to be in Japan and fancy sake, ask for a nihonshu (Japanese alcohol) and you’ll get the kind of delicious drink you’re expecting. And not just a beer.
There are a few rules for drinking sake. First up, if you’re going to order it in a restaurant, you’ve got to pronounce it right: it's 'sah-keh' not 'sah-kee’. Next, if you’re drinking with friends, don’t ever pour your own - it’s a total faux pas. Go on and serve them whilst they serve you; it’s a sign of respect. If you want to go all out, it’s also tactful in Japanese culture to hold your sake cup up with one hand and place the other hand underneath the cup. But now we’re just being fussy.
After the sake has been poured into your small cup (which is called a sakazuki) hold it up to your nose and take a deep whiff of that aroma, like you would do with a wine, then take a small sip and let it linger. Keep in mind that sake, in all its seemingly small glory, is potent: so even if it seems to glide down your throat painlessly, be cautious and slow your roll.
Like wine, it’s usually only the cheaper stuff that you should be heating up; a good sake is best served cold or even at room temperature.
That said, if you’re sipping sake on your night out, it’s best to ask the sommelier or staff at which temperature a specific sake will be best enjoyed. For some brands of sake, some sommeliers will even recommend tasting them at different temperatures so you can try what’s best for your palate. Just be sure to avoid extremes when it comes to chilling and warming as you don’t want to disrupt the sake’s distinct flavours and aromas.
THE VARIETIES OF SAKE
The Japanese have been making sake for a very, very long time so it’s safe to say there are more than a few good varieties; as this is the case, here’s a simple and tidy list to get you started:
Junmai - This is pure rice sake (no adding of distilled alcohol) that is rich and full bodied with a slightly acidic flavour. It is often best when served hot or at room temperature
Ginjo - This is one of the most fragrant sakes available. It boasts a light, fruity and complex flavour and it goes down very smoothly. It’s nicely defined when served chilled.
Daiginjo - This variety resembles Ginjo, but it’s even more fragrant and full bodied. The good stuff. If you see the word Junmai juxtaposed with it, this simply means that no distilled alcohol was added. It’s often served chilled in order to enhance the flavouring.
Honjozo - Similar to Junmai, except that a small amount of distilled alcohol is added as a lightening and smoothing agent. This one can be relished warm or at room temperature.
9 BOTTLES FOR YOUR HOME BAR
1. Choya Sake, £8.45- Heavy with rich ricey aromas, this sake is delicious and complimentary whether it be warmed or chilled.
2. Sho Chiku Bai Shirakabegura Mio Sparkling Sake, £10.95- A radical sake as it’s totally breaking with tradition. It’s called the Champagne of sake because of its light sparkle, fruity aroma and sweet palate.
3. Josen Sho Chiku Bai Gokai Karakuchi, £3.95 - A well-balanced, dry and traditional sake that can be served at temperatures ranging from room temperature to hot.
4. Sho Chiku Bai Shirakabegura Kimoto Junmai, £26.95- Fruity with hints of melon, this sake is complex yet smooth and can be served chilled or at room temperature. Brilliant with Chinese and Indian cuisines.
5. Shirataki Jozen Mizuno Gotoshi Junmai Ginjo, £27.95- This style of sake is quite versatile as it pairs well with a variety of dishes. It is dry, light and smooth and can be served at any temperature across the temperature range.
6. Nanbu Bijin Gin Ginja, £29.95- A fragrant sake with rich rice flavouring and notes of apple and pear. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
7. Sho Chiku Bai Shirakabegura Daiginjo Muroka Genshu, £31.95- A sake with a rich, full-bodied flavour and a roast apple fragrance. Serve chilled or at room temperature and pair with traditional Japanese dishes. It can also be served on the rocks, if you so choose.
8. Shirakabegura Junmai Daiginjo, £38.95- The pinnacled premium sake that is fragrant and boasts hints of banana. Drink it chilled or at room temperature and if possible, couple it with sushi and sashimi.
9. Dassai 23 Sake, £70.00- A serious sake for a serious spender. It’s complex with a sweet palate of pineapple and coconut offset by aniseed and it’s very much worth it. Serve this one chilled.
SAKE IN COCKTAILS
We like to drink ours neat but there are a few bartenders who are using it as a base in cocktails. These are the best ones we’ve tried in London:
SushiSamba: Ichijku Cloud
Enoki Shuzo Sake, fig, fino sherry and a blend of chocolate and soy bitters. Stirred with ice until cold and served 'up'
Nobu: Kyoto Champagne
Hokusetsu Junmai Sake, Lychee Liquor, Fresh Lychee Juice,Topped with Champagne
Sake no Hana: Kiki Sakura
Shiroku yuzu sake, cherry liqueur, Elements 8 Platinum rum, apricot
Engawa: Ginger Moon
Gassan no Yuki sake, ginger, Villa Lobos Tequila Blanco, orange and elderflower liqueur
Contributed by our friends at BarChick