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What do you know about sake? Did you know global sales are expected to crest $9.62 billion this year? Or did you know the Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl has launched his own sake called “Hansho” (it translates to Midnight), inspired by the title of their last album, Medicine at Midnight? He’s teamed up with the sake brewer Tatenokawa to produce this Junmai Daiginjo style, and the producer played Foo Fighters music to the beverage during fermentation, so I expect it rocks.
Most of us have had base sake served warm in sushi restaurants, and in all honesty, it’s a sad excuse for the real deal (the brand in question is not actually brewed in Japan). High-quality sake has many complex expressions, much like wine, and is traditionally served lightly chilled like a fine white wine (heating or serving a beverage ice-cold helps mask any unpleasant flavours).
There are many factors at play in sake production: the provenance of the rice, the polishing process (up to 90 per cent of the grain is polished off), and the quality of the water and yeast. Junmai, Honjozo, Nigori and Ginjo are among the more common styles, each with distinct characteristics. Initially, they soak the ground rice in water, then steam it to soften the grain. Then they take part of the rice and encourage it to spread ‘Koji’ fungus, which releases an enzyme that converts starch into sugar. Koji, a.k.a. Aspergillus oryzae, has been around for about 9,000 years. Its relatives can be toxic, but a benign mutation of the fungus likely mated with some damp grain eons ago, imparting it with a citrus/floral combination inherent to sake. Next, they take part of this Koji-infected rice, add more steamed rice and water, plus some lactic acid bacteria, creating the perfect habitat for yeasts to breed. When this part of the rice is populated by an enormous amount of yeasts, we now have “Shubo”. Shubo is dumped into a bigger tank, where more steamed rice, Koji-infected rice and water are added, little by little, in three to four stages across three weeks to a month. They may also add a brewer’s alcohol as it helps to fine-tune the flavours. All of this adds up to what is, by all counts, the most complex fermented/brewed beverage on the planet.
We think of sake as being the classic accompaniment to sushi, but its food-friendly traits extend well beyond raw fish. Cheese, poultry, mushrooms, and charcuterie are all foods that can work well with sake, and there are sommeliers at top restaurants extolling its virtues as alternatives to wine. I did a little experiment recently, in the name of journalistic research, at Carino Riserva, a Japanese/Italian fusion restaurant in Mission. The restaurant seamlessly blends the best aspects of Japanese and Italian cuisine, affording me the perfect opportunity to carry out my experiment. I started with beer, Annex’s Italian pilsner, and it worked quite well with the assortment of dishes on the table. On previous visits, there was Champagne, along with assorted red and white wines, and of those, Champagne and high-acid white wines worked the best, but sake proved to be a bit of a revelation. It was a Dassai 45 Junmai, one of the best-selling premium sakes in the world (retail is about $55 for a 720ml bottle). It’s beautifully balanced and a great place to start for those who want to explore high-quality sake. It worked beautifully with everything we tried, from noodles to Japanese tacos, raw tuna, and vegetable-filled steamed dumplings. Red meat might be the only challenge I see but I expect some styles would work there as well. I would recommend starting with a good Junmai sake, bearing in mind the unique flavours are a bit of an acquired taste, but stick with it, there’s a brave new world of complex flavours out there that fall into the umami camp.
Here are a few to try right now. Serve them lightly chilled as you would a good white wine. In addition to the Dassai 45, I can recommend Dewazakura Junmai Daiginjo Yukimegami 48 ($55, the numbers on the labels refer to the polishing rate), Fukumasamune Junmai ($38), Yamaguchi Niwa No Uguisu Junmai Ginjo 60 ($46) and Dewazakura Junmai Dewano Sato ($35).
I wish I could explain the various flavour profiles in detail but like most of you I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it. Discovering sake opens up a whole new world of flavours, and hopefully by the next time I write something on this intriguing beverage I’ll have some better insight. In the meantime, enjoy the discovery. Cheers!
Geoff Last is a long-time Calgary wine merchant writer, instructor, and broadcaster. He can be heard every Friday on CJSW’s Road Pops program between 4 -6 p.m. He was awarded a fellowship at Napa Valley’s Symposium of Professional Wine Writers for articles that have appeared in this column. Media inquiries can be directed to [email protected]