Read our quick guide to sake and feel confident buying it at home or ordering it in a restaurant #smugface
Sake is on the verge of a renaissance, according to Japan's first foreign-born master sake brewer Philip Harper. He also reckons it's poised to become mainstream in the UK with more and more people wanting to try it.
We headed to Mayfair's premium Japanese restaurant Sake No Hana to talk to resident sake expert, Christine Parkinson, to get a grip on the basics. Here's what she said:
Sake is made from rice
And it's the national drink of Japan. Some find it an acquired taste while others take to it straight away; it's just a case of personal preference.
Most people think sake is like a spirit in terms of ABV ...
… probably because it's often drunk out of tiny cups called "choko". It's more likely to be between 15.5% and 19% though, so closer to wine.
Sake production follows an annual cycle
Rice is harvested in the autumn, the sake is made in the winter and then it's stored in tanks and bottled throughout spring and summer. The process is very precise and technical, and although lots of sake is made outside Japan, it's not really something you could make at home (feel free to prove us wrong though!).
"Polishing" the rice is the most important part of the process
It means removing the outside of the grain, a bit like milling flour. How much you remove changes the style of the sake. Sake made with most of the grain removed is elegant, delicate and floral, while sake with more grain tends to be earthy, rich and savoury.
If you know nothing about sake, go for something that has "ginjo" in its name
Provided the sake is in good condition, "ginjo" is the safe word and you're guaranteed something nice. It means at least 40% of each rice grain is milled away. That said you can find good sake at every level.
"Honjozo" sake must be polished at least 70%
This means 70% of the grain remains and 30% is thrown away. "Daiginjo" sake must have at least half the grain polished away, though 40% is very common. Then there's also a sake called "dassai 23" where only 23% of the grain remains. Christine's even tried one that was a staggering 8% but it was ridiculously expensive and she reckoned it wasn't worth the money.
3 common misconceptions around sake are:
- Alcohol-added sakes are inferior, cheaper and stronger than pure rice sakes. This is nonsense. Alcohol is added to sake to help it release its aromas and create a silky smooth texture in the mouth. That said, if you do want a pure rice sake they always have "junmai" in their name.
- All good sake should be chilled. Sake brewers say "there are three drinks in every bottle" and they're right. Try your sake chilled, at room temperature and warm to find out for yourself how you like to drink it.
- Sake should always be clear. While it's a legal requirement that sake needs to be filtered to be called "sake", there's a fashion for cloudy sakes where the sediment is put back into the bottle. Sake can also have a pale tinge of yellow, which is absolutely fine.
Sake is fantastic in cocktails
And remember folks: never pour your own sake
This would be a serious no-no in Japan. Though, strangely enough, drinking sake out of wine glasses instead of choko is totally fine. Humph! Are they just trying to confuse us?
Liked this? Then try these:
- Watch: from fermented milk to craft beer, get clued up on drinks trends through the ages
- Boost your spirits: how to make 5 flavoured liqueurs
- Famous vintages: rise of the celebrity winemakers
And for more fun foodie stuff direct to your inbox, sign up to our weekly newsletter