Sake could be the best unknown fermented beverage in the world. It’s Japan’s favourite drink and has been for a very long time, but its relative obscurity means that prices in Canada are comfortably low.
Sake is not a type of wine, spirit or liqueur; it’s a rice beer without the CO2 bubbles we expect in conventional beer and cider. In the glass it performs pretty much the way dry white grape wine does. It can be consumed on its own as an aperitif or partnered with a wide range of foods. The best examples should be drunk cold. More modest bottlings taste gentler and more complex when heated to about 30o C.
Sake starts off as rice. The grain is milled, steamed, blended with yeast and kojo (aspergillum mould) and fermented for 30 to 90 days with added lactic acid to deter infection. There are many rice varietals available to sake producers, each with its own fermentation behaviour and flavour profile leading to a distinct style.
Water is a crucial ingredient in sake. The source of the H2O used deeply shapes the final product. Water variables include whether it originated in snow melt or springs and how much time it spent percolating through what kinds of stone. Dissolved potassium, magnesium and phosphoric acid serve as nutrients for yeast during fermentation. Hard water is known for producing drier sake. Soft water typically yields a sweeter brew.
The kojo (aspergillum) added to the rice breaks the grain’s starch into its component sugars. The action of the amylases it generates does the job. The sugars are then fermented into ethanol by wild and cultivated yeasts selected for particular aromas and flavours.
The quality level of a given sake is determined by the degree to which its rice has been milled. This polishing removes the bran and some of the endosperm of the rice grain, leaving behind the desirable shimpoku (starch heart). Futsu or table sake has no milling constraints. It’s often made from table rice and bulked up with distilled spirit. This category benefits from heating. Honjozo sake is made of rice polished down to 70% or less of its original size with a small amount of added spirit. It tends to be fragrant and lightish. Junmai or “pure rice” sake, full-bodied with pronounced acidity, contains no added alcohol. The grains are usually milled to 70%. Gingo sake uses rice milled down to 60% and is fermented at cool temperatures. It’s elegant, refined aromatic stuff. Daiginjo is sake’s grand cru category. Made from rice milled down to less than half of its original size, it’s light and intensely fruity and fragrant.
The character of an individual sake is strongly influenced by where it’s made. Each prefecture boasts its own water and a particular philosophy and style favoured by its producers.
At a wonderful seminar in Toronto sponsored by the IWEG Drinks Academy (iweg.org), sake experts Michael Tremblay and Robin Morgan presented a clutch of typical sakes to an enthusiastic crowd. Here are my notes on nine of them. At prices starting out under $15 and topping out at $35 for a 750 ml. bottle, these sakes belong in your basket.
Izumi “Nama Nama” Junmai Nama (88+) is unpasteurized. It’s fresh, subtly sweet, mildly dusty and pungent with tropical fruit notes.
Nagai Shuzo “Mizuaoki” Honjozo, Gunma Prefecture (89+) is powerful and deep with fresh Asian pear, apple and floral notes and a mild hot bite from the alcohol.
Kodama Shuzo “Taihei Zan” Junmai Kimoto Akita Prefecture (89) is pungently mineral and slightly salty with a buttery creamy elegance and a fruity sweetness.
“Izumi” Nigori Junmai, a ringer from the Ontario Spring Water Company in—wait for it—Toronto Canada (89) is an example of unfiltered sake. It’s a cloudy creamy yellow-tinged brew with sweet spice aromas. It’s rustic with a slightly gritty mouthfeel and pleasantly bitter and sweet flavours.
Kiku-Masamune Junmai Taru, Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture (90) is a pale straw colour with a very elegant complex nose of fruit and sweet spice with notes of caramel, minerals and white pepper. There’s power and punch but with no rough edges.
Yoshi no Gawa “Goku Jo” Ginjo, Niigata Prefecture (90+) is suave and elegant with fruit and orange petal and star anise aromas. It’s fresh, complex and creamy with a long rich persistence.
Hokkai-Otoyama “Man’s Mountain” Tokubetsu Junmai Kimoto (90+) features a distinct pungent minerality over rich melon and slightly tropical fruit. Suave and elegant, it’s also intensely flavourful and fresh.
Fukumitsuya “Kuro Obi Dodo” Junmai Yamahai Ishikawa Prefecture (90+) offers gently pungent earthy cereal and mushroom aromas. In the mouth it’s less fruity and more grunty than other Junmai samples but with lots of style and fine length.
Oomuraya Shuzo “Watatake” Junmai Daiginjo Shizuoka Prefecture (91) has bright tropical fruit and cereal notes including cantaloupe and freshly-snapped celery stalk. It’s intense and elegant, creamy, fresh and supple. It is absolutely smooth but intense with a very long finish.
Sake experts Robin Morgan and Michael Tremblay strike a meditative pose behind a beautiful batch of empty sake bottles after presenting a wonderful IWEG seminar to an enthusiastic crowd.
[IWEG is offering the WSET Award in Sake course in Toronto. The eight session course runs from April 8 to June 3 in Toronto. For more information log onto www.iweg.org]