Like sushi, sake is an integral part of Japanese cuisine that foreign visitors often only appreciate superficially.
A previous winner of the prestigious Kikisake-shi (sake sommelier) category of the Kikisake-shi World Championship, Kaoru Izuha has long taught foreigners about the intricacies of sake through her work as a sommelier at Sushi Sora, the fine-dining sushi restaurant that stands on the 38th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo. Here she provides her guide to sake for beginners, explaining the origins of the drink, how to order and serve it, and the best dishes to enjoy it with.
What is sake?
Sake is a Japanese alcoholic drink made of fermented rice, koji (often translated as rice malt or yeast made from rice) and water. In Japanese, the word 'sake' also means alcoholic beverages in general.
When did sake originate?
There's some dispute about the drink's origins, but a book written around 713AD mentions an alcoholic beverage made from rice. Another book written at around the same time also includes a description of a fermented rice alcoholic drink. Both would be considered rudimentary forms of modern-day Japanese sake.
How is sake made?
It can be a protracted process but, explained simply, sake is made when rice is ground, washed and steamed. Then some of the steamed rice will be used to make koji, the yeast derived from rice. After that the koji and the remaining steamed rice and water are mixed and then allowed to ferment. More rice, koji and water is added to the mixture thereafter, at which point the drink is filtered and bottled.
Who makes sake?
Sake makers or brewers are known as tōji. They're similar to a chef de cave. Workers in sake breweries are called kurabito.
What's the best temperature to serve sake at?
That depends on what type of sake you are drinking — the same drink can taste noticeably different dependent on whether it's served hot or cold. Sake can be categorized in four different groups and each group has its own best temperature. Kunshu sake is rich, with a fruity aroma and flavour and is often popular with foreign visitors. It 's typically served at between 8 and 15 degrees celsius. Soshu sake is simple, light and fresh; it's the most common type of sake in Japan and is served at between 5 and 10 degrees. Junshu sake is a traditional type of sake that's rich and dense; it's served at between 15 and 18 degrees or 40 and 55 degrees. Jukushu sake is the most expensive type and is served infrequently; it's full-bodied and very rich with a spicy aroma, and is served at between 15 and 25 degrees.
What are the popular and premium brands of sake?
There are about 1,600 producers of sake in Japan, and 99 per cent of them are medium- or small-scale producers so there are always new variants to discover. That said, some popular brands are Hakkaisan, Kubota, Dassai and Dewazakura. Two premium brands of sake that you can also find abroad are Kakunko Junmai Daiginjo and Dassai Junmai Daiginjyo "23Ni-wari San-bu" - both are highly recommended. Dassai also goes very well with western dishes using white fish, especially if teamed with herbs and lemon, so it can serve as a good introduction to the drink if you can't make it to Japan just yet. I'm also a fan of Kokuryu Ishidaya, which is a premium vintage sake only made available in November each year.
How should you decide which sake to drink?
Really it's best to firstly ask staff at the bar or restaurant or shop for their advice, as there are so many different types of sake to choose from.
Where do people drink sake?
Japanese people drink sake both at home and when out at restaurants and bars. Sake is particularly associated with a casual style of bar we have here in Japan called izakaya.
How do you order sake in a bar?
Each sake has a suggested temperature at which to drink it, so it's worth asking the sommelier or staff how best to enjoy a specific sake. However, some sakes can be enjoyed at different temperatures, and can be ordered hot or cold dependent on your preference. With regards to measurements, sake is usually served in a decanter called tokkuri in measurements of 180ml or 360ml, or in a 720ml bottle at a restaurant or bar. You drink the sake from a small cup called sakazuki.
Is sake always served neat or can it be used in cocktails or in food preparation?
Sake is an essential part of Japanese cuisine and it's increasingly used as a cocktail ingredient these days. One of the signature cocktails at our Mandarin Bar, the '88' is a sake-based cocktail for example.
Should sake be drunk with food or by itself?
Either way is fine, but if you're not going to eat a meal while you're drinking sake try to have it with some type of salty snack instead.
What type of cuisine goes best with sake?
Japanese cuisine in general is a good match. At Sushi Sora we serve around 25 brands of sake which have been carefully selected to go particularly well with sushi. That's not to say sake doesn't go well with other cuisines. Some sakes react well to herbs and go with French cuisine, and sake can taste good when paired with Chinese food too.
Is there any etiquette or customs or traditions you should keep in mind when drinking sake?
If you're drinking with someone else, it's good manners to pour servings for your partner — usually the younger person pours for the older person first. When someone's pouring sake for you it's polite to hold your sake cup up with one hand and to put the other hand under the cup. Have a sip before putting the cup back on the table.
Does sake have any significant ceremonial uses?
In Japanese Shinto-style wedding ceremonies the bride and groom take turns sipping sake from three different bowls, each one larger than the one before. Sharing from the bowls is meant to represent sharing joys and sorrows.