Monthly Archives: April 2016

Spring Cocktail – Sake Crantini

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The colours of Sakura blossoms are everywhere – even in London. It’s Spring – the grey skies are leaving us and the trees welcome these warmer days with pastel pink.

There is a cherry blossom, or Sakura, season which travels across Japan. It starts on the islands of Okinawa in the far south west in February and finishes in northern Hokkaido in May. Weather conditions govern the dates of the season but whenever it arrives there are celebrations and festivals.

The tradition of hanami or cherry blossom-sakuratini-webviewing goes back centuries. The festival had great importance in former times because it announced the rice-planting season and was used to predict the year’s harvest. The blossom’s short-lived beauty is also considered a metaphor for life. The Japanese believed the Sakura trees contained spirits; sake was offered to them and this became the hanami party.

I wanted to make a delicate pink cocktail to represent the beauty of this Sakura season. I also wanted to use sake. Japan has once again been hit by devastating earthquakes so a cocktail with junmai dry sake not only offers support for the future of the sake industry but also celebrates the fortitude of Japan and its rich culture.

Sake Crantini

1 part cranberry juice and 1 part vodka added to 2 parts dry sake
1 part Cranberry vodka and 1 part dry sake

Shake with plenty of ice and serve in a martini glass. Float a blossom on top, if you have such a thing.

If you want to make your own cranberry vodka then take 500g of fresh or frozen cranberries and add to 1 litre of vodka in a glass or ceramic jug. Leave to infuse in a cool dark place for 3 weeks, shaking every few days. Strain and bottle.

The advantage of this recipe is that you still have the cranberries, which can be made into sauces and desserts. They are particularly delicious at Christmas when mixed with traditional sweet mincemeat and used as a topping for a tart – perhaps served with a glass of Sake Crantini alongside.

Sake: History, Stories & Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries

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Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries

I was told to expect a book. I was told to expect a big book. I was told to expect a coffee-table book. What I got was a book the size of a coffee table but one which will hold my attention long after the furniture would have lost its purely functional appeal.

Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries (yes, the title fits the proportions of the book) is organic in its style and appropriate for the subject. The cover is fabric in a cool winter-sky blue with simple black text. Unfussy, crisp and displaying Japanese taste for minimalism.  One naturally opens the volume with respect.

This is a heavy tome but not heavy reading. It’s a sake story book that will be the volume of choice for any lover of sake or things Japanese with which to snuggle. It’s a picture book over which to pore. Images of craft and continuity are showcased to beautiful effect. Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries is encyclopaedia of somsake booke of the most significant breweries (including 10 shōchū distilleries and 5 Okinawan awamori distilleries), looking at sake and those Japanese spirits. It features 60 or so breweries, with each chapter focusing on the families who have, often for many generations, dedicated their lives to the production of Japan’s iconic beverage. The book displays the diversity of brewing methods that produce such changes in flavour around Japan.

The striking photography is by one of the world’s most renowned travel photographers, Jason Lang. He transmits to us the spirit both of sake and of those who labour to make it. He shows the reality of the process, its beauty and charm. Steam, warm rice, brewers and landscape populate these pages. He captures the environment with shots of rugged faces and frosted fields. Vignettes of traditional brewery slippers, high technology and natural wood. Anyone who has visited a sake brewery will be convinced that they can actually smell fermenting mash between these pages.

Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries will appeal to a wide audience. For the untutored, it will open a door to sake and introduce the characters who make that distinctive drink possible. For lovers of sake who want to learn more, there is a raft of information to study and muse upon. It’s a book about sake but equally about people and the relationship between the two.

Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries
Authors: Hayato Hishinuma, Elliot Faber
Published by: Gatehouse Publishing
Price: £75.00
ISBN-10: 9810795289
ISBN-13: 978-9810795283

Sake: what you didn’t know

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In truth the title of this week’s blog post should be ‘Sake: what you didn’t know and what I didn’t know a few years ago’. You can see that it’s a bit of a mouthful but you will appreciate where I am going with this one. I ask the questions for all of you who want to know more, and I hope to make sake more accessible to people who have nothing to do with the drinks industry, but just drink for fun. Luckily, these days you can take a course just for pleasure or to enhance your professional career.

I have had a long love of Japan and all things Japanese, although I only had my first trip to those islands a couple of years ago. I was, however, given the opportunity to learn about sake by the Sake Sommelier Association a number of years before that. They opened the floodgates of knowledge and set me on a path that has been deliciously absorbing, periodically challenging …and one which I am now enjoying immensely.

None of us are born sake experts, even Japanese! We taste, we savour, ask questions, ask more questions and we learn. It’s all a matter of exposure and we have not had that in the West until relatively recently. I had always heard sake referred to as ‘rice wine’. I could never quite understand how one could possibly get wine from grains of rice. How much juice could you get out of those things? In fact sake is a brewed alcohol made by fermenting sake jugs and ochokorice, and the process has more in common with beer-making than the production of wine.  To refer to sake as a wine does sake no favours, in my opinion. The prospective sipper will likely be drawn to expect a familiar fruity flavour, possibly awash with blackberries, a cheeky hint of red plum and a suspicion of mango. I note that it’s rare that a wine expert will ever describe a nice bottle of red as tasting of grapes! Sake has a very different taste palate but one that is just as complex and vibrant as is that for wine.

Sake, at least up until a few years ago, was misunderstood or a complete mystery but people were sure of a few indisputable truths: 1. Sake was the source of hangovers the magnitude of which would prompt the sufferer to sign the pledge. 2. It’s as strong as vodka and would see the unwary under the table before the night was through.

leaf-bbq-webLet’s take number 1. Sake has been no more responsible for hangovers than any other alcoholic beverage. In fact sake is said to have less ‘day-after effect’ than many other alcoholic drinks as it’s quite pure. Sake is these days considered a high-end drink for the discerning. Its reputation is now for quality and is enjoyed by those who want to taste sake on its own (in sensible quantities) or with food, and that food doesn’t have to be Japanese. Sake is now taken seriously by the whole professional wine and spirits world. Number 2. Sake will not see the unwary under the table, firstly because Japanese tables are low and secondly sake is sold at a level of alcohol of only 14 to 18%. A bottle of sake is usually slightly smaller than a bottle of wine, but the servings are smaller for the same amount of alcohol. I recommend sipping sake from traditional small sake cups, which will encourage the drinker to linger and enjoy the experience. Always drink in moderation, as the wise would advise.

Sake is a fascinating drink with charm, complexity, nuance, history and culture, and now it’s easy for people to take a course to learn more.

Sake Cups – or perhaps a glass


nam zestFor those of us who love the delicious complexity of sake, the vessel from which we drink is often something of an afterthought. But it shouldn’t be.

A sake set is a generic term for the collection of items used for serving sake. It usually comprises a small flask and cups. Many sake sets are still made of ceramic, but they are increasingly made from natural wood, lacquered wood, glass or even me liken a sake cup/glass/box to shoes. We have trainers for every day. On the other hand, we enjoy wearing high heels (if we are women, that is) as we know we move in a more elegant fashion. Perhaps the sakazuki, a flat saucer-like cup, can be likened to those classic shoes. So let’s consider the popular shapes and materials for sake cups both traditional and contemporary.

The oldest sake cup style, the wide saucer-like sakazuki, is more often seen at formal ceremonial events such as weddings these days. Shallow and refined, this cup is lifted to the lips with both hands: one to hold the bottom of the cup like a tray and the other to hold it on the rim. Sakazuki are available in a variety of sizes but typically they hold only a few sips. Sakazuki can be ornately decorated and are usually made from porcelain, earthenware or lacquer. These sakazuki are, in my opinion, the high heels of sake drinking accoutrements. Beautiful, elegant but not over-practical for a long night out.wooden-sake-boxes-1-webA much more robust alternative is the ubiquitous wooden drinking box called masu. Traditionally these boxes have a volume of 180 ml. A 720 ml bottle of sake equals a serving of sake for 4 people! They were originally used to measure rations of rice. The masu can be filled to the rim as a sign of prosperity or a small glass can be put into the masu and filled to overflowing to symbolise abundance. Masu can be found in lacquerware but I prefer the pale wood of the traditional box. They are hard to break and able to hold a decent amount of sake, so have become the cup of choice for enjoying sake at festivals, cherry-blossom viewing (‘hanami’) and for me, picnics by the river. One can pretend it’s spring in Japan. Today, masu are often used at those iconic sake barrel-opening ceremonies called ‘kagami biraki’ and at traditional Japanese pubs (‘izakaya’).  Some folks argue that the best masu for enjoying certain varieties of sake are those made from Japanese cypress, giving still more aroma and flavour from the natural who has taken a sake course will have likely used a small, white, ceramic cylindrical vessel called ochoko or choko. These days ochoko is considered similar to guinomi which is the same shape, although ochoko are usually smaller than guinomi. Sake producers and tasters use a special large ochoko called kikichoko which has a circular blue and white design on the bottom of the inside of the cup. The blue hue and pattern are used in the evaluation of the sake’s colour and clarity, and the cup’s wide opening allows for the sake’s subtleties of aroma to be appreciated.sake-cup-5-webSake stemware is also available these days, with a sake cup being mounted on a wide base. Glass is now commonly used to serve chilled sake, where one can enjoy the dew forming on the outside of the vessel. A white or red wine glass with a wide mouth is suitable for enjoying the fragrant sake styles where aroma is most important.  Sake is delicate and subtle so tasting from a wine glass instead of a small sake cup will heighten aromas and flavours.  Crystal wine glasses are thinner than ceramic ware and can change the perception of sake’s body and complexity.  Yes, sake can be served over ice and so sipping from a cut-glass whisky tumbler can be a pleasurable experience.
sake cup 3 newOne is spoilt for choice when it comes to sake drinking vessels. If one is tasting professionally then there is a lot to be said for the traditional industry-standard ochoko or a glass with a wide mouth. But for me, I’ll be sticking to my cheap Daiso-bought sake set. It’s a traditional design which might not allow the character of the sake to burst forth, but I feel I am really immersing myself in sake culture when consuming it in such a way. So try all the options, make your choice, but do drink sake!