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.