Enjoying Sake

Aroma and flavor of Sake

"Pure mountain water flows gently through the throat and fills my soul and body, nice fruity aromas leaving behind ..." my poetic ability is not enough to describe the ideals of Sake. No one has been able to determine the exact number of brands and varieties of sake produced in Japan. Suppose each brewery produces an average of 20 varieties, multiplied by about 1500 breweries ... So, life is too short to drink bad Sake!

While industrial manufacturers usually earn the bulk of their income with mainstream Sake of inferior quality, small breweries strive to prioritize unique flavour profiles and high quality. As a result, these artisanal Sake instead reflect regional typicity, qualitative drive, as well as the specific philosophy of each individual brewery. In comparison with wine, Sake contains much less acid and is more viscous and full-bodied. Its alcohol content, usually hovering around 15%, is also higher than most white wine. This makes Sake both a great companion for food in general as well as a clever substitute for red wine in pairings with meat dishes. Aside from these general parameters, Sake can contain over 400 different aromas and flavours and should not be confined to a single interpretation.

The harmony between food and Sake

Should one drink Sake solo or as an accompaniment with food? There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this question. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that Sake demonstrates its fullest capacities when enjoyed with food. But which Sake should be paired with which dish? The Japanese make rather loose considerations of this question: “it all depends on your preferences and your budget.” Just as with wine, Sake demonstrates a tremendous breadth of regional character and variation. While mountainous regions emphasize sweeter, more intensely-flavoured Sake to match the depth of rich, savoury dishes, the lighter, fresher styles of Sake tend to better accompany the seafood-oriented cuisine found in coastal regions. It should be noted that one doesn’t always need sushi to drink a good Sake! Sommelier World Champion, Markus Del Monego, states, ‘For us it seems self-evident that fine, light meals are a fantastic match for Sake. But Sake is so diverse that even strong dishes can harmonise with it. Here, my mind goes to a combination of styles, such as a roasted leg of lamb slowly braised in a hay-infused broth. The richness of the lamb is subdued by the broth and then carefully embellished by the delicate aroma of hay. This dish is an ideal pairing for a fine Daiginjo or Ginjo Sake, which both contain racy floral notes, but are also bolstered by the spicy character associated with a higher alcohol content. With fried dishes such as veal or poultry, I would tend more towards Daiginjo, Ginjo, or Honjozo, as rich, roasted flavours require more aromatic intensity for a successful beverage pairing. Additionally, one can control much about a pairing with the sauce of a dish. Think about a risotto, for instance, with porcini mushrooms and an elegant sauce paired with an aged and highly aromatic Junmai Daiginjo Sake…”

As a Sake merchant I take my daily practice very seriously: namely to explore Sake and food together. My main strategy is to pair one dish with both a Sake and a wine. For Spaghetti Carbonara, for instance, a full-bodied Junmai-Sake ends up being a better pairing than a Riesling Spätlese. With roasted Teriyaki duck breast, however, a German Spätburgunder takes the cake over an aromatic Ginjo-Sake. One of Sake’s general strengths, it must be said, is that it doesn’t create discord in any food pairings, which unfortunately cannot be said about red wine and blue cheese. To this ends, Sake and its classic umami flavour support and gently embellish the flavours of food without being lost along the way. The only stipulation is that the quality of the Sake and the food be comparable - even a super-premium-Sake cannot save miserable cooking! A Junmai Ginjo can be paired with a cheese selection just as easily as a Riesling Spätlese. One might find such a Sake to also be a fitting companion to any sort of dinner, but would have particular luck in enjoying it with umami-rich foods like salami or ham.

Serving temperature ... "good sake is served cold"

Sake can be enjoyed at a variety of different temperatures, from lightly chilled, to room temperature, to warm. However, the proper drinking temperature depends on the type of sake. An aroma accented Sake (Ginjo, Daiginjo) is benefitted by a longer chill, while a robust, full-bodied Sake can be drunk both chilled and warm. It is also important to note that a good Sake will demonstrate different textural and aromatic qualities when enjoyed at different temperatures, so you are free to mix and match and determine what works best for you! As a rule of thumb, though, Premium Sake such as Ginjo and Daiginjo tastes best with a light chill. In the same vein, one doesn’t necessarily pour a bottle of Mouton Rothschild into a mulled wine pot!

Sake Drinkware

Wine shows itself in varying forms depending on the shape and size of the glass from which it is enjoyed. The Riedel glass company has even developed an extensive “Sommelier” glass series to this ends. The same principle also applies to Sake. The fruity aromas of high quality Sake are better displayed, for instance, in a thin, white wine glass than in a traditional porcelain cup. Riedel demonstrates this specificity with their own special Daiginjo glass, and many other prestigious glass manufacturers have also followed suit with their own Sake glasses. It is also a pleasure, of course, to enjoy an intense Junmai Sake from a hand-sized earthy, clay mug. Also prominent is the wooden cup favoured for weddings and many other celebrations throughout Japan. Guests are often allowed to take the cups, engraved with the names of the wedding couple, as sentimental parting gifts. These such cups impart an immediate woodiness on the flavour of the Sake, emulating the effects of barrel aging.

Storage & shelf life of Sake

Sake is usually brewed only in the winter months between October and March. After pressing the juice from the mash, Sake is typically transferred to steel tanks or bottled for a subsequent aging period of 6 to 12 months. At bottling, Sake is typically pasteurised at 62 ° C for a few seconds to stabilize aroma and flavour and, instead of a vintage, it is often the manufacturing or bottling date which is included on the label. Sake is quite sensitive to light and fluctuations in temperature. Therefore, it is imperative that top quality Sake be shipped in refrigerated containers or by air from Japan to Europe. Still, it is prudent to purchase Sake from trusted merchants and to then store the product in a refrigerator or a cool cellar. Unlike wine, Sake can remain good in the bottle for a few weeks after being opened without being imparted with the qualities of oxidation. That being said, one doesn’t need to wait around for a special occasion to drink Sake - enjoy it as soon as you’d like!

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