Sake: The New Hype Drink

By Marie Waig, Kikisakeshi, sake sommelie

My relationship with sake started through inspiring encounters always related to multicultural cuisine. Food has been a fundamental aspect in my life, as I’m of Cantonese descent, spent my childhood in Madagascar, and am now based in Spain. Discovering new countries, peoples, languages, cultures, has always started with food.

From Ozu’s classic films “An Autumn Afternoon” or the manga “Tokyo Stories”, to early 2000s Western cuisine, Japanese cooking has become widely revered. As such, sake is now a basic ingredient in our kitchens and a must at our tables. Michelin starred restaurant Mugaritz has for instance dedicated more than 10 pages to this beverage out of their 100-page wine menu.

Sake”, Japanese for “alcohol”, refers to all alcoholic beverages. While nihonshu is the actual alcoholic beverage resulting from rice fermentation, we will use both words interchangeably for the purpose of this article.

Contrary to popular belief, sake is not a liquor but a fermented drink. Nihonshu contains only rice, water, koji mould (Aspergillus Orizae) and yeast. Unlike wine, obtained through the simple fermentation of grape sugars, sake needs a double fermentation process, similar to beer. Specific rice varieties, with bigger grains, are polished in order to leave a clean core or heart of starch, “Shinpaku”. The rice is then soaked and steamed. Part of it is sprinkled with koji mould, which transforms the starches into glucose. The plain steamed rice and the koji rice are then stirred together with water and left to ferment. Two biological processes take place simultaneously: saccharification and alcoholic fermentation, resulting in one of the highest levels of alcohol in a fermented beverage (up to 22%). The mixture, “moromi”, is then pressed and filtered to obtain a crystal clear liquid, the nihonshu. The sake is then pasteurized and left to age in tanks (“chozo”) at 15ºC. Water can now be added to lower the alcoholic grading to approximately 15%. The sake is bottled after a second pasteurization.
Throughout each step of the production, the expertise of the Toji, master of sake, is essential to obtain the specific tastes and aromas of the final product.

The notion of pairing wine and food is exclusively a Western habit. Therefore, Japanese sake associations such as SSI Sake Service Institute or SSA Sake Sommelier Association are essential in helping the understanding of the classic sake typology based upon the level of rice polishing and the adding of distilled alcohol : Junmai – no alcohol added / Non Junmai – with added alcohol; Dai Ginjo – more than 50% polishing / Ginjo – less than 50% polishing. They also adapt the vocabulary to the wine set criteria such as Texture, Clarity, Aroma or Tasting. When pairing with dishes, we can draw similarities between the use of red wine and Junmai as both enhance the umami of dishes, whereas white wine and Dai Ginjo are more alike for their lightness and floral aromas.

As a matter of fact, sake offers magnificent pairing with any dish that can be served with rice, complimenting not only Japanese dishes, but also Indian, Chinese, Thai and Laotian. Surprisingly, you may also notice how well it pairs with cheese, due to the lactic acid present in both fermented products. And what’s more, Nihonshu and Spanish Pata Negra ham make a heavenly pair, packed with umami.

So dare to try sake next time you have the opportunity, and pair it with your favourite dish!