Japanese tipplers may have shifted to drinking wine, beer, whisky, vodka, but globally the more-than 2000-year-old spirit sake has gained immense popularity among gourmets and connoisseurs of wines and brews. If Yuuka and China House in Mumbai, Koji in Pune and Edo in Bengaluru, helped to kindle our palates for Japanese cuisine, this Far Eastern country rice wine isn’t far behind. The millennial Indian is quite familiar with the variety of sushi, sashimi, soba and stir-fried noodles. Dining in an upscale Japanese restaurant reflects one’s social standing. And the wine preference has trickled from French and Italian wines to Japan’s sake wines.
With better education, more travel, and the ubiquitous internet — the awareness of sake has seen a rise over the years, and there’s a growing community of sake lovers.
Is it an acquired palate? Elie Houbeich, EAM, F&B, Yuuka (Modern Japanese Cuisine) at The St. Regis Mumbai, says, “Sake to Japan is like Champagne to France and Scotch to Scotland. If you ask five people 'what does Sake taste like', you may have five different answers.
Sake is indeed an acquired palate as the aroma, flavour, and feel of alcohol are different.”
Varun Sudhakar, Head of Innovations-beverages at Gourmet Investments, Typhoon Shelter, concurs, “Yes. Like any new spirit, you should have an open mind. Ideally, less spicy and more umami-based foods are recommended to go with this drink.” In contrast to beer, due to its easy-going hints of aroma, selecting a sake is akin to choosing a wine. It is most preferred by people who fancy hard spirits like vodka, rum or whisky. Sake became relevant by the introduction of more stand-alone fine-dining restaurants like Typhoon Shelter, and Fuji in Delhi where diners are often intrepid travellers with international exposure.
Wine or beer
Calling sake rice wine may appear incongruous. The brewing process of the oldest spirit in the world suggests it is more beer than wine. Unlike the fermentation of grapes used in wines, rice is the ingredient in sake. Yeast is used to ferment rice and convert starch to alcohol. Being a brewed beverage, it does not require ageing. Yet, it has been categorised as wine, helping to bring about a drastic cut in excise that has made the otherwise expensive sake accessible.
Generally speaking, average sake has roughly 15 or 16 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), ranking it rather high among popular alcoholic drinks, but not quite at the level of hard liquor. To clarify, here’s how it stacks up against its peers in average alcohol content: beer (5 per cent), champagne (11 per cent), wine (15 per cent), sake (15-16 per cent).
Speaking about the main ingredient used in brewing sake, Rahul Bhagat, F&B Director- Conrad Pune, says “Rice, the foundation of sake, comes in many varieties, but as grapes are to wine, only a few rice varieties are good for brewing sake.” Koji, the pan-Asian restaurant at Conrad Pune, dons thematic decor with sake barrel walls and does exemplary sake service replete with masu, tokkuri and ochoko.
The thought of drinking warm beer can be disconcerting. Bhagat explains, “You can drink joukan or hot sake, nurukan or warm sake and reishu or chilled sake. What determines the choice of temperature of this drink is the weather and spell of the season.” As heat affects the quality of sake, it needs to be stored between 15 and 20 degree Celsius. Ideally, it should be consumed within a year. However, flavours could mature in aged sakes.
Traditionally, sake was served in an ochoko, a small porcelain cup together with tokkuri, a decanter. The ochoko would be kept in a masu — another small wooden cup, or the masu would be placed on a saucer. Sake is tipped to run off the cup’s brim to indicate the host’s largesse. A sensory delight indeed!
Cold sake is a pretty modern development. Traditionally, it was served warm. “Most Japanese-immigrants at Yuuka drink theirs warm. Light-bodied, dry sakes do best chilled, while the heavier-bodied, sweeter ones are to be heated. The crucial thing to remember is not to overheat them, as that takes away some of the flavour,” observes Houbeich.
Sake is always had along with food and never on its own. China House at Grand Hyatt Mumbai, serves a selection of sake ranging from Hana, Taru, Karachi, Nigori, Gekkei to Tenteka and Homare. Roger Marti, Food & Beverage Director, Grand Hyatt Mumbai, enlightens, “Instead of warming the sake directly, it’s best to heat the Tokurri (ceramic container), holding the sake, in hot water. Alternately, you can fill a saucepan with water and bring it to a boil over medium heat. The varieties which can be served directly from the refrigerator include ginjo, daiginjo, junmai, and namazake.”
Food pairing and after effects
Throwing light on its versatility, Upender Singh Tomar, Food & Beverage Manager at ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru, which houses the Japanese restaurant Edo says, “Sake is known to carry the flavour of food and enhance it further. It is also a palate cleanser, hence it goes exceedingly well with fish and seafood. This is the reason it's best suited for Japanese cuisine which has opened up a new spectrum of different cooking techniques of roasting, frying, steaming, boiling or eating raw. Sake being paired with Indian food is not an uncommon idea.”
Also read: Gin is in: The newest ‘trendy’ drink
It is sometimes said that brewed alcohol like sake and beer are more likely to cause hangovers than spirits. According to Houbeich, “This is totally wrong. There’s no medical evidence that a certain alcoholic beverage is more or less likely to cause a hangover than others. Studies show that the main factor causing drunkenness and hangovers is the amount of alcohol intake. If you drink a lot of sake in a short period that may well cause a hangover the day after.”
1. Etiquette demands that your friend pours the sake for you and vice versa as it is bad-manners and discourteous to pour your own
2. The drink is dispensed to overflow the cup’s rim to depict the large-heartedness of the host
3. No schools or books teach sake-making as these techniques are handed down through unwritten, oral methods and conveyed via hands-on-guidance
4. Sake brew masters are called Toji and preparing the next prospective Toji can take decades
5. In olden times, spit with enzymes from the saliva was used to ferment the rice instead of Koji yeast in use today
6. Japanese Sake wine has the Geographical Indication (GI) tag
7. Japan is pretty passionate about its national tipple and a Ms Sake is appointed as ambassador to promote rice wine overseas and within the country
Know your Sake
1. Daiginjo (Die-gin-jo)
Made from rice that is polished/milled to at least 50 per cent of its original size. Has added spirits in small amounts
2. Ginjo (G-in-jo)
Made from rice that is polished/ milled to at least 60 per cent of its original size. Has added spirits in small amounts
3. Junmai Ginjo
Made from rice that is polished/ milled to at least 60 per cent of its original size
4. Junmai (June-my)
Pure sake, containing only rice, water, yeast and koji. Quality and flavours vary greatly
5. Junmai Daiginjo
Made from rice that is polished/ milled to at least 50 per cent of its original size. Nothing added
6. Futsu (Foo-tsu)
Basic, table sake made quick and cheap
7. Honjozo (Hon-jo-zo)
Contains any amount of added spirits