There are many myths surrounding saké, not the least of which is that it should always be served hot. But the rice brew is nonetheless picking up traction in the world market because of its food friendliness and compatibility with spirits to create inspired cocktails.
Pretty much everyone has heard of saké, but for many consumers, their first experience was in a Japanese-themed restaurant somewhere other than Japan where they were served hot saké from ceramic pitchers in cute little ceramic cups.
What they may or may not have known is that the saké they were served was most likely of poor quality – similar to bulk wine that is sold in boxes or gallon-sized jugs.
But that’s not really what today’s saké is all about. Patrick Burke, president of Service Innovations, Inc, an international wine distributor that provides products to Jacques Scott, visited Cayman recently to talk about saké and give a seminar to the staff at the Yoshi Sushi restaurant.
There are a lot of misconceptions about saké, starting with the idea that it should always be served hot. In truth, premium saké should be served cold, similar to the temperature white wines like Sauvignon Blanc are served.
“Premium saké is not meant to be heated,” Burke said. “If you heat it, you are going to mask the flavours.”
Hot saké does have its place on a cold winter day, but that doesn’t really apply to the climate in the Cayman Islands. Similar to the principle used when making mulled wine, if someone wants it hot, it’s best to use Futsu, an inexpensive, bulk saké instead of premium saké.
Both cold and hot saké are often served in small cups, a practice Burke says doesn’t bring out the best in saké.
“We really want people to start serving saké in stemware,” he said. “It should be served just like wine.”
Burke said that when saké is served in small cups, people not only have to constantly fill their cups, but they tend to drink it similar to the way they would down a shot of spirits.
“People tend to drink it more quickly and don’t savour it,” he said.
While saké is often referred to as a rice wine because of its wine-like qualities, it’s not wine. It’s brewed, similar to beer, but it’s not beer either. Instead,
saké is an alcoholic beverage that is in a classification all to itself, partially because of its unique brewing process.
Most people also associate saké with Japan and Japanese food, but saké – or at least a saké-like alcoholic beverage – originated in China as early as 4,000 BC. Today, saké is produced in the United States, Australia and Canada as well as Japan. I
n addition, saké pairs very well with cuisine from all over the world, not just Japanese food, Burke said.
“When you’re looking at wine pairings versus saké pairings, saké can be a much better food pairer than wine,” he said. “You don’t find the level of complexity in saké that you find in wine. Wine is more delicate.”
However, that’s not to say saké doesn’t have a lot of taste or a lot of variations of taste. Just like wine, saké can be very dry or fruity/semi-dry. Like wines with a little residual sugar, sweeter sake pairs very well with spicy food.
Unlike some wine, however, saké doesn’t improve with age. It’s meant to be consumed young and only has a shelf life of 12 to 18 months if not stored cold.
Two ingredients vital to saké are rice and water. Like most things, the better the ingredients the better the final product.
Just as only certain types of grapes make the best wine, only about a dozen varieties of rice make good saké.
But before rice can be used to make
saké it must first be polished, or milled. During the polishing process, the outer layers of rice containing proteins and fats are removed, leaving the purer inner core of the grain. The more the rice grains are polished, the better the saké they will create.
“The quality of saké is based on the milling of the rice,” Burke said.
To create Gingo, or premium saké, rice must be milled to at least 60 per cent of its original weight. Daigingo, or super premium saké, must be milled to lower than 50 per cent its original weight.
The pureness of the water used in saké, its other key ingredient, is also very important, Burke said.
“You want low minerality in the water,” he said. “Minerals, especially iron, can cause discolouration and a funky flavour in saké.”
There is one other key ingredient to saké: Koji, a type of mould that not only allows rice to undergo its unique fermentation process, but gives saké some of its distinctive flavour.
Saké must go through a process called multiple parallel fermentation. Unlike grapes, which naturally contain sugars that are easily converted to alcohol by yeast, rice starches must be converted to simple sugars before fermentation can take place. Koji creates enzymes as it propagates that break down the starches in steamed rice into simple sugars, which are then converted to alcohol by yeast.
In saké fermentation, this process occurs simultaneously. Because the yeast can only consume the sugar as the Koji enzymes produce it, the sugar content of the fermenting mash never gets too high, allowing the yeast to slowly create more alcohol without being choked out. As a result, saké has one of the highest alcohol contents for a non-distilled beverage. In fact, producers have to dilute many sakés with water because it ferments into such a high percentage of alcohol, Burke said.
There’s a lot of different kinds of saké so to highlight the differences, Burke led a tasting of various sakés made by SakeOne, a producer in Oregon. The saké was served with a variety of food from Yoshi Sushi – from sushi rolls and sashimi to teriyaki chicken and spicy edamame,
With the latter, Burke suggested the Momokawa Pearl ($20.95 retail at Jacques Scott), a pure, (Junmai) premium (Ginjo) partially filtered, (Nigori) undiluted (Genshu) saké. The fact that it was Ginjo meant the saké was cloudy white in appearance. Very fruity in taste, the Pearl balanced the spicy edamame and paired well with the vegetable.
Burke said a good thing about all saké labels is that they have a Saké Meter Value number which tells the consumer the amount of residual sugars in the finished product. That value is expressed in numbers from +24 to -24; the higher the number, the dryer the saké. In the case of Pearl, the SMV is -12, meaning the saké is fairly fruity. However, the fruitiness helps balance its high, 18.5 per cent alcohol content.
Conversely, the dry Momokawa Diamond ($20.95), a Junmai Ginjo saké, had a SMV of +4 and an alcohol content of 14.8 per cent, making it very similar to wine.
ot surprisingly, the Diamond paired very well with the sushi rolls,
Next sampled was G Joy, a Junmai Ginjo Genshu saké that has enough body to pair with heartier foods like the teriyaki chicken and even beef, Burke said.
SakeOne also produces a line of fruit infused Junmai Ginjo sakés that are designed for usage in mixed drinks, including Moonstone Raspberry ($18.95) and Moonstone Asian Pear ($19.85). Burke explained that because saké is classified as a wine for the purposes of liquor licensing, some bars without a licence to sell spirts started using saké as a cocktail mixer. Bartenders soon learned that saké was also an excellent ingredient in a cocktail mixed with spirits.
“It’s also a cocktail that goes well with food,” he said.
Both the Asian Pear and Raspberry saké have lower alcohol contents – 13.5 per cent – so using them in a cocktail also has the advantage of keeping the alcohol content lower in the cocktail, Burke said.
Yoshi Sushi Manager Mark Nevin whipped up an Asian Pear Martini – the most popular of the restaurant’s “saketini” offerings – which is a delicious combination of vodka, Asian Pear saké and pear juice,
“They go down very easily,” he said.