In our Ask the Sommelier series, we put your wine-related questions to top sommeliers. In this instalment, sommelier, sake expert and co-founder of Yatbui Brett Goss explains all things sake.
‘I recently had a sommelier suggest a glass of sake for pairing with a dish I had at a restaurant, and I really enjoyed it, so I’d love to know a bit more about the different kinds of sake available, and the best way to enjoy them.’
Erica, Uppsala in Sweden
Sommelier Brett Goss explains:
‘The first thing to remember about sake is that even though it’s referred to as a rice wine, it’s a brewed beverage. It’s much closer to a beer in the way it’s produced. There are three main ways of creating beverages: brewing, fermenting, and distilling. Fermenting uses fruit juice, then you add yeast to turn it into alcohol. In brewing, you use a starch, then you add water, and then yeast. With distilling, you take either a fermented or brewed beverage and then you put it through the process of distillation. So, although lots of people will refer to sake as a wine, it’s brewed like a beer rather than fermented like a wine. However, in the sake world, we let it slide because if you treat and appreciate sake like a wine, it can be a great way to enjoy it.
‘Sake is made from water, rice, yeast and koji – a kind of enzyme. The use of koji is what gives sake its umami ‘fifth taste’ flavour, and is also used in other Japanese ferments like soy and miso, which have savoury flavour profiles similar to most sakes. This flavour is also why sake is so intrinsically linked to food culture.
‘In terms of different types of sake, there’s Junmai, which means it contains no added distilled alcohol and will normally have a softer mouthfeel without that harsh alcohol character. The distilled alcohol is what gives sake the reputation of being like rocket fuel and drives a lot of the confusion about it being a spirit rather than a brewed beverage.
It’s hard to paint with one brush, but as a general rule, if you treat sake like a white wine then you’re in the right ballpark
‘Another word that’s useful to know is Daiginjo. This means that the rice has been polished to 50 per cent or less. Rice in sake production is normally polished, meaning milling the outside of the rice to get to the starchy centre (Shinpaku). For most sakes, they mill away at least 30 per cent of the rice, but Daiginjo is made with rice that’s milled to a minimum of 50 per cent, so there’s a higher starch component, which results in a sweeter, fruiter and more floral drink.
‘It’s hard to paint with one brush, but as a general rule, if you treat sake like a white wine in terms of temperature and glassware then you’re in the right ballpark. Sake has a long association of being drunk out of the small ceramic cups, sometimes warm, and these have a traditional place – but they’re the worst vessel, from a technical standpoint, as they remove any of the retro-nasal ability for smelling while tasting, and they really limit your ability to fully experience the drink.
‘In terms of food pairing, you’re going to have a really good time with anything that is fermented; anything that’s miso-forward. There’s a very famous Nobu dish – miso-baked cod – and drinking that with sake is just a phenomenal experience. The drink also transfers over into the Western realm really well. Daiginjo, for example, has a lot of melon notes, and as melon is a classic pairing with Ibérico ham, drinking this sake with charcuterie makes for an incredible food-and-drink combination.
Interview by Louella Berryman