Sake is not only a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage, but it is also beneficial to you in many ways. Exceptional taste, the unique way of consumption, and the fact it doesn’t give you a hangover are just some of the reasons you should try this drink.
We had the opportunity to talk to one of the most knowledgeable people in Australia about the sake industry, Melissa Mills, and here is what she said:
Tell us about your background
I grew up in the lush, green, “land of the long white cloud” aka New Zealand. For the first 25 years of my life, our naturally beautiful but isolated part of the globe was my focus, but like most young Kiwis the big OE was beckoning. After university and a few years working as a dentist, I booked an open ticket to the Northern Hemisphere with a plan to complete some post-graduate studies and do some exploring.
Over the next few decades, I explored the world and settled in Australia in the mid-’90s, continued working in hospital-based dentistry and became a Japanese food and travel tragic. I visited Japan for the first time in 2008 and that experience ignited an enduring fascination with the country. Scratching the surface was just not enough and the need to explore further led to many carefully researched and meticulously planned vacation trips trying to unwrap Japan’s endlessly fascinating food culture.
How did you fall in love with sake?
When visiting Japan, Tokyo friends, izakaya and restaurant staff and random locals I met at a bar counter or on the shinkansen, introduced me to sake and its links to Japanese cuisine and history. I really enjoyed all the sake I tasted and loved the associated stories and sake fun, but it remained something mysterious and somehow out of reach for me.
This changed in 2014 when one snowy winter’s day, I visited Nakashima Shuzo, a 300-year-old sake brewery in Mizunami town, Gifu Prefecture. This was my first brewery visit and an opportunity to look at traditional sake making from its rice grain origin and taste freshly pressed sake. I was hooked and intent on cramming as many sake drinking experiences into my Japan time as possible.
Back at home in Melbourne, it felt like all the sake gods had aligned when I enrolled in an advanced sake education course run by the Wine Spirit Education Trust (WSET) which helped me put all the missing pieces together and gain a formal qualification. Following this, I decided to open my own boutique sake consulting agency in 2018 so I could focus full-time on my passion for sake. I’m now well down that rabbit hole working with sake every day, consulting for the sake industry, hospitality and private clients and working with Melbourne Wine School as a WSET sake educator.
How does sake stand apart from other spirit or wine selections?
Sake is very much a unique package of fermented fun in the beverage world. It has a long history dating back about 2000 years and over centuries has evolved to be a delicious and refined alcoholic drink that showcases Japan’s natural resources of rice and water. It has a myriad of different styles and is brewed to merge and enhance the food you drink it alongside. Its alcoholic strength is just a little higher than wine and is achieved by natural fermentation utilising the power of microbes, such as yeast, to give it delicious aromas, flavours, and texture. One of the most common misconceptions about sake is that it’s a strong distilled drink like vodka or gin but that is not true.
Can you tell us a bit about pairing sake with food?
The core ingredient of sake is rice which provides starch and proteins for fermentation and ultimately the delicious liquid end product. These components are also found in the food we eat and it’s this fact that allows the flavour synergy and pairing between the food on our plate and the sake in our glass. Sake tends to merge in the mouth with its base fruity or umami flavour notes being in harmony with food. Think of a crusty Pizza topped with a tomato sauce and gooey cheese paired with a slightly fruity sake with a clean, crisp finish.
We also like to consider the body and texture of the sake when pairing, for example – is it light, delicate, and smooth? Or is the sake more robust, full in flavour and rich? Do we want to choose a sake that will pair in a merging, complementary way or do we want a counterpoint sake that will be a point of difference to enhance the flavours on the plate? A great example of this would be a sweeter, richer style of sake paired with a creamy, crumbly blue cheese.
What sake trends do you see right now? Either in Japan or Australia?
In the sake world currently, I think we are seeing a creeping separation and specialisation in the extremes of brewing styles. Some breweries are producing more aromatic, fruit-forward, smooth, and delicate styles and on the flip side, there are other breweries making sake focused on the taste of rice with full-bodied, earthy, spicy and umami dominant flavours harking back to more traditional times. The extremes seem to be moving further apart taking their own sake loving fan bases with them.
In the middle ground, we are seeing the emergence of a lighter, more modern style of sake which shows a bit of fruitiness combined with a more substantial body and texture. Very quaffable and food-friendly and often lower in alcoholic strength and combined with some finishing acidity (acidity is usually low in sake so this is a new trend). The appearance of lower ABV sake in the marketplace is mirroring this shift in consumer drinking patterns across the beverage scene.
To chill or not to chill – When is it best to opt for hot sake?
Sake is uniquely versatile because it can be transformed by heat, changing the way it tastes and feels in the mouth. The aromas, texture, body, flavour, and acidity of sake can change dramatically with temperature and enhance its ability to pair with food. However, not all sake is great when warmed and in fact, the drinking experience of a premium sake can be totally destroyed by heat.
The general rules to follow are that highly aromatic, fruity, or floral styles of sake that are refined, smooth and delicate are best served chilled around 10-15 degrees. The Japanese have a name for this temperature range – suzu-hie which means a cool breeze. Daiginjo and Ginjo sake styles generally are optimal at this temperature.
Sake styles, like Junmai or Honjozo, that are lower in aroma and have more structured, full-bodied rice derived flavours and could be described as having grainy, earthy, spicy or umami notes are usually great warmed up. Pouring the sake into a flask and gently heating it in a water bath to about 35 degrees is the very pleasant human skin warmth or hito-hada-kan. I enjoy sake heated to about 40 degrees known as nuru-kan at which point the subtle changes in flavour and texture with heating can be enjoyed. The limit to heating sake is about 60 degrees.
There are many factors that come into play when deciding to drink or serve sake warm. In the cooler winter season, it can be very comforting and nurturing. Some dishes like nabe or hotpot or braised meats are well suited to warm sake served at a similar temperature to the dish. And then there are warm sake aficionados who just adore their sake steaming.
What are some easy to find sake to look for when travelling to Japan?
Firstly, one of the confusing things for foreign travellers to Japan is that sake in Japan is known as Nihon-shu 日本酒.In fact, the word “sake” in Japanese is a general term meaning alcohol. This means if you are in a bar or restaurant and want to order and enjoy Japanese sake you need to ask for Nihon-shu.
Sake is very accessible in Japan and even appears in some form in the ubiquitous convenience stores that pop up throughout every suburb or town. A word of warning though that Conbini sake can lean toward the mass-produced, additive-rich and lower quality versions of sake and it’s wise to be circumspect. Look for good quality packaging and get out your google translate app to discover words like Ginjo or Junmai on the bottle labels which will indicate that it is a premium grade sake. Or if you like sailing close to the wind enjoy experimental tasting and try out the range of one cup sake (180ml) that can be found in these stores, in train stations, vending machines and on the Shinkansen.
Above all, I recommend that you ask the chefs and restaurant, izakaya, bar and hotel staff for sake recommendations when you are at their venues. Nothing beats showing interest and adventure when it comes to discovering sake. I always try to discover a Jizake shop or bar when I am visiting a new place in Japan. Jizake means local sake or sake that has been brewed in the region and equates to “craft sake” rather than mass-produced sake. Some specialist shops and department stores will also offer small tasting stands so you can sample sake before purchasing.
What sake is in your fridge now?
Sitting in my fridge is a half-full bottle of Katsuyama Junmai Daiginjo Gin No Iroha Kasumi Namazake. This sake just arrived in Australia last week and I’m enjoying tasting it and writing a formal note of all its delicious features. Many sakes have very long names and this one can be broken down to help us understand it. Katsuyama is the name of the sake brewery which makes it, Junmai Daiginjo is the official grade of the sake and tells us it was made with rice grains that had been polished to 50% of their original grain size before fermentation. This is the highest grade of sake in the classification system. Gin no Iroha is the name of the rice variety used to brew the sake. Kasumi means the sake has a slightly cloudy and misty appearance in the glass. Namazake means the sake has not been pasteurised (heat-treated) and therefore needs refrigeration to keep the sake fresh and in good condition.
Can you give us your top 5 sakes?
My current top 5 sake list features in my mind from memorable places, significant meals or people I was with when I experienced them. The list is always changing and that’s what I love about sake.
- Kozaemon Junmai Daiginjo 40
- Aramasa Brain Damage Incorporated 2018
- Noguchi Yamahai Aiyama 2018
- Niizawa Junmai Daiginjo Kizashi 2016
- Terada Honke Daigo No Shizuku Junmai.