With so much to learn about sake, experts have given us some of their top tips. Photo / Babiche Martens

Experts Share What You Need To Know About Sake

We step up to the bar to discover why sake experts love this complex and sometimes misunderstood drink

"Sake has reached a critical point in its 2000 year history,” says David Joll, the head brewer and director of New Zealand’s only sake brewery, Zenkuro.

“Japanese brewers and distributors have realised that the rest of the world likes sake (known as nihonshu in Japan) and sake tourism in Japan has begun to take off.”

While the number of Japanese breweries is declining, David believes that over the three years Zenkuro has been operating, the world is increasingly “catching on that sake is another food-pairing option with at least as much depth, variety and versatility as wine”.

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For those who have drilled into every aspect of the wine or beer-making process and still have a thirst for new knowledge, sake could be the next beverage to be schooled on. If the popularity of Masu’s intensive sake classes are anything to go by — they sell out within hours — it seems this is the case for many.

Led by the restaurant’s passionate manager Fuminobu Nakatani (who holds New Zealand’s only international qualification in sake from the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust), parts of Fumi’s Sake Club are reminiscent of a high school biology lesson, except amid the talk of enzymes and fermentation, glasses upon glasses of sake (including a dash of Queenstown’s Zenkuro) begin to appear.

Fumi says the more people know about sake, the more the industry will thrive, but currently, even many waitstaff know little about it, making it hard for consumers to order one they’ll enjoy.

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He’s hoping to combat this with his three-hour sessions, where guests enjoy sashimi, sushi and tempura from Masu’s kitchen, as the process of making and choosing sake is explained, with plenty of space for questions and discussions.

Returning to the office after Fumi’s Sake Club, I’m faced with one of the most common misconceptions around sake: everyone seems surprised I can still stand. David says people tend to think sake is a spirit (rather than a brewed beverage) and that “it’s a strong drink with a hit”, when in reality it only has a little more alcohol than wine: usually around 12 to 15 per cent, if it has been diluted with water.

Fumi believes that the more people know about sake, the more the industry will thrive. Photos / Babiche Martens, Supplied

If it hasn’t, it will be called genshu. Fumi says if you see a high percentage mentioned on a sake bottle it doesn’t refer to the alcohol content but how much of the rice used is polished away before brewing and determines how light or full-bodied the drink will be. If more is polished away, the sake will have a more delicate flavour.

Most sake can be appreciated more fully when chilled. “If you prefer to drink warm sake, it’s best to opt for sake with a higher level of acidity and umami,” says Fumi.

“If you heat up light and delicate sake you will sometimes lose the original aromatic flavours.”

At Masu, and other Japanese restaurants such as Ebisu, Azabu or Kazuya, they list the categories of sake, such as daiginjo (at least 50 per cent of rice polished away), ginjo (at least 40 per cent), honjozo (at least 30 per cent, with alcohol added) and junmai (30 percent with no added alcohol, starches or sugar).

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“If you want a light and fruity aroma and taste to your sake, choose sake with a lower polishing ratio or ask for ginjo-style sake in a Japanese restaurant or sake shop,” says Fumi.

David says these regulated “special designation” categories overlap, but most importantly let you know you’re drinking a top-notch drop.

“These words tell you that the sake has been made with premium-grade sake rice, that the brewers have taken pride in their work, and that there are no additives or preservatives in the sake,” he says.

The words kimoto and yamahai mean the sake hasn’t had commercial yeast added and has, instead, undergone the long process of being fermented by bacteria absorbed from the air, resulting in a complex and full-bodied finish.

When pairing sake with food, Fumi says a “like for like” approach is a good place to start, but it’s worth experimenting to find your favourite combination. “Pairing a lighter-flavoured sake with lighter food, such as sashimi, is considered a good match, or when pairing a richer-flavoured sake you might opt for richer food such as oily fish,” he says. “Or you can use a “contrast” approach. For example, salty food paired with sweet sake.”

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“New Zealand lamb or spicier dishes go particularly well with nigori (cloudy) sake,” says David. “Bluff oysters, whitebait, mutton bird, scallops, eel, smoked cheese, blue cheese and dried meats are also favourite pairing partners.”

For those keen to ease into things, Azabu has some delicious, zesty, low ABV cocktails which use sake as a base.

Zenkuro sells a sake face mask made with leftovers from the brewing process along with white clay and yuzu, that’s reportedly good for dry skin and anti-ageing.

If you’d rather stick to drinking sake, tradition dictates that you should pour for others and let someone else fill your cup. This allows more socialising as glasses are filled, as sake — as well as all the tips, tricks and traditions around it — are best when shared.

• Fumi's next Sake Club is on Saturday August 4 at 5.30pm. Tickets are $79 per person. To book, call Masu on (09) 363 6279 or email info@masu.co.nz

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