Sake tasting, Tokyo, Japan.

Sake 101 — Tokyo Sake Tasting

We’ve always loved sake – since we used to hit the karaoke bars with friends in Sydney’s Kings Cross years ago. We wouldn’t think of eating Japanese food with anything but sake*, but, unlike wine, we knew very little about sake until recently. Being in Tokyo seemed to be a good excuse to learn, so we did two things.

We went to sake shop Hasegawa, pictured above, owned by sake expert Koichi Hasegawa, at Omotesando Hills, for a sake tasting. Hasegawa has English-speaking staff and a bar offering ‘sake flights’ – a selection of 3-4 glasses of different types of sake, so we got to taste seven different sakes in total including a delicious fresh sparkling sake.

We also had a chat to Tokyo-based sake expert Melinda Joe. The bar editor at bento.com and a regular contributor on food and drink to CNNgo.com and the Japan Times, Melinda also blogs about sake at Tokyo through the Drinking Glass.

Q. What is sake exactly?

A. Sake is a brewed alcoholic beverage made from rice and water, but it sounds terribly boring to describe it that way. The amazing thing is that these simple ingredients can yield such a wide spectrum of flavors.

Q. How would you describe it to someone who has never tried it?

A. Difficult to answer, as there are so many kinds of sake out there, with different flavour profiles. In general, sake is higher in alcohol than wine, much less tart, and with more pronounced sweetness.

Q. How is sake made?

A. It’s a complex process that can take anywhere from a month to almost two months after the rice grains are polished. I think the most important point is that, unlike grapes, rice doesn’t contain sugar, which is necessary to make alcohol. In order to convert the starch in rice into sugar, sake makers cultivate a mould called koji-kin onto a portion of the rice grains. (For more info, see this.)

Q. Are there as many different types of sake as there are wine varietals?

A. There are thousands of different sakes on the market, but there aren’t as many as wine. In terms of production, there are five very broad categories (see here for more detail), but there are loads of subcategories as well.

Q. How do you judge a good sake? Is there a vocabulary for sake as with wine?

A. Let your own palate be the guide! It’s basically the same as tasting wine. Traditionally, people describe the flavour profile of a sake in terms of five attributes: sweetness, acidity, dryness, astringency (kind of akin to the sensation from tannins in wine), and umami, the rich flavor of deliciousness found in foods like cheese, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Unlike in wine, length in the finish is usually not considered a desirable quality. There are loads of expressions in Japanese to describe sake’s other characteristics, but there is really no right or wrong way to talk about sake!

Q. When should we drink sake and can it be matched with food in the way we pair wine and food?

A. I think sake is best with meals. It can pair with almost any kind of food. It’s a terrifically food-friendly drink and you don’t have to limit yourself to Japanese food. Lots of people are experimenting with pairing sake with different cuisines, and that’s very exciting. In San Francisco, for instance, Beau Timkin of True Sake does these great pairing experiments, where he pits sake against wine and beer and matches sake with various cuisines.

Q. Tips for matching sake and food?

A. Sake is high in amino acids and so pairs brilliantly with umami-rich foods like fish, meats and cheese (yes, cheese!). Like with wine, you should think of matching weights when matching food and sake. For example, I wouldn’t put a light and aromatic Daiginjo sake with a beef stew, nor would I recommend a funky aged Koshu with white-fish sashimi, but you really have to experiment for yourself. The good thing is that sake will give you a lot of latitude with regard to pairing.

Q. Is there any etiquette involved in drinking sake?

A. In Japanese culture, it’s polite to pour sake for others, so you’re not supposed to pour for yourself. It’s a nice custom that encourages interaction. Keep in mind that it’s quite easy to get drunk. Sake is usually 15-16% alcohol and some can be as high as 18%, so pace yourself and drink water. Failing that, try to make sure that everyone else is as wasted as you are.

Q. How can a novice to sake learn about sake in Tokyo?

A. John Gauntner does a professional course in English twice a year in Tokyo. Highly recommended! See John Gauntner’s Sake World, Beau Timkin’s True Sake, Tim Sullivan’s Urbansake, Etsuko Nakamura’s Tokyofoodcast, and Robert-Gilles Martineau’s Shizuoka Sake, to name a few. (Also see Melinda’s sake blog Tokyo through the Drinking Glass and her articles about sake for the Japan Times including her recent story on sake and piece about rice).

Q. What makes sake special?

A. The more I learn about sake, the more it fascinates me. I actually spent a week in Osaka last year helping out at a brewery and I have the utmost respect for the people who make it.

Q. Your favourite sake-drinking spots?

A. Seigetsu in Kagurazaka is a lovely little izakaya with good sake and an English menu; ditto Aburiya Fudo in Azabu Juban. Buchi in Shibuya is a standing bar that serves one-cups. A super-casual place (more like a bar) that’s very down-to-earth is Ippo in Ebisu. (Ippo is featured here on CNNGo TV; Melinda is at the sushi bar!) They also have great fresh fish and one of the guys there speaks English, but the list is bilingual. Kuri is a specialist in Ginza and Shimbashi — very nice, great tasting flights so that makes it easy for beginners. The Shimbashi branch is more comfy and more spacious. I also love Yoshimoto in Shinjuku and Seigetsu in Kagurazaka. Note that Finding English-speaking staff can be challenging, but the places above have English menus.

Q. The best place to buy sake?

A. Hasegawa has branches in Tokyo station, in Omotesando Hills and in Azabu Juban. Hasegawa usually has someone who can speak English on site, so ask the staff for suggestions. If you’re feeling really adventurous, head out to Araiyakushi-mae on the Seibu-Shinjuku line to a store called Aji no Machidaya. They have a fantastic selection of cute and kitschy one-cup premium sakes there. They don’t speak English, but it’s worth taking a gamble on the labels because your friends will love them.

Etsuko Nakamura, who took us to Tsukiji Fish Markets (see our posts, part 1 and part 2) also runs Sake Tours. Unfortunately Etsuko was off on a tour so we couldn’t interview her for this story, but we also suggest you take a look at her site Tokyofoodcast.

  • okay, with Japanese beer too.


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