I remember that first sip well; it was chalky and abrasive, something I did not want to drink again. In hindsight, trying sake for the first time at a raucous, much-loved local BYO restaurant was not my smartest move. There’s a reason they suggest you bring your own booze. But I was young and stupid, and the bento box dinners were within easy reach of my university student budget. The sake was promptly chased by a gulp of cheap wine and classed as a tick off the drinks bucket list. The few experiences I had since then were better, though still not enough to turn it into a regular drink of choice. Trying it again in Japan would be the final test; my logic was that if I couldn’t like it here then I wouldn’t bother drinking it again. So to give myself and sake the best possible chance of getting along, we joined sake sommelier Yuma from Ninja Food Tours for a sake tasting class!
Introduction to Sake
We started our sake tasting class with a quick lesson on the ins and outs of producing sake. These educational sections of classes and tours can so often be a dull rote-learnt prattle by the host but Yuma managed to actually make it engaging. Armed with an ipad filled with diagrams for the visual learners such as myself, and a pop quiz for the short attention spans in the room (also myself), he kept the information flowing but the mood light and interesting. There are only a few key ingredients used in making sake (water, rice, koji (rice mould), and sometimes alcohol) but naturally, each will have an impact on the final outcome. As does the brewing process itself which, similar to wine and beer making, requires fermentation to produce the alcohol. I won’t go into the nitty gritty details, best leave that to the experts…
Different Types of Sake
There are several types of sake which are categorised by two main factors – the rice polishing ratio and whether or not it has additional distilled alcohol. Those which are pure sake are called ‘junmai’, and often considered some of the best but that does not necessarily mean that non-junmai varieties are poor… just different. The polishing ratio refers to the amount shaved off the outer of the grain; generally the more polish, the smoother the taste. Each bottle of sake has this information stated on the label, the catch is that you will usually have to be able to read Japanese to understand it… but according to Yuma, most good sake bars will be able to recommend something according to your tastes or what you’re eating alongside it.
The main categories as follows:
- 50% remaining: Junmai Daiginjo-shu or Daiginjo-shu
- 60% remaining: Junmai Ginjo-shu or Ginjo-shu
- 70% remaining: Junmai-shu or Honjozo-shu
Sake Tasting and Pairing
Once our lesson on the basics was done and dusted, it was time for what we were all really there for… sake tasting! Yuma had chosen six sakes for us to taste; his varied selection really shone a new light on the world of sake for our table of beginners. In the mix were some which were unpasteurised and had to be kept chilled at all times, some which were cloudy from the remaining rice, and even one which was pink like a rosé! We were tasked with marking each one on a grid which reflected whether we thought it was to traditional or modern tastes, and full body or light body. This sounded easy enough but without an experienced palate and familiarity with sake, I think we all found the task of rating the first one quite daunting. But reassured by Yuma’s claims that there was no wrong answer, we all enthusiastically sipped, discussed, and then set about plotting our ratings.
Despite all tasting the same sake, our views were certainly varied. Some even changed when we sipped alongside the snacks… for me personally, there are definitely some sake which taste even better when paired with food. To make things more interesting, Yuma then introduced a few sake at different temperatures – first chilled or at room temperature, and then warmed. What a difference that can make! Generally, I felt the heat intensified everything about the sake; it tasted stronger, richer, bolder, but for my tastebuds, not necessarily better. I can imagine it being just perfect for warming you up during some of the freezing Japanese winters, but I think I will continue to take my sake cold.
At the end of the tasting we compared our ratings with Yuma’s, a hilarious exercise which confirmed that none of us had a future as a sake sommelier. However, what this class did give me was more confidence when it comes to ordering and drinking sake. Yuma’s passion and knowledge for the subject was obvious (a discerning sake drinker even before he became a sake sommelier) which made our afternoon not only educational but highly entertaining and relaxed. I’m now ordering sake without those horrid flashbacks to my first sake experience, and have come to really enjoy tasting the different styles and asking for recommendations in bars and restaurants!
Thank you to Yuma at Ninja Food Tours for giving us our lesson on sake, but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone! If you want to book a class or food tour in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka with Ninja Food Tours, check out their website here.
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