Why Saké Is The Drink Of 2016
A selection of saké at Sake no Hana. Photograph courtesy of Sake no Hana
How the Japanese wine has become one of this year’s biggest bar trends.
From novelty tipple to barman’s best friend, saké has seen its popularity soar this year, spurred by a spate of new restaurant launches in London that have placed it front and centre on their menus. Its flavour profile and versatility mean that more chefs and cocktail pioneers are finding ways to use it in their creations, while a new wave of artisanal sakés made with high-end ingredients are pushing it into a premium category.
With a craft-heavy production process where rice-polishing determines flavour (the more polished the grain, the higher its classification) saké’s fermented blend of water, rice, yeast and indigenous koji fungus has seen a revival of traditional techniques in its native Japan and a rapidly expanding export market. To get up to speed on this year’s hottest drink (note: most sakés are best served cold), we got the lowdown from those in the know on how to go with the grain, and why it’s risen to prominence now.
IT’S PURER THAN EVER
A major force behind saké’s new-found popularity has been producers revisiting their processes. “After WWII, saké was made using lots of additives. This made it cheap to produce – and also resulted in a lot of hangovers,” says Mr Hideki Hiwatashi, executive head chef at London’s Japanese hotspot Sake No Hana. “It led to it losing popularity among young people as alternative drinks became widely available in Japan. Since then, the saké world has started to make purer products without the same after-effects.”
THERE IS MORE VARIETY
Unlike grape wine, where the majority of the work is done in the vineyard, most of the work involved in producing saké takes place once the rice reaches the brewery. Mr Timothy Sullivan of Japanese drinks brand Hakkaisan Sake Brewery (and founder of urbansake.com) says that more breweries are now exporting and new styles join the market regularly. “Ingredients are very important to making good saké – our rice comes from premier Niigata farmers and our water is from a single protected stream in the foothills of Hakkaisan Mountain.”
SAKÉ PAIRS WELL WITH FOOD…
According to Mr Marcis Dzelzainis, who heads up the bar team at London’s Sager + Wilde Paradise Row, saké is an umami booster, making it a useful ingredient if you’re trying to match cocktails with food. Mr Hiwatashi agrees, pointing to particular styles as suiting different dishes: the premium, pure junmai saké suits miso dishes, meat or tempura; the fruitier flavours of high-grade ginjo saké work with white fish; and namasaké – an unpasteurized saké that has recently become very popular – is ideal for accompanying oysters and grilled chicken.
… AND IT’S ALSO GREAT TO COOK WITH
It’s well known that more top chefs are putting saké to work in their kitchens. “There are many reasons why saké is good for cooking with,” says Mr Hiwatashi. “It reduces unpleasant aromas, which is particularly helpful when cooking with fish, and it is very effective in seafood marinades. When barbecuing, it works well when sprayed over fish – coating the seafood with sake helps increase its umami profile. It’s also useful for tenderizing meat.”
IT MAKES FOR GREAT COCKTAILS
Always at the forefront of flavour trends, bartenders have embraced better-quality saké. “It’s the holy grail of a low ABV liquor with a big flavour,” says Mr Dzelzainis. The man behind some of the city’s most innovative cocktail menus, Mr Dzelzainis says that saké pairs beautifully with melon flavours, gin, vodka and caraway. One of the standout concoctions he’s created for Sager + Wilde is the subtly sensational Tokyo Bullet, a surefire way to impress your worldly wise guests. Here’s how to make it at home:
35ml junmai saké35ml frozen vodka7.5ml Kümmel (a caraway-spiced liqueur)Large caperberry
Stir all the liquids together in a mixing glass, strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a large caperberry.