A Beginner's Guide To Sake

A Crash Course with Tengu Sake 

We were lucky enough to have Oliver from Tengu Sake visit recently to give us a thorough run through on the intricacies of Japan's iconic drink. We looked at how sake is made, how to taste it, and some of its rich cultural importance. It was super interesting having all our preconceptions completely blown out of the water multiple times; consider us sake evangelists now.

So what actually is sake? Basically it's just rice. Well there are a few other things involved (such as a special fermenting fungus called Koji but let's not worry about it). Unlike wine, where the style of wine is mostly determined by the grape variety and how the berries ripen in the vineyard, the style of sake is mostly defined by how much the rice is 'polished' in the brewery. This means removing the outer, tougher layers of the rice grain. Generally speaking, more polished = more delicate, fruitier flavours. Less polished = more umami, savoury characters. 

So let's take a look at where you can start with the selection we carry. We've broken them down into three categories:  

Light and fresh 

Konishi Silver Ginjo is the perfect sake for beginners. It's well balanced (being a Ginjo style that is medium polished), with a fresh structure similar to a light and spritzy white wine. Very silky and delicately fragranced with white flowers, citrus blossom and light spice and a subtle touch of gingerbread. Helpfully it's also a good size, and so doesn't represent too much of an investment in a new style of beverage! In terms of pairings, it's light and fresh enough to compliment sushi (particularly sashimi) but could also be a perfect accompaniment to oysters, crab or other light seafood dishes. Serve chilled. 

Gentle Breeze is definitely one of our favourites lighter styles. Made with local Miyamanishiki rice polished to 55%, this sake is wonderfully delicate, moreish, easy-to-drink and offers the perfect balance between aroma and flavour. There are aromas of sweet melon, baby strawberries, ripe tomato and white jasmine. The first sip is inviting, refreshing and quenching. Light-bodied, slightly dry with a luxurious, silky texture. Perfect served chilled on a Summer’s evening, or with creamy sauces, mussels in white wine or simply on its own.

Karakuchi is a dry Junmai style sake made from Yamadanishiki rice. It's lean and crisp with pure citrus, apple and white flower aromas. Surprisingly powerful on the palate with more apple and touches of spice and earth.

Medium-full body, more umami 

The Grammy Award-winning French rock band Phoenix collaborated with Tatenokawa brewery to release a new project, but this time it isn’t a new record, it is a new sake! The project was very much a labour of love for the two parties, who were introduced by the late Toshiro Kuroda. Kuroda-san dedicated himself to teaching others about sake & Japanese cuisine and it was he who introduced the band to Tatenokawa. Sadly, Mr Kuroda passed away before he could see this sake’s first release, and a portion of the brewery’s profits from sales is donated to the Japanese Red Cross in his name.Tatenokawa Phoenix is a Junmai Daiginjo, the most polished and refined style of sake available. It has restrained tropical fruit flavours along with plenty of body, umami and acidity. Enjoy with a range of cuisines including roasts, sushi, rich fish dishes, fried foods and soft cheeses.

Red Face from Hayashi Honten is another great all-rounder sake, especially for beginners looking for a more full-bodied style. Aromas of fresh green apple, banana, pear, bread and yogurt, backed up with plenty of umami overtones. If warmed to 45oC, Red Face is satisfying and bone-warming, pushing the rice flavours to the fore while the fruit supports in the background. Food pairings include sushi & robata, BBQ meats & veg, creamy dishes, grilled fish, ceviche, pickles, as well as richer meat dishes as an able support act. Overall an easy-drinking session sake. 

Full-bodied & Unctuous

 Moonlight is superb example of a full-flavoured, slightly sweet nigori (cloudy) sake from Yamatagawa Shuzo. Nigori is made simply by coarse-filtering fermented sake to only partially remove the rice lees from the mixture. This results in a sake with a dense mouthfeel, a heady fragrance and a delicious, rice-forward sweetness from the remaining lees. Moonlight is full-bodied and weighty on the palate with high acidity and amino acidity elegantly balanced with the sweetness of the residual rice. In terms of how thick this nigorizake is, it’s thick enough to feel the rice lees in your mouth but not so thick to noticeably change the viscosity of the liquid.  Moonlight is best served chilled and its silky texture pairs wonderfully with South Asian curries, the fusion we never knew we needed!  

Tsuji Honten Gozenshu is a yuzu sake made from whole, locally grown yuzu citrus fruit, blended with Tsuji Honten's top Junmai sake. Rich and sweet but balanced by explosively zingy fresh yuzu flavours. Imagine if sake and Limoncello had a baby, this is it. It is ideal served on the rocks as an aperitif, neat in place of a dessert wine or our favourite - with tonic and a slice as a yuzushu spritzer.

Thanks for reading and watch out for an expanded sake range in store and online in 2021!