Being a self-proclaimed expert in drinks doesn’t mean having complete knowledge, and I’m happy to concede that I know next to nothing about sake. Having evolved nowhere beyond drinking it heated with Japanese food ten years ago, I was keen to delve into its mysteries fully with the guiding hand of a specialist.
Enter Toshi Maeda. The owner of Richmond’s Maedaya Sake and Grill is incredibly passionate about Japan’s signature drop, and his assured guidance can set the mind of the most novice palates at ease. Coupled with the sake master’s knowledge of all beverages Japanese is a firm grasp on how to match them with food, when to drink what and how things are served in the observance of nihon-teki (the Japanese way). After all, if you want an authentic experience you’ve got to subscribe to that age-old adage to ‘do as the locals do’! He happily sat down with me for a patient Q&A on a balmy Melbourne arvo, and left me feeling a great deal more comfortable with this mystical brew.
Now, to clarify a big myth right off the bat: only poor-quality sake should be served warm. Futsushu sake roughly equates to table wine and represents around 75% of the total amount produced. It’s this that you’ll typically see gathering dust in Australian bottle shops, or being served warm in Japanese restaurants around the world. It has an important second function however, and if you happen to be kicking about in the highland mountains of northern Japan during winter this warmed product will keep the cockles snugly intact. While we’re on the subject of clarification, sake actually means “drinks” – any drinks – in Japanese and can be used to refer to any type of after-work drinks. We’re learning here people.
Sake has some crazy origins, with anecdotal evidence indicating it developed from Kuchikami or “chewing sake” and involved chewing the grains and spitting the lot into a tub, à la the tobacco spittoons of the ol’ west. The saliva enzymes were critical in converting the starches to sugars for fermentation. Tasty! Luckily for us things have progressed in a less mastication-driven direction.
During the Heian period before the tenth century, sake started getting reasonable traction as a tasty elixir. Initially, sake was strictly government controlled and saved for special occasions such as weddings, funerals and major political victories until those pesky monks got hold of it in the 15th century. Now is it just me, or are monks obsessed with making booze? Whether they are or not, they’re not selfish and they released the technology to the public for all to produce.
Down to the nitty gritty then. There are four grades of premium sake, with each requiring more attention and care during production. Basically, the higher degree of milling the rice kernels receive dictates the quality of the end result. Fastidious brewers mill rice grains to 50% their original size, exposing a shiny pearl of pure starch to produce the very best sake, Daiginjo, then 60% for Ginjo, 70% for Junmai and Honjozo. But what on Earth does that all mean? Premium sake delivers delicate qualities and floral aromas – bordering at times on fruity – with ease and poise. They possess a finesse not found in cheaper grades and that is why, dear friends, sake can get a bit pricey; but like good wine it’s a worthy investment.
Like wine too, sake has similar traits when it comes to matching with food. Light and delicate seafood or chicken dishes are better suited to the light and dry coastal sake; bolder, richer dishes more typically found in inland Japan are better suited and matched with richer, fruitier sake which is better at standing up to the flavours. Someone like Toshi, who knows their sake, will be guns at guiding you to the right choices for the food your mouth’s watering over – they may even tickle your interest with Nigori sake over dessert, which is the older unfiltered type, and akin to a viscous, opaque rice pudding (don’t tell him I said that!).
Japanese culture has many great subtleties, and their famously thoughtful considerations involved in creative processes are easy to miss unless you really take your time to ponder them in their proper context. That proper context doesn’t need to be to be laden with ceremony however: for me, a backyard setting with a mate and a freshly caught fish, such as bream, is all it takes. Thin, pearlescent slices of fish with soy and wasabi, washed down with a rich, fruity and dry ginjo is a pretty picture of heaven. If that can’t be arranged, then one of Melbourne’s izakayas will happily welcome you into their arms with a big konbanwa.
Broadsheet's picks for drinking sake in Melbourne:
12 Bligh Place, Melbourne (map)
Nihonshi Shochu & Sake Bar
163 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne (map)