Is it just us or is sake suddenly everywhere?
And not just in Japanese restaurants -- the drink is now popping up on wine lists and bars all over the country.
So, what is sake and how do you order it without looking like an idiot?
We sat down with General Manager of Toko -- and Australia’s first sake sommelier -- Paul Birtwistle to find out.
How much have you seen sake increase in popularity nationally since you became Australia's first sake sommelier in 2007?
“The popularity of sake in Australia has increased tremendously since I first arrived in Sydney. It is certainly more available than ever, with more and more restaurants serving a diverse array of breweries that were not available in 2007. Thanks to companies such as Black Market Sake, Australia has seen a significant increase in the number of premium sakes arriving to its shores. When Toko first opened I would suggest that 75 percent of our menu was specifically imported for us, where as now that figure is much lower. This has of course been driven by the interest of Australian consumers."
What is sake (in a nutshell) and how is it made?
“Sake is an alcoholic beverage produced using the multi-parallel fermentation of rice, where the rice starch is broken down into sugar which is then in turn transformed to alcohol. The sake is then filtered (to remove solids) and sometimes diluted (with water), with the resulting liquid being clear and displaying characteristics similar to that of a wine.
"This process enables sake to have a higher alcohol content than that of beer."
OK -- so just how alcoholic is sake?
"Sake ranges from 6 percent alcohol up to approximately 18-20 percent alcohol, so by no means does it come even close to the alcohol content of what we deem a ‘spirit’."
How should you serve sake?
"At Toko we serve sake in a number of vessels. With cold sake we love to serve it in wine glasses, therefore allowing the diners to treat the beverage as they would a wine. Take a moment to appreciate the aroma and then sip the sake allowing it to cover your palate, trying to consider any flavours that may be familiar. Oh, and always pour sake for others using two hands."
What is the ultimate sake/food combo?
"Woah… Too many. Mitani Yamahai Junmai served warm works really well with aka miso marinated duck breast. Azure Ginjo from Kochi is fantastic with white fish sashimi."
"A cheeky one is Kameman Shuzo Genmaishu from Kumamoto, which is great with pineapple lumps!"
Where can someone buy sake in Australia? Or are there ways to order from overseas?
Many of the independent bottle stores are stocking sake nowadays. Ultimo Wine Centre, now a Vintage Cellars was one of the first… The internet would be your best bet though with the some websites stocking some interesting options."
What's better -- hot or cold?
"This is always a tough question. Generally speaking sake that is produced to be consumed cold is of a higher grade to sake that is produced to be warmed. However, I always find it difficult to say that one thing is better than another and in relation to this question in particular (for me) it depends upon the time of year and the mood I find myself in."
"In winter, when the temperatures plummet it is always a great feeling to drink hot sake and have it warm you from the inside. During the warmer months, chilled sake tends to be my preference."
What's something about sake that most people wouldn't know?
"Sake contains no preservatives, it is low in both acidity and residual sugar content, and it is non-allergenic as it contains no histamines. It is also great for the skin."
Do different regions in Japan produce different types of sake?
"Sake production in a lot of cases is driven by the cuisine of the area. There are approximately 1500 sake breweries across the Japanese archipelago and although each brewery can produce distinctly different sake, there still tends to be trends across a region. The north of the country produces a light, dry and soft sake thanks to the immaculate raw ingredients. The middle of the country in areas such as Shizuoka produce fresh and flavoursome sake, whereas the East (Ibaragi) can produce a dry, light sake that is both refined and complex."
"Sake from Hyogo tends to be more robust and what we term masculine, whereas Kyoto sake is generally more feminine and lighter in flavour. Kochi in the South is said to produce the driest sake in the country."
Do you have any other advice for the sake newbie?
"Try not to take it too seriously. Sake is there to be enjoyed, first and foremost. Experiment as much as you can and try to ask as many questions as possible if you are unsure."