For the sake of Sake

Japan’s national drink is becoming as chic as wine and, globally, brewing a sensational revival story

“Wine is 70 per cent grape and 30 per cent skill. Sake is 70 per cent skill and 30 per cent rice,” says Tokubee Masuda, chief executive officer of the Tsukino Katsura brewery, putting an end to the wine versus Sake debate at our table. Masuda can speak with authority as this master Sake brewer is the 14th generation president of the Kyoto-based brewery that dates back to 1645. Apparently, there are some Sake dynasties in Japan that are now into their 50th generation — the history of Japan’s national drink which originated in the Third Century is certainly more compelling than any wine history.

As Masuda, looking dapper in a traditional black Japanese robe, describes the production process of Sake which involves steam cooking the rice, mixing it with yeast and koji (steamed rice with spores) and then fermenting it for a month before pressing, filtering and blending, it does sound intensely complex. Every element — the quality of rice, the kind of polish, the yeast culture, the weather, the water, the koji — has an impact on the quality. Unlike wine that is fermented, Sake is brewed like beer and has a high alcohol content (over 15 per cent). There has always been a bit of a rivalry going on between wine and Sake, and Masuda’s father, we learn, travelled to Germany to learn wine-making so as to “combat the enemy” better.

We are at a long table at the Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj Mahal hotel in Delhi enjoying a Japanese dining experience hosted by the five star property and the Embassy of Japan. Five of Japan’s best sake makers have specially flown down from the Land of the Rising Sun, bringing with them a sampling of their brews. Masuda, seated next to me, is a veritable Sake Samurai, preaching to us the gospel of Japan’s signature tipple.

The sophisticated side

His brewery’s Sake — a top quality Junmai Daiginjoshu, which is the pinnacle of the brewer’s art, is the first to be served to us along with the entrée — a salt water blanched spinach accompanied by a roasted sesame sauce. Light golden in colour, the Sake is fragrant, slightly sweet and has a pineapple flavour. It proves to be a revelation. Till now, I had the perception — formed by a brief visit to Tokyo — that Sake was a potent drink gulped by noisy Japanese in Karaoke bars, but this evening shows a sophisticated side of this vintage brew.

It also shows us why a Sake revival is on all over the world as, over the course of the evening, we taste endless varieties — mellow fruity Sake, strong bold whisky toned Sake, cloudy Sake that ‘s crisp and provides a different drinking sensation. It’s unbelievable that rice can yield such myriad flavours. As I hesitate over the offer of another glass of the Junmai Ginjo from the Urakasumi Sake Brewery, Hideki Asari, minister political affairs at the Embassy of Japan in Delhi, urges me to drink on. “What you are tasting is the best of Sake from Japan. Premium Sake never gives a hangover,” he says.

The trick, says Koichi Saura of the Urakasumi Brewery, basking in the appreciation his Sake is getting, is in polishing of the rice and the yeast culture, which is unique to each brewery.

A lot of myths are busted during the course of the evening. To our delight we find that among the five Sake makers who have arrived here, there are two women master brewers. Apparently, there are several Sake breweries where the daughters are taking over the reins. Petite 28-year-old Akari Nakano from the Dewazakura Sake brewery says she has been trained since she was a child, and shows us pictures of ceramic museum at their brewery. We learn that Sake is stored in ceramic barrels. Incidentally, Sake is consumed fresh though now there are some breweries specialising in mature Sakes.

Gaining popularity

According to Saji Thachery, Director of Food and Beverage at the Taj Mansingh hotel, Sake is fast gaining popularity with diners in India. At Wasabi, Thachery says guests regularly ask for Sake. “It has a versatility that compliments Japanese food better than regular wine,” he explains. Wasabi also features a separate Sake bar, which he says is turning out to be a hit with younger clientele who are also eager to experiment with Sake-based cocktails. The best-sellers at the bar, he says, are Junmai dai Ginjo, Masumi Sanka and Karakuchiki–ippon. These are celebrated brands, and with Japanese cuisine becoming hugely popular world over, Sake has joined the ride, though now it is also beginning to be served along with French cuisine as well.

As the digestive Sake, Nishinoseki 1988, arrives after our dessert — it tastes a bit like Cognac — we can totally understand why the world is now developing a big taste for this delicious brew.

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