So, what the heck is sake?

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A Japanese salaryman sleeps it off on the Tokyo subway.

A RECENT dinner at Raku, a Japanese restaurant in Civic, raised a host of issues: how culture affects wine, food and the very elemental basis of how we think but particularly what the heck is sake?

So, let’s start with my favourite Japanese joke (they do not eat dogs!): a little Japanese dog bit a man and the owner got the shitzued out of him! 

Richard Calver.

Anyway, we were at Raku and my lovely friend does not like most wines. She had never tried sake so we ordered a flask as a new experience for her. She was overwhelmed.

“This is really good.”

“But you don’t normally like wine.”

“True but I like this. What is it made from?”

“It’s rice wine, they ferment the rice like you would with beer but they add a, I think, a fungus.”

“This isn’t your mushroom joke about how the mushroom is always a fun guy at parties?

“No, I mean it, the stuff is fermented rice with a… something I forget added. But I’m pretty sure it’s a mould or ancient fungus.”

“Okay. I like how it’s so smooth but ancient fungus sounds weird like you are getting so old that you are part of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ cast. What else do you know?”

“The only other thing I can recall,” I said increasingly affected “is that it’s like getting a martial arts belt; there are grades. And it’s strong”, I said almost slumping after taking another slug.

Where is the food? I thought, with images of drunken Tokyo salarymen asleep on their fast trains after mandatory work drinks, their stupefied forms invading my increasingly uninhibited consciousness.

“I also know,” I said steadying the ship, “that what we have here is served cold and that shows it is of a higher grade. In my vague understanding, the lower-grade stuff is served hot, which makes it more volatile and more likely to hit the bloodstream and send you to drunkenness, the sort of stuff I usually drink that mixes in with memories of wonderful clean food and an urge to sing karaoke.”

Posting the excellent restaurant experience, I search the internet to see if my waffle is reflected in reality. One of the confounding quotations reflects my salaryman reverie and is disturbingly apposite. It says most sakes are only (!) about 40-proof, which renders them about half as strong as most whiskeys and vodkas. “The image of the drunken Japanese businessman is not due to sake alone. It is most often drunk alongside beer, but also sometimes with plum wine or shochu (sweet potato-based vodka).” Pow, I think, point proved albeit the apologist who wrote this post was thinking that 40 per cent proof is a mere bagatelle or was leading up to writing a ‘Monty Python’ script.

Another website tells me that the hierarchical stuff is true: it says that Junmai-shu, Ginjo-shu, Daiginjo-shu, Honjozo-shu and Namazake are the five main kinds of sake, in ascending order.

The degree of milling apparently makes all the difference to the sake. The drink is made with certain varieties of rice that is stripped of the bran in order to remove the protein and oil that the grain contains.

Yet another website told me that this process is concerned with how much each grain of rice is removed from the outside husk in an attempt to get at the starchy core inside.

The more the rice is milled the better the sake, hence the hierarchy. Plus there is a maker’s discretion in adding small amounts of distilled alcohol to the brewing process that can bring out different flavours, aromas and textures in the sake. But yeast and koji (the mould spores that I had remembered were essential) are ubiquitous.

I’m glad I found a “wine” that my friend likes. But when I went on a local liquor seller’s website the price ranged from $10 to $240 a bottle. That’s as big a gap as the cultural differences.





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Richard Calver
Richard Calver walks, talks, thinks, drinks and writes passionately about wine, especially the wines of the Canberra region.

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