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The secrets of sake

Brewed from polished rice, Japan’s national drink is complex, distinct and worth getting to know

By Zane Henry
photographs by Getty Images
Photograph by Getty Images

Sake. Rice wine, right?
Sort of. While its closest flavour analogue would probably be wine, it’s brewed, rather than pressed and fermented.

Well, that’s confusing.
Ok. Let’s back up. Sake is brewed from rice that’s been polished to remove the bran, with the type of sake largely depending on the degree to which it’s polished. There are many distinctions, but we can say there are three broad varieties. Junmai sake is made from rice grains polished to 70% or less of their original weight, and tends to be robust and ‘ricey’ in flavour. Ginjo is more polished and usually subtler. Daiginjo, the most polished, is a complex sake seen as the apex of the brewing art.

Is sake having a moment?
It does seem to be everywhere. Marketers are pitching it as everything between a rah-rah party beverage and a premium, aspirational drink.
Sake is stocked in some supermarkets, but you’ll find the biggest range and best advice at speciality shops such as the Japan Centre and Whisky Exchange. If you want to indulge your geekery, there’s a documentary on Netflix called The Birth of Sake, which offers a glimpse into the daily lives of sake masters at Yoshida Brewery in Ishikawa, Japan.

How do I get into it?
While the best way to get into any kind of alcohol is usually to drink it, speaking to a knowledgeable sake dealer is very helpful. If you still feel intimidated, there are some accessible options to non-Japanese speakers. The capital has its first sake brewery, Kanpai London Craft Sake, based in Peckham. It’s run by husband and wife team Tom and Lucy Wilson, who produce a sparkling hopped Junmai that’s well worth a try. Beyond this, well-stocked bars should have a couple of bottles, or you can try a Sake Martini, in which gin and sake dance deliciously around each other.

Where to try

Dojima, Cambridgeshire
A sake brewery in the grounds of Fordham Abbey. Open on request for tours, plus tastings of its three unpasteurised brews.

For Fuk Sake, London
An east London bar with hip decor and an array of sakes, from Ancient Mountain (‘notes of sweet cereal’) to Konishi Silver (‘like a light wine’).

Cottonopolis, Manchester
A Northern Quarter bar and kitchen serving sake straight up and in cocktails, plus Japanese-inspired bites to soak it all up.

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller Food

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