Joshua Kalinan was in Japan about five years ago when he tried hirezake and fell in love. Literally “fin sake” in Japanese, hirezake is an ancient drink made by dousing blowfish tail in hot sake. “It had a funky aroma,” he remembers. “A kind of mystical drink. I wanted to dive into its origins.” Kalinan, who was abroad taking the Certified Wine Educator exam, became captivated by sake and sake pairing.
He decided to throw himself into the study of the beverage, and hasn’t looked back since. In 2018, he was crowned Sake Sommelier of the Year, the first Singaporean to ever win the title. In February this year, he completed an intensive course to become a Sake Scholar, one of just a handful in the world. Between three-hour virtual lectures, Kalinan kept busy as a consultant, training staff and advising on menus.
But, as local restaurateur Emilia Tan observes, “It’s quite a big jump from grapes to rice,” and not everyone feels ready to make as enthusiastic a switch. Though sake is growing in popularity all over the world, it can be intimidating or enigmatic to first-timers. That’s where Tan and her sister, Eugenia, come in. Co-founders of Fukui, a new omakase concept, the siblings were eager to make sake an essential part of their dining experience—and ingratiate wary customers to the silky smooth drink.
“Sake’s part and parcel of Japanese cuisine,” Emilia explains. Eugenia adds, “There are so many different flavour profiles, there’s a sake to suit everyone’s palate. It can be a journey—from lighter to medium to heavy, depending on your preference. And it doesn’t have to be scary.”
What is sake?
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage with origins rooted thousands of years in Japan’s past. It’s made of rice; often it’s called “rice wine,” although the process of brewing sake is more similar to how beer is made. With an average alcohol content hovering between 14 and 16 percent, praised for its many different fragrances, sake can be a powerful and extremely elegant drink to imbibe.
How is it made?
Sake is made by brewing rice and water, and catalysed by yeast and koji spores. The spores are dusted onto some of the rice grains, allowing mould to grow that is then consumed by the yeast to produce alcohol naturally. Prior to all of that, though, is the all-important “polishing” process. Each rice kernel is polished (or milled) to remove a certain percentage of its outer layer, leaving only the starchy inside and a smoother flavour. A good rule of thumb, as Kalinan explains, is that the more polished a sake is, the higher its classification level.
What are the basic types of sake?
There are four main types of sake that all beginners should know. The first is junmai (純米), “pure rice” sake, considered good quality. No sugar or alcohol is added to junmai, and any alcohol in it occurs naturally from the fermentation process. Junmai is often full-bodied and rich, with a slightly acidic touch.
Honjozo (本醸造) sakes are light and easy to drink, and like junmai can be enjoyed warmed or chilled. A honjozo sake is typically polished to about the same level as a junmai, but unlike the junmai it generally includes a small amount of distilled alcohol, which smooths out the drink’s flavours and aromas.
Ginjo (吟醸), on the other hand, is premium quality sake, polished more than junmai or honjozo. It is a light, fruity, and fragrant alcohol made using special yeast, and is often delicately served chilled.
Finally, there is the daiginjo (大吟醸), incredibly premium sake regarded by many as the apex brewer’s territory. With incredibly precise fermentation and heavy polishing, daiginjo tends to be more expensive and incredibly pure-tasting. It is served chilled, to bring out the fresher, more complex flavours buried within.
Once you have a handle on these terms, you can start branching out with more complex names, terms, and labels. Ultimately, though, a higher classification doesn’t automatically mean a better sake. The same goes for sakes that are not junmai. The cheaper, less polished stuff can be just as good, and not-junmai sake can go down very, very nicely. “What it really comes down to,” Kalinan explains, “are quality ingredients and personal preferences.”
“There are so many different flavour profiles, there’s a sake to suit everyone’s palate. It can be a journey—from lighter to medium to heavy, depending on your preference. And it doesn’t have to be scary”
How should I order and drink it?
Traditionally, sake drinkers would take their sake in square boxes called masu, or small porcelain, ceramic, or glass cups called ochoko. However, as sake becomes more recognised around the world, many are starting to sing the praises of enjoying sake in a wine glass. The shape really opens up the nuances of the sake’s aroma, Emilia says. “At Fukui, we let the guests choose how they want to drink it. And we’re always on hand to advise you if you’re lost.”
When it comes to skimming a menu, or searching a grocery aisle, for the right sake, kanji can be intimidating to those who don’t speak Japanese. But the experts have two suggestions to make the experience slightly more palatable:
Don’t let a language barrier stop you
Kalinan, at the top of his game, isn’t fluent in Japanese. He readily admits that his biggest challenge has been trying to learn kanji, and manages by memorising the shape of the characters on the bottle. “I’m still learning,” he says, “and there’s always more to learn.”
The Tans advise looking to the numbers on the bottle. Though Eugenia is also in the middle of learning kanji, she follows the basic, universal rule of sake: a higher number means less polishing. For example, a sake that’s 70 percent polished (like a junmai) has had 30 percent of its outer layer milled away. “When you get to the [more intense] polishing, like 50 percent, the makers can play around more with the flavour profile,” she says. “That’s when you get your more complex sakes.” For a simpler drink, look to the higher number.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions
The Tans emphasise to always ask the restaurant’s sommelier if you have questions. To answer them is their job, after all. “We’ve tried all the sakes in the restaurant,” Emilia says, explaining that she and Eugenia like to ask the customer what kinds of flavours and aromas they like. From there, they’ll build a recommendation.
What’s more, “Everything in life is trial and error,” Kalinan says. Not every sake will be to your taste, or make for the right pairing, but that’s why you start with the basics.
How do I serve it?
If you’re serving sake, never fill your own cup. Instead, pour a drink for your guests and wait for them to pour you a cup in return. As for temperature, it’s a myth that all sakes have to be served warm. As Kalinan puts it, “Sake has come so far that many can be served either warm or chilled.” Generally (though not always), cheaper sakes will be served warm, as it will draw out their flavours, and more expensive ones will be served chilled, as the cold preserves their innate aromas.
One thing that sake experts stress is to never, ever use a microwave if warming sake. Heating it gradually in a home water bath (like you might melt chocolate or butter) is the best way to avoid heating it too intensely and ruining the sake.
Kalinan loves bringing a bottle of sake to a hawker centre or restaurant when he goes out. “It’s so I’ll know what flavours to expect,” he explains. He’ll order based on the sake’s profile, maybe by pairing an intense kimoto with a more flavourful dish like grilled chicken. And that way, he can serve his friends.
Brand names aren’t everything—but they are something
While you don’t have to drink premium daiginjo, there are certain brands of junmai or futsushu (table sake, which accounts for 75 percent of all sake sales in Japan) that are everlasting. These shouldn’t be disdained just because they can be enjoyed outside of special occasions, Emilia says. “They’re popular for a reason: they suit most palates.” A recognisable brand name like Hakkaisan, Dassai, or Kenbishi will still make for a wonderful night.
How will I know what kind of sake I’ll like?
The short, and rather disappointing, answer is it depends. Many find that what they like in a wine—fruity and floral, bolder and full-bodied, dry and light—is also what they enjoy in their sake. Love a Cabernet Sauvignon? A sake from Yamaguchi Prefecture, with rice that produces fuller, richer alcohol, might be for you. Some sake also has the advantage of being more savory or umami, though, which is not something you’ll discover in any wine. The simplest way to figure it out is to try, try, and try again.
The only way to progress to the oldest, sourest, most powerful daiginjo is to start with the futsushu. Though some disdain it, Kalinan loves the elegance in simplicity: “If I’m having a bottle on a random night, I’ll just have something laidback—at most, a junmai.” ‘Entry-level’ sakes, which are “no muss, no fuss,” as Emilia puts it, are the easier way to build your palate. If you’re casting about for adjectives as the waiter hovers, ask for something smooth, nothing too complex or dry.
Taste (and read) widely
Small glasses do give a sake drinker one advantage: they let her try a much wider range of sakes in a given night. Trying everything you can is the only way to really discover what you do and don’t like. Kalinan taught himself about sakes, to begin with, and doesn’t have a mentor. He learns by absorbing everything he can, alcohol into his bloodstream and words into his mind. (And he reads about sake in Japanese, painstakingly translating it with a translating software, page by page. “It’s what you have to do if you really want to find out the beauties of sake,” he says.)
What are some dishes I could pair with sake?
Unlike wine, sake doesn’t try to stand out. It instead intermingles with the flavours of your food, bringing out the textures of a dish perfectly. You can complement, pairing a light sake with a light dish, or contrast, pairing an umami sake with a dessert. In that sense, you really can’t go wrong. Kalinan recommends mixing and matching. Biryani might go well with an aromatic, fruity kunshu, he suggests, or an earthier kimoto sake. And Peranakan kueh could pair wonderfully with the “very nice, sweet style” of kijoshu sake. The golden rule, as Eugenia tells it, is to check your preconceived notions at the door. “People assume that sake is all kinds of things it’s not,” she says. “We’re changing perceptions.”
Sake is, in many ways, better than wine
Sake is so versatile that it can go with nearly anything. “It has no preservatives, unlike wine,” Kalinan says. “And it has umami, so it will pair better with dishes that struggle to pair with wine, like certain kinds of fish.” He also adds that, unlike a strapping Bordeaux, with no grape skins (and therefore no melatonin) sake won’t leave you sleepy at the end of the evening.
Sake is in a near-constant state of evolution and innovation
If you need evidence of this, look to the wine glasses and beer mugs people are using these days to enjoy their sake. Technology is advancing, flavour profiles are sprouting in new and hitherto unimagined directions, and what’s cutting-edge today will be passé tomorrow. “Sake’s coming up,” Kalinan says. He paints pictures of new methods of brewing and fermenting, sake aged in wine and scotch barrels, bottles with labels in other languages. The rules? There aren’t as many as you might fear. And the best way to begin? Dive in.