Sake has been enjoyed by the Japanese for at least 2,000 years. Farmers often gathered together in the winter to brew small batches of rice wine for the coming year. How appropriate to have this tasting to honour the Winter Solstice!
Usually, Stu conducts tours and sake tastings on site at the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company. Fortunately, he was open to making a home visit, and brought along five different types of Izumi sake, so we could sample the different styles and deepen our appreciation. He was entertaining and at ease as he guided us through the different styles.
Our small group listened to a quick overview before proceeding to the tasting. Three basic ingredients are distilled to create sake: water; rice; and koji. This basic trinity yields very different results, depending on the characteristics of each element, how it gets processed and then distilled.
Water. Izumi uses Ontario spring water from Muskoka. In fact, ‘Izumi’ roughly translates to ‘spring water’ in Japanese. The company first tried using Lake Ontario water, but the owner was disappointed with the results, and so trucks in water from a pure source. When sake is called ‘junmai,’ it means it is a pure rice wine, without additional alcohol or grain spirits.
Rice. Good quality grain is essential, but even more critical is the percentage to which each grain is polished and the outer kernel removed. The lower the polishing ratio, the more premium the sake. If sake is labelled ‘ginjo’ it must be polished at least 60%.
There are noticeable changes at this level; ginjo sake is usually lighter and more aromatic. Daiginjo means a sake that has been polished to at least 50%. Daiginjo literally means “big ginjo” and that’s a fair description of their relationship: they’re like ginjos, only more so.
Some premium sake boast that as much as 85% of the outer kernel has been polished away, leaving behind only 15% of the inner core. Too polished? Many in the industry believe the industry is taking this to an unneeded extreme, an utter waste of perfectly good rice.
Koji. This is basically, rice mould. Izumi gets theirs from Nagano, Japan, from a catalogue of different structures dating back to at least 1662. Stu brought some for us so we could see what it looked, smelled, and tasted like (mushy stuff with a yeasty smell, very chewy and not unpleasant flavour).
The first sake we tasted was Nama nama, a nama-zaki style, which means it has not been pasteurized. This type is rarely exported from Japan, and because it doesn’t have much of a shelf-life, it’s ideal to get from a local brewer. Gauntner and other connoisseurs often prefer pasteurized styles because they believe the process “eliminates the veil-like set of characteristic aromas and flavours“. Served chilled, this was delicious with prosciutto and melon.
The second sake was Nama cho, once-pasteurized. Most types of sake are pasteurized twice – after pressing on its way to the maturation tank, and once again post bottling. This one is pasteurized after bottling. We tried it both warm and chilled, and it seemed as though it became two entirely different beverages. I was surprised by the way the aromas were neutralized when it was served warm. Definitely delicious both warm and chilled, paired with sushi and sashimi. In North America from the 1940s—1980s, lesser quality sake was served warm to disguise its taste, and many people formed poor impressions as a result.
Third tasting was Teion Sekura, with a white-wine-like acidity. Stu called this the distillery’s “gateway saki” that most generally appeals to North American palates. More koji, pasteurized twice, and very similar to a Gewurtztrameiner. I served this alongside a mild bleu cheese, aged cheddar, and a washed rind ewe. The umami flavours paired really together surprisingly well.
Fourth up was Genshu, served with slow-roasted pork belly and apple compote. By this time, many of us were starting to get a bit of a sake-buzz, and the Genshu certainly helped us along. This sake is undiluted, no water added, 17% alcohol content, stronger flavour and drier taste. The Izumi had the strong aroma of pear and apple. If I had to pick a favourite of the evening, this would definitely be on the shortlist.
Last but not least, a chilled Nigori Junmai. There was a bit of sediment on the bottom, and when the bottle was shaken, the liquid became a cloudy-white. This is a sweet sake, and so I paired it with dessert offerings (a raspberry tart, chocolate & goji berries, crystalized ginger, spiced nuts), although it would also have been great served with something spicy.
The evening definitely expanded my appreciation of sake. I can see incorporating it into my drinks and menu pairing on a regular basis. Although I thought one style would emerge as a strong favourite, each was pleasing and distinct from the other. I like it! And it was great to share this special evening with friends.
The truth? It is all a matter of whether or not you like it. It is all about preference; it is all hedonistic. Sure, there are greater and lesser levels of quality, but different sake suit different palates, and fit different situations. So first and foremost, ask yourself if you like it. This is deceivingly important, and just as deceivingly simple.
- John Gauntner