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Rice and shine – sake's on the up

04 August 2004
Rice and shine – sake's on the up

So who knows their daiginjo from their honjozo? Not me, for starters - though I'm getting there, thanks to the rising numbers of smart Japanese-style eateries in the capital and their sake-savvy sommeliers. I never used to like the stuff, until Nobu showed me the way.

Then along came Sayaka Watanabe, the sake sommelier at Zuma (the country's first, Zuma claims). She opened my eyes with a sake-pairing menu, demonstrating the drink's subtle nuances and its ability to partner a wide range of foods.

Now you can add Umu to the list. It's the latest opening from the Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation, boasting 70 different sakes at its secluded Mayfair location.

But unless you want to take a crash course in Japanese calligraphy, you can forget about gleaning any information from the labels. And the different categories of sake are rather hard to grasp on hearing about them for the first time around (or second, or third). So for you, and for me, here's a quick lesson.

Basically, there are five different types of sake. Each requires a different brewing method and a different percentage of rice milling. There's junmai-shu, a pure rice wine, with at least 30% of rice polished away and no adding of distilled alcohol. Honjozo-shu has at least 30% of rice polished away, with a smidgen of distilled alcohol.

Now we get to the posh stuff - ginjo-shu. Ginjo sake is to regular sake what single malt is to your bog-standard Scotch - only 8% of all sake brewed is ginjo grade. At least 40% of rice is polished away with ginjo sake, with or without alcohol added. If the bottle is labelled ginjo - assuming you can read the label - it means distilled alcohol was added. If the bottle says junmai ginjo, it means no alcohol has been added.

The same rule applies to daiginjo-shu, which is posher still, where at least 50% of rice is polished away. If the bottle is labelled daiginjo, distilled alcohol was added; if it's labelled junmai daiginjo, no alcohol was added. Finally there's namazake - unpasteurised sake, which incorporates all four of the above categories.

And just to confuse you further, you apparently often can't tell which category you're drinking, as there's a lot of overlap between them. Some taste better than their class; others don't live up to theirs. Lots of different things come into play - such as the quality of the rice used (there are dozens of different types of sake rice - yamada nishiki is an important one) and the skill of the brewers.

Water, too, plays an important part - as it makes up as much as 80% of the final product, as does the terroir and the type of yeast used.

Enough already. Just one more thing: in case you're thinking of stocking a few, pioneering Austrian glass manufacturer Riedel has developed a sake glass (£83.70 for a box of six). Since sake shares many qualities with wine, Riedel reasons, then you should pay attention to the glass it's served in - no matter that small earthen or ceramic cups have sufficed in Japan for centuries (topping-up is part of the ritual).

Riedel decided to focus on daiginjo - "for its aromatic nature" - using a panel of tasters and producers from all over Japan to come up with the desired shape. To kick off your sake listing, visit www.isake.co.uk.

Shorts

Wine and food scholarship to Australia It's your last chance to enter the Dan Pontifex Award. Started in memory of a valued Kensington Place staff member who died in tragic circumstances, the award has been in place for the past three years and began as a sponsored working placement in Europe for young Aussies in the on-trade. The trustees of the fund later decided to offer a similar placement in Australia, based in Adelaide, to a candidate in the UK on-trade.

The fund covers flights, insurance, accommodation and expenses for a minimum of four weeks and a maximum of three months in Australia, with time spent working in restaurants and wineries. Candidates are expected to have a strong interest in wine but may come from any area of the hospitality industry, and must be able to take up their placement any time between October 2004 and June 2005.

Interested applicants should complete a short essay by the end of this week, explaining why they wish to apply. For more details contact Rowley Leigh at rleigh@egami.co.uk.

Best sommelier in Europe Andreas Larsson from the Bon Lloc restaurant in Stockholm has scooped the Troph‚e Ruinart - Meilleur Sommelier d'Europe at the final held last month in Reims, France.

He beat off two of the semifinalists, Dominique Laporte from Aurora restaurant in London's Great Eastern hotel (representing France), and Paolo Basso of Cantine e Distillerie Badaracco in Melano, Switzerland. The competition was close, said judges, but 31-year-old Larsson's "expert identification of spirits, his consistency and sense of humour" made him a worthy winner.

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