I recently found myself reliving a definitive relationship I have had with sake. Our firm was called upon to organize Hungary’s first sake tasting event and seminar. The event gave me the chance to focus more deeply on the history of sake, on how it is made, and on the various types. And last, but certainly not least, I had the chance to taste it under very special circumstances.
What is sake, you may ask. Sake is a rice wine and the national beverage of Japan. Some documents say that sake dates back 2,500 years, growing in popularity as rice cultivation became more widespread. Wine in Europe made its first appearance in religious ceremonies as sacramental wine. In Japan, sake was linked to Shintoist and Buddhist teachings. There was a time when it was made in the temples and shrines, but eventually production was taken over by farmers with rice paddies. Today, the well-known traditional family producers have become businesses. It is important to note that no alcohol should be added to the fermented rice. In war years, when food was scarce, the government limited the amount of rice that could be fermented for sake. That time marked the appearance of lower quality sake, with added alcohol. Several varieties of this lower quality product are still being made.
Japan’s sake ambassadors arrived in Budapest in early March. This was the second stop, following London, of the Alliance of Japanese Rice Growers and Processors, who were on a PR tour. They represented Japan’s largest sake manufacturer (Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Co., Ltd.) and two other well known factories.
While in Hungary they were given a presentation on Hungary’s alcohol culture and the role of wine. They were offered tastes of the history of Hungarian viticulture, presented by Ágnes Herczeg and József Kosárka, who described the role played by wine in Hungarian culture along with the history of winemaking. They also spoke cheerfully of their encounters with sake. After this, the “sake ambassadors” discussed their factories and products with the wine experts. They held a product tasting presentation while explaining what the tasters needed to look for and notice.
Sake is made of rice. The outer bran of the kernel is removed and only the interior is used. Information on the bottle tells the consumer the percentage of the rice grain that was removed before fermentation, which is a gauge of sake quality. Basically speaking, the more of the rice that is removed, the more valuable the sake, since that means it was made of the highly pure inner rice kernel. For instance, Daiginjo-shu大吟醸酒 is the highest quality sake in which there is added alcohol. It is made mostly of polished rice (minimum 50 percent). The preparation is highly labor intensive and requires great precision. It is a prestige sake and making it qualifies as an art. It is light, complex and has a powerful bouquet. The Junmai-shu-nak 純米酒 had a pleasant flavor, too. It is made without added alcohol, using only water, rice, and koji mold.
It was fascinating to see the cooperation between the highly qualified and deeply committed experts. There was a great deal of interest in the Japanese sakes, and participants were hungry for information. One issue raised was that since there already was wine sommelier training in Hungary, it might be possible to run courses in sake sommelier training, too. People, potential customers, tend to be afraid of a product they do not know. Given that sake is completely unknown in much of the world, it would help if there was someone who could advise them on when and how to drink it, and at what temperature.
I found it a wonderful experience to participate in the sake tasting along with the Japanese and Hungarian professionals. It fundamentally changed my attitude towards sake. I have found it to be delicious and special. I can already imagine opening up a bottle of sake to go along with a fish dinner.
The main event in Budapest was the Sake Seminar. The domed hall of the Budapest College of Economics in Markó utca was home to the first sake tasting in Hungary. The guests brought 11 different kinds of sake and we had a chance to learn how sake compares to wine. A great deal of work has to go into producing a good sake but one needs to start off with high quality raw materials, too.
On the Hungarian side, the chef of the Olimpia restaurant gave a presentation on ways of using sake in haute cuisine. He presented the media with sake-roasted tapas at a news conference later on. The presentations were continued by Zoltán Nagy, founder of the London Academy of Bartenders. He spoke of the role of sake in cocktails, saying that he had been using it successfully as a cocktail ingredient for many years.
He then offered a taste of a cocktail that was easy to mix and refreshingly delicious. It was both surprisingly easy to prepare and inventive. It called for sake, 1/8th mirin, a few drops of orange juice and a bit of honey bitter, all mixed on ice. After mixing it, Nagy poured it into glasses through a strainer, adding a few drops of orange peel to heighten the aroma. The Hungarian participants all liked it and even better, the Japanese delegation smiled happily as they drank it. Sake was the dominant ingredient in this cocktail, with the others just adding a bit of taste and bouquet.
A few days later I had the chance to try a different sake cocktail. This one contained sake, pure grapefruit juice, and carbonated water in a ratio of 3:5:1. Finally, to give it extra pizzazz it received a pinch of salt and a dusting of powdered sugar.
This might actually be the best way to popularize sake. The Japanese guests and I both enjoyed the taste of the cocktail. And the final topic on the table was Japanese brown rice. As a bio-product, they say it is far healthier than white rice. The following picture shows Mr. Ono, who represented his own company at the event.
I hope all of you decide to try some sake, or to try it again!
Literature used: http://sake-world.com; http://www.finecooking.com
Photos: My own and Árpád Zirig’s images from Táfelspicc