LCBO Sake Tasting

The LCBO hosted a Sake event at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in promotion of their new range of sake. Having frequented Japanese restaurants I’ve often heard the complaint that there is not enough proper sake available in Ontario, and how even restaurants face challenges in importing sake. From what I saw at this event, this state of affairs is clearly changing for the better.

Beyond occasionally enjoying sake, I cannot claim to be even the slightest bit of an expert on this topic. Thankfully, the LCBO invited Haruo Matsuzaki and John Gauntner to present the “Sake 101” part of the event. Gauntner took the audience through his short cheat-sheet of the basics of sake, and below is a brief summary of that presentation.

While often called “rice wine”, sake is actually closer to beer due to its fermentation process. Like beer, sake is brewed with a starch (the rice) and not a sugar. It is also the only brewing process that converts starch to sugar, and sugar to alcohol, simultaneously.

If John Gauntner had one clear message this evening, it was that if the sake has the name “Ginjo” attached to it, that almost assures a great product. Like single malt Scotches, the quality of the sake is legally defined by how much the rice is milled. The longer it is milled, the better the sake. Futsu-shu is considered ‘table sake’ and has no minimum requirement in production and makes up about 80% of the market and is typically served warm. Ginjo-shu sake is milled to at least 60% of the grain size and is considered very premium sake. The highest level of ginjo sake is Daiginjo-shu, which is milled to 50% or more.

How long the product is milled for isn’t the only factor in the quality of the product, but it is the one that is legally defined. Just like in wine, the rice used is quite important and varies in price. The rice used for sake is typically larger in size than table rice, and the plants grow taller. What makes sake rice ideal is its higher levels of starch paired with lower levels of fat and protein. I gather this wouldn’t be very delicious rice, but it is quite expensive. Omachi rice, for example, will likely give you high acidic and rich sake.

With ginjo, one generally assumes the product started with is a good rice (otherwise why put in the extra work?) but it’s not guaranteed. Finally, like with any other product, the labor is an important factor. Some brewers rely on processes that are more automated, whereas other brewers hand-craft the sake using more traditional techniques.

While the process of making sake is more akin to fermenting beer, when handling sake definitely think of it more as wine. Keep ginjo sake cool and out of direct light, and serve it slightly chilled in a wine glass. While the traditional sake ceramic glasses make for a more authentic experience, the wine glass will better direct the aroma and enhance the flavour. There are exceptions, of course. Sake with the word “namazake” means it unpasteurized and it should be frozen if stored for any duration of time. There are also a handful of ginjo sakes that are better served warm. But in general, keep cool and in a dark place, and serve ginjo cold.  Once a bottle is open oxidization does take place, but at a much slower rate as compared to wine so it usually can for a week or more.

Finally, there’s also a type of sake by the name of “Junmai” (ie Junmai-Ginjo-shu) which designates the sake as pure. In non-pure sake there is additional small amount alcohol added to enhance the fragrance and flavour (although table sake adds lots more alcohol). Most sake goes through this process, but there are brewers that take on the more difficult task of only using the alcohol produced in the brewering process and thus get the junmai designation.

This session was followed by a guided tasting of 9 sakes led by Haruo Matsuzaki. Sake is characterised by its subtle flavours, and I found myself comparing a number of those I tasted to Riesling due to the hint of floral notes. My favourite of the tasting was Tamanohikari Omachi Junmai Daiginjo (translates to pure, super-premium) at $38 for a 720mL bottle. Omachi rice is the oldest type of rice used in sake and provides the higest level of acidity and rich flavour. It was fruity and complex, with a mild bitterness in the after-taste. I also really enjoyed Gekkeikan Horin Junmai Daiginjo which was far more floral and had a nice balance between bitterness and sweetness.

With the guided tasting complete, we were then led into the main tasting room which featured countless additional sakes from a variety of brewers and origins. Moving through the room, I learned that you really can’t go wrong buying a bottle in the $30 price range. As you move to more premium sakes, I did note more complex, layered flavours. As mentioned earlier, I’m by no means an avid drinker of sake, but some of my favourites were G Joy Junmai Ginjo Genshu ($27 for 750mL), Masumi Karakuchi Kiippon ($9.95 for 180mL), Okunomatsu Jyuhachidai Ihei Daiginjo ($115 for 720mL), and Murai Family Daiginjo (from California), with complex and bold flavours, particularly stood out.

The key take-away for me is to always ask for ginjo sake, and if the word “daiginjo” is in the name, then you’re likely get an even more premium product. If all you’ve had in the past is warm table sake, definitely give this spirit another chance.  The subtler flavours of premium sake are likely to appeal to wine drinkers.

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www.vintages.com

Written by Mark Bylok

Mark Bylok

Mark Bylok enjoys his vices. When traveling, he can frequently be seen enjoying the ‘national’ drink of choice and going to traditional bars. As an avid eater, he frequently decides where to go or stay based on the restaurants he wants to visit. Whether it’s jumping off a bridge, or repelling down a mountainside, Mark likes to explore all the locations that take advantage of a destination’s natural landscape. At home, he has an extensive whisky collection and he’s a bit of a tech-head. Mark is the author of The Whisky Cabinet, a book that explores the most delicious whisky in the world.

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