Sake for the Wine Drinker by Ben Gardiner

Originally from Perth, Australia. Ben is part of the management team at Roka, Mayfair. Previous to this he was the Head Sommelier at Roka on Charlotte Street.

I was at my first Sake tasting and I was tasting Sake number five. I realised that they all tasted exactly the same to me. My fellow taster, the infinity talented and patient Natsuki, hummed thoughtfully over the his glass,

“Do you get that clear flavour of green apples?”

What? No! “Oh yeah”

“Mmmm… and fennel on the finish”

“Uh-huh. And a bit…err...ricey?”

I cried a little inside. Years of tasting and the best I could do was ‘ricey’. Even as I type now a squiggly red line appears below that combination of letters to further remind me that this is not a real word.

It can be the same when tasting something new. You find yourself lost because tasting is all about remembering. You set up markers in your mind that steer the flavours in your mouth to a destination in your memory. With a wine you might be looking for a familiar acid or tannin structure or fruit or mineral character but these markers have little relevance for Sake. I had to reset my palate and break some old tasting habits.

For starters Sake contains around half the acid of wine. You do not get the same levels of tart malic and tartaric acid and there are not any strong citric characters here either (sorry Riesling fans!). Instead there is an abundance of lactic acid. It’s normal to expect some milky or even creamy notes in your sake especially among the less polished Honjozos and Junmais.

Then there is also the fact that Sake production does not allow any preservatives so most Sake are pasteurised, twice. This does mean no sulphur and no bad bacteria but it also means less nutrients, no good bacteria and none of the volatile living goodness that we take for granted in wine. Combine the pasteurisation with the fact that sake is often carbon-filtered for clarity and you get a product that tends to taste restrained and pared down.

This probably explains why our first sip of sake can seem a little flat or limpid and it’s also the reason why I love giving sake initiates unpasteurised (or, Nama) Sake. Nama Sake is wilder, sharper, brasher if you will and in that there is something more familiar for wine drinkers. Most sake breweries make a nama sake that is identical in production to their standard sakes, barring the sauna treatment, so tasting them together can be a particularly educational exercise. Fun too, if you do it right.

Natural wine fans and hipsters can take it one step further and hunt down some Muroka Nama Genshu (un-carbon filtered, un-pasteurised and undiluted) sakes. The higher alcohol content of this ‘pure’ style of sake also helps to push the volatile esters making it that little bit easier to smell what’s going on in your glass. Sake production generates twice the amount of aromatic esters that wine production does but somewhere between the filtering and pasteurisation you seem to lose a lot of the rawer aromas.

Starting at the more extreme styles of sake can actually seem more familiar to wine drinkers and working your way back towards more traditional styles suddenly becomes a much more rewarding journey. So grab a glass and get tasting. It’s time to start a new habit.