This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on May 29, 2013.
Kampai Toronto offers 100 varieties of saki at the Fermenting Cellar in the Distillery District on May 30.
“Try some sake. It’s rice wine.”
John Gauntner, one of the world’s leading sake experts, hears this all the time. “Rice wine is a misnomer. It doesn’t actually exist,” he says.
Sake, Japan’s national beverage, is brewed — not fermented like wine or distilled like gin. Indeed, it is closer to beer than any other alcoholic drink.
Aficionados and anyone wanting to discover more about the pleasures of sake can sample over 100 varieties at the second annual Kampai Toronto, Canada’s largest sake festival, at the Fermenting Cellar in the Distillery District on Thursday, May 30.
The LCBO, which has seen a 30-per-cent increase in sake sales since 2009, offers more than 60 varieties, ranging in price from $6.65 (Hakatsuru draft sake, 300ml) to $125 (Tentaka Silent Stream Junmai Daiginjo, 700ml).
On the lower end are assembly-line sakes — called Futsu-shu — that are often brewed with regular table rice and fortified with additional alcohol, which helps extend shelf life. But don’t let that deter you if it suits your budget.
“Like a lot of table wine, it’s perfectly enjoyable,” says Gauntner, who is in Toronto for the Kampai festival. He has been immersed in sake culture since moving to Japan in 1988.
For handcrafted, ultrapremium sakes — referred to as Junmai Daiginjo — a larger grain of rice containing far less fat and protein than regular rice is milled down to 50 per cent or less, offering a cleaner fermentation. Using premium sake rice leads to “a much more refined, much more elegant flavour profile,” says Gauntner.
Sake is also becoming more common in local restaurants that serve global cuisine, such as the Black Hoof, Pure Spirits Oyster House and the Indian Rice Factory. “It’s slowly taking root everywhere,” says Gauntner. “A lot of people are afraid to violate the perceived authenticity of only drinking it in Japanese restaurants, but slowly they’re coming around to it.”
According to Vivian Hatherell of Metropolitan Premium Wines & Sakes, restaurant sake sales have increased an estimated 20 per cent this year.
Dominik Ociesa, sommelier and general manager at Yours Truly on Ossington Ave., says offering premium sake was a logical step. “I realized sake was necessary when we rolled out a cured mackerel dish. It was essentially sushi, but very salty. Speaking to the sous-chef, we realized there wasn’t going to be a single wine of European or world origin that would pair with it.” Sake was the natural answer.
On another occasion, says Ociesa, the final course at a benefit dinner was a pork dish. He brought out a Domaine Weinbach riesling — “a very classic pairing with roasted pork” — but also on offer was a single vineyard sake, which paired much better than the riesling.
“That sake just danced around the pork. Very subtle and more forgiving in its pairing than the wine was.”
Sake has also seeped into cocktail mixology — the Black Dice Cafe, a rockabilly bar on Dundas St. W., serves various sake-infused cocktails — but Gauntner has mixed feelings about it.
“The bottom line is that I’m trying to educate people on what a premium beverage is. If you mix anything with it, you can’t taste it,” he says, adding that a first growth bordeaux would probably make a great cocktail too. “I’m not against people doing it, but wouldn’t promote it myself.”
Nishan Nepulangoda, mixologist at Blowfish on Bay St., considers sake a refreshing cocktail ingredient: “It’s a clear spirit, and well balanced as a base with both sweet and sour ingredients.” One of Nepulangoda’s cocktails, Root of Innocence, calls for 2 ounces of Murai Family Tokubetsu Honjozo Sake (available at LCBO Vintages). “It’s light and refreshing, and has a lower alcohol volume than vodka.”
However you prefer it, Gauntner offers this friendly advice: “ Ninety-nine per cent of all sake is to be consumed young. Do not collect sake. Do not mature it.” And much like wine, once a bottle is open, it will suffer from the effects of oxidation. “It can be a little more forgiving than wine, but make sure you drink it within a week.”
At Thursday’s festival, Gauntner urges the uninitiated to try as many varieties as possible, whether sparkling, which helps bring out the boldness of the flavours, or nigori, which is cloudier than the usually clear liquid.
“Develop your palette, figure out what you enjoy, then bring some home to pour with friends.”