Sake, a Japanese tradition for at least 2,000 years, is making headway in the land of beer and rye.
Ontario Spring Water Sake Company, which opened in Toronto's Distillery District this spring, is just the latest brewery to produce domestic sake, joining the likes of Vancouver's Artisan Sakemaker at Granville Island and Richmond, B.C.'s Nipro Brewery. (Masa Shiroki opened the Granville Island brewery, the country's first premium sake brewery, in 2007.)
Domestic production is good news for Canadian sake aficionados, as it allows them to sample namazake, or fresh, unpasteurized sake, which is difficult to import from Japan. It also gives the uninitiated more reason to give the time-honoured drink a try.
More than many other alcoholic beverages, sake is incredibly versatile, says Yuuji Nagaoka, who designed the ample sake menu at Toronto's acclaimed Kaiseki Sakura restaurant.
Made primarily from rice, water and the all-important koji, or rice malt, sake can be consumed cold, room temperature, even hot. As Mr. Nagaoka explains, chilled sake tends to be dry and refreshing, and becomes more aromatic and sweeter as it's heated. The beverage also pairs well with practically any dish. "Because sake is made from rice, it's really easy to match with food," he says.
Sake is best sampled in a specific order. Mr. Nagaoka advises tasting the finest sake first to enjoy the delicate and refined flavours, before moving to lower-grade sake, which tend to be bolder and heavier.
Think you know your ginjo from your honjozo? We asked Mr. Nagaoka and Daisuke Izutsu, chef of Kaiseki Sakura, how Canadian sake compares with commonly available Japanese imports.
1. Hakutsuru Superior Junmai Ginjo
Vital Stats: $8.45/300mL at LCBO. Brewed by Hakutsuru Sake Brewing, Kobe, Japan and made with natural spring water from Nada, Japan. Recommended chilled or served at room temperature.
Mr. Izutsu: "This one, it's a really typical style of sake. You get a little stronger koji flavour, a little roasted koji flavour."
Mr. Nagaoka: "I do get a little fruitiness at the finish, a little bit of lychee or mango. You taste the koji very much. It kind of depends on the producer, what they're trying to achieve. Like wine, sometimes it's good to have fruitiness. Sometimes their intention is to make it earthier. So maybe their intention here was to make it a little bit yeasty."
2. Masumi Karakuchi Ki-Ippon Junmai Ginjo
Vital Stats: $9.95/180mL at LCBO. Brewed by Miyasaka Brewing, Nagano, Japan, which dates back to 1662. Recommended chilled to 10 C or served warm around 45 C.
Mr. Nagaoka: "You get much more koji flavour on the nose, and when you drink it, you get more of a concentrated flavour. This [bottle]doesn't say where the rice comes from but this seems like it may be from a smaller region. You'd have to be a sake master to taste where the rice in various sake is grown, but generally when you get some rice or sake made from the northern side of Japan, it's a little more delicate because it's a colder region. But when you get it from the southern side, you get more fruit and a little stronger, more concentrated, bigger flavour."
Mr. Izutsu: "This one is more integrated. The flavours are blended well."
3. Izumi Nama Nama
Vital Stats: $12.95/300mL, $64.95/1.8L at brewery, Ontario Spring Water Sake Company in Toronto. Made with rice from California and water from Northern Ontario. The water closely matches the water from Fushimi, Japan, says company president Ken Valvur. Recommended serving temperature is 10 to 12 C.
Mr. Nagaoka: "You get a lot of sweetness that lingers in your mouth, which is really different if you are familiar with pasteurized sakes. I find it tastes less handcrafted, like when you have a steak, prepared with simple salt and pepper, you get the pureness of the meat flavour. It's more stripped down. That's why you get more of the sweetness out of it, the pureness of the rice. … It's fresh mineral, citrusy."
Mr. Izutsu: "It's really exciting for us, for people who live in Toronto, to be able to taste fresh sake. It's a totally new experience. Because it's fairly new, the koji is probably about six months old or so. So you do get that freshness, and the really young flavour, whereas [with the Japanese sake, made from established breweries that have older koji] you get more depth and a heavier body."
4. Osake Junmai Nama
Vital Stats: $26.90/750mL at brewery, Artisan Sakemaker at Granville Island, Vancouver. It's made with rice imported from Japan and B.C. water from Canadian Springs water company. Sake maker Masa Shiroki has been planting his own sake rice in Ashcroft, B.C., with the aim of using it to brew by the end of this year. Recommended serving temperature is 7 to 15 C.
Mr. Izutsu: "With this one, you do get a little bit of sweetness, but there's a stronger flavour of the koji itself because the koji is growing and getting older, but not to levels of the sake from Japan. It's somewhere in between. This is heavier. Lighter sake is easier to drink, but if it's heavier, your palate can get a little tired so you can't drink as much. But it's still enjoyable."
Mr. Nagaoka: "The fruitiness is more gentle. You do get a slightly pear, apple taste. It's not like a young pear, it's like a browner pear, a ripe or baked, cooked fruit flavour."
5. Keyope Fine Junmai
Vital Stats: $15.99/375mL, $25.52/750mL at B.C. Liquor Stores. Produced by Nipro Brewery Co. Ltd. in Richmond, B.C., Keyope has been on the market since last May. Made with rice from California and filtered tap water. Recommended serving temperatures of 10 to 20 C or warmed to 35 to 45 C.
Mr. Nagaoka: "This one is the most unbalanced. You do get a strong koji flavour on the nose, but when you drink it, you just taste the alcohol."
Mr. Izutsu: "It tastes like sake from the old days. The classifications for sake are quite new and people are still trying to figure out the right classifications. Before we had them, sake was more rustic, rough. Like in the '60s and '70s, what people wanted was alcohol. They didn't really look for delicate flavours. So it tastes kind of like those good old days."
Know your sake terms
Junmai: Sake made only with rice, koji and water
Ginjo: Sake made with rice milled until no more than 60 per cent of the grain remains. The outer layers of the grain are removed to produce a more refined, delicate product. The more the rice is milled down, the finer the sake is considered to be.
Honjozo: Sake made with rice milled until no more than 70 per cent of the grain remains. Additional alcohol is added to create a crisper, cleaner flavour.
Nama or namazake: Sake that is not pasteurized
Karakuchi: Dry or sharp
Koji: Rice malt, which is made with steamed rice and the mould aspergillus oryzae