For heaven sake: Sake Restaurant and Bar, The Rocks, Sydney. Photo: Peter Schofield
Japan is a small, geographically fragmented nation. Shaped like a giant sea horse, the Japanese archipelago comprises 6852 islands. Journeys take on an epic quality, full of unexpected twists and turns.
Plunging into the mysterious world of Japanese sake is a similar experience. For the Westerner brought up in the traditions of wine making or beer brewing, everything about sake is highly arcane, complex and steeped in a tradition that stretches back 1300 years.
Even hardened Japanophiles like Matt Young, co-founder of leading importer Black Market Sake, admit that getting to grips with this ''sake world'' poses a challenge for most Australian consumers.
Satori: a popular sake drink served straight up. Photo: Brianne Makin
''The ingredients are foreign, the production techniques are foreign,'' he says. ''Not only are there unusual words and names to remember, the language of sake making is the complete opposite to wine making - and culturally unfamiliar.''
Myth busting - don't call it rice wine
Often mistakenly referred to as ''rice wine'', sake is actually the result of a unique brewing process involving polished rice, water, sake yeast and special microbes known as koji, similar to those used in the production of blue cheese. It is illegal to add preservatives - most producers use a special low-temperature pasteurisation process instead.
Premium sake is graded according to the level of grain polishing, whether alcohol is added, ageing and filtration.
Sake is generally classified according to taste and aroma, but regional traditions, rice varieties and water quality all add a further level of complexity. Sake nomenclature is a minefield, but is generally divided into three main categories: Junmai (pure rice sake with no added ethyl alcohol), Honjozo (with added ethyl alcohol) and Futsu (ordinary sake with large volumes of ethyl alcohol and other additions).
Junmai and Honjozo sakes are then broken into the ''grades'' of daiginjo and ginjo, which represent the polishing rates of the rice used (but not necessarily the quality). The fermentation technique, known as multiple-parallel fermentation, is what separates sake from all other fermented or brewed beverages.
Post fermentation, a number of techniques are applied (or not applied), such as muroka (no charcoal filtration), nama (unpasteurised), genshu (no spring water added), nigori (cloudy) and koshu (aged). This list is extensive.
Apart from the highly sophisticated Junmai sakes now available in Australia, the Japanese also enjoy barrel-aged, unfiltered and even carbonated sake - a popular party drink similar to champagne.
Keep it cool
Contrary to popular myth, there is no correct serving temperature for sake - although cheaper, mass produced sakes are often heated to mask the taste of added alcohol. There are no firm rules about how to serve sake. Shot glasses, porcelain cups and Japanese lacquer are all acceptable.
Despite Australia's growing appetite for artisanal sakes - which should be distinguished from the commercial futsushu consumed at karaoke nights - Matt Young is frustrated by the myths that still surround sake; like the idea that Japanese sake doesn't travel well or that all sake tastes the same.
''That notion that sake doesn't travel is rubbish. We know how to properly transport, handle and serve sake - whether it's pasteurised or not,'' he says.
''And, no, not all sakes taste the same. We now have access to some of the oldest and most respected sake houses in Japan. The range of styles and flavours is incredible.''
Unlike the rise of craft beer, boutique ciders, rum, gin and other specialist liquor, our growing fascination with sake has not been fuelled by slick marketing campaigns or opportunistic retailers, but rather by a small group of sake enthusiasts - tireless missionaries spreading The Book of Sake.
Much of the credit for sake's burgeoning reputation in Australia must go Kumo Izakaya in Melbourne and Sake Restaurant & Bar (which now has branches in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane). Both establishments place sake at the centre of the dining experience - and diligently educate the public about sake, a drink which is mired in half-truths, misunderstanding and sheer ignorance.
''For example, there is still a huge misconception that sake should be drunk warm,'' says Chris Matters, front of house manager at Sake. ''We mostly suggest that sake should be drunk chilled so you can appreciate the nuances and structure far better - but we still offer warm sake.''
All floor staff at Sake Restaurant & Bar must graduate from the company's sake academy and happily guide customers from the lightly textured honjozo to the gold standard Junmai range and onto those rare, aromatic Junmai ginjo and daiginjo styles; some of which sell for $150 a bottle.
According to Matters, being able to serve an extensive range by the glass or offering a carefully chosen tasting flight is the key to weaning customers off wine and beer.
''When we first launched people were still ordering wine with their meal and using sake as maybe a digestive,'' he says. ''But that's now changed.''
Although the restaurant treats its specially imported range of Kozaemon sakes (made by a 300-year-old family brewery) with due reverence, its sake-based cocktails and sake bombs (draught beer and a shot of sake) bring a touch of levity to proceedings.
Head chef Shaun Presland has also taken the Japanese tradition of cooking with sake and given it a contemporary, Aussie twist.
''Our shashimi taco which is served with a shot of Honjozo is probably our single most popular dish,'' says Matters. ''People love that bit of rock and roll which makes the whole dining experience a bit more fun. Shaun also uses sake in a number of his dishes and marinades, depending on the season.''
The world-wide sake appreciation club
Andre Bishop, the godfather of sake in Melbourne and the country's only holder of a Level 2 Sake Professional Certificate, believes that sake is finally starting to shed some of its negative stereotypes.
''Unfortunately most people's first exposure to sake is as a scalding hot, low-quality sake at their local Aussie-Japanese restaurant. It's like giving a glass of sweet cask cabernet to someone who's never drunk wine before,'' he says.
''It's been incredibly rewarding helping to change those perceptions. The appreciation of sake is growing worldwide … but we still have a long way to go in Australia - I'd say we're five years behind the US.''
Apart from working as a sake consultant and educator Bishop owns Izakaya Chuji and Nihonshu Sake Bar, both in Melbourne's Lonsdale Street, and the aforementioned Kumo Izakaya in Lygon Street, Brunswick East. He has the title of Sake Samurai from the Japan Sake Brewers Association.
Sceptics who believe sake is yet another foodie fad should bear in mind that Australia's sake revolution has deep roots. The Sun Masamune sake house in Penrith (NSW) was established in the late 1980s using a special strain of Japanese rice grown at Leeton and spring water from the Blue Mountains. Its range of traditional Junmai sakes are now sold around Australia and exported to Japan - with the company's biggest seller being its clean-tasting, fruity Go-Shu Blue Sake.
Allan Noble, managing director of Sun Masamune, says while Japanese consumption of sake has been falling, sales are booming in Britain, Europe, Australia and the United States.
''Australia is one of 10 countries outside Japan to make authentic sake,'' he says. ''We use Australian rice - it's the best in the world.''
Noble, who has Japanese parentage, says consumers are now realising that sake is a pure, clean, healthy drink. In moderation, it has none of the ill-effects of strong liquor. Its alcohol content ranges from 14 to 16 per cent, but low-alcohol sake is also available.
''We feel that sake is coming back in its popularity with young people because sake is now available in carbonated form and as pre-mixes,'' he says.
''Sake can give you some interesting fruit cocktail options and can be used in a very formal or casual context. You can serve it warm or chilled. And sake is widely used in cooking. It's very accessible.''
Where to buy and try
Black Market Sake (blackmarketsake.com) has stockists in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and WA and also supplies a number of leading restaurants around the country.
Sake Restaurant & Bar has one of the best sake lists and runs master classes, sake dinners and other foodie events. Address: 12 Argyle Street, The Rocks, Sydney. Phone: 02 9259 5656.
Sun Masamune is Australia's only commercial sake house.
Go-Shu sake is available in many restaurants and bottle shops. The visitor centre is open daily and sells sake flasks, cups and skincare products. Brewery tours by appointment. Sun Masamune, 29 Cassola Place, Penrith. Phone: 02 4732 2833; sun-masamune.com.au