Japanese favourite, sake, gains a toehold in Australia

Australians are developing a keen interest in sake.
Australians are developing a keen interest in sake. Photo: Edwina Pickles

As beverages go, Japanese favourite sake is one of the most intriguing. Its history spans more than 2000 years and in its homeland more than 1500 breweries make the good stuff. On paper, sake is simply rice, water, yeast and koji, a strain of the Aspergillus oryzae fungus used for culinary purposes. But the process produces such complex and exciting results –  clear, cloudy, sparkling, sweet, savoury – that there's a lot to explore.

A holiday in Tokyo triggered my curiosity. I followed it up with a one-day WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) sake course for beginners, which is where I met teacher and sake expert Yukino Ochiai of Sydney-based Deja vu Sake Co. (dejavusake.com.au).

Ochiai is a pint-sized powerhouse with an electrifying enthusiasm for the drop. In 2017, she was named Australia's first female Sake Samurai, a prestigious industry honour and one of which she is proud.

"I've seen a rise in the popularity of sake in Australia," she says. "Australians love Japan and when they visit are the highest spenders per capita per visit. They're not necessarily spending it on shopping … instead, on food and drink."

The growing interest in Japanese food on home turf is another reason we're drinking more sake. "Not just sushi and sashimi," Ochiai says. "Ramen is soul food here now and omakase [chef's choice] is particularly popular in Sydney."

Most sake is brewed using polished or milled rice and a small amount of distilled alcohol. It ranges in style from everyday (futsushu), to premium styles including the traditional junmai (made only with rice, water, koji and yeast and no added alcohol), the aromatic daiginjo and lighter, drier honjozo.   

The style determines the temperature at which it should be served. 

Fruity and aromatic sake such as daiginjo or ginjo are best served chilled (10-15C), while rich, earthy styles such as junmai and futsushu can be gently warmed. "Our body temperature is around 36-37 degrees, so if you drink sake closer to this temperature, the body will appreciate it as it does not need to adjust to sake's temperature," Ochiai says. "I do not recommend heating to more than 50 degrees as alcohol starts to evaporate more and that's what carries aroma and flavour."

Ceramic tokkuri (flasks) and ochoco (cups) can be used for both warm and chilled sake, though wooden vessels and glasses are also used, the latter particularly for chilled sake in summer. 

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You don't need to spend a lot to dip your toe in an intriguing world of flavour. 

Ochiai recommends the widely available and inexpensive Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo Sake, which she likens to a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. "There's so much green to it." 

Pro tip Once opened, a sake bottle should be sealed and stored in a refrigerator. Aim to polish off an opened bottle within two or three weeks.

Three to try

Sake Sake A fun, utterly approachable, naturally effervescent junmai sake from Japan's Sekiya Brewery. $69/720ml, 15 per cent alcohol. sakesake.me

Houraisen Junmai Ginjo Wine Cask Sake Limited Edition Matured in a Voyager Estate Winery French oak cask – just 300 bottles made. $115/720ml, 15.9 per cent alcohol. wine.qantas.com

Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo Sake Its freshness and great acidity make this a good place for newcomers to start. $25.99/300ml, 15.5 per cent alcohol. danmurphys.com.au