The Kokoro Files is a series that celebrates Japan through the stories of everyday people. Sake is a well-known aspect of Japanese dining, but some people may be unware of how it’s brewed or what kind of temperature the drink can be enjoyed at. That’s why it’s worth asking an expert like certified sake sommelier John Callow.
I enjoyed interviewing John about his experiences as a sake sommelier and the differences between specific blends of sake. Read on to find out what kind of sake John would recommend and the types of food that work best with this classic Japanese concoction.
Thanks for agreeing to share your Japan experiences John. As a certified sake sommelier, it’s safe to say you’ve had a decent amount of exposure to Japanese culture. Was sake the reason you became interested in Japan to begin with?
I had always been a little fascinated with Japan, having already enjoyed anime series when I was younger, particularly the works of Studio Ghibli. It wasn’t until studying sake with the Sake Sommelier Association (SSA) though, that I gained a deeper appreciation for the culture and history which the drink has always been intertwined with throughout its existence. Learning about sake made me want to find out more about, visit and experience Japan for myself.
I found your introduction to sake evening to be very insightful. For people who are unfamiliar with the drink, can you briefly explain the different types and their strengths/percentages?
Many of the styles are based on how much the rice is polished. Like with wine grapes, there are special varieties of sake rice. The amount the grains are polished can have a significant impact on the flavour profile of the final product, but also the price. Generally, the more you polish, the lighter and fruiter the sake. This does not mean less polished styles are inferior though, so it’s quite complicated. Also, sake is not a ‘fortified’ product or a spirit. Although the alcohol levels can reach levels naturally higher than wines, this is all from fermentation. It is not distilled or has its alcohol levels raised by adding more alcohol like Sherry or Port.
Futsu-shu has no minimum polishing requirements. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean it is inexpensive and poor quality. These are generally quite savoury in style, best served at room temperature or warm and accompanied by heartier dishes with lots of ‘umami.’ They are normally from 16-20%abv.
Honjozo must have a minimum of 30% of the grains polished. This gives a nuttier, slightly less meaty flavour. Sometimes with some fruity character.
Ginjo & Daiginjo, 55% and 45% of the grain remaining after polishing respectively. These are the lightest, most delicate styles. They have flavours of peach, melon, lychee and are generally crisper and lighter than other styles. Typically, their alcohol range is a little lower to appeal to wine drinkers- Normally 15-17%abv.
Junmai: This means that no additional alcohol has been added. At the end of fermentation, it is normal to add a touch of brewer’s alcohol to help extract flavour and stabilise the sake. These types do not, for a more ‘natural’ style.
What kind of tasks did you have to complete when training to become a sake sommelier?
I did a course of study with the SSA over a period of 2 days. This involved lectures, practical activities, tastings and theory and blind tasting exams at the end. Over the tutored tastings, we learned about the processes and the Japanese terms for them, the different styles and the explanations behind their flavour profiles, as well as useful skills like interpreting the Kanji characters on bottles and how to suggest and recommend sake to curious guests in a commercial setting like a bar or restaurant.
I remember you mentioning that you spent time in Japan on a sake making master course. How did the experience differ from a beginner course and did you find it gave you a greater appreciation for Japanese culture?
You were there and immersed in it in Japan, always so much better than just hearing about it! The tour was very well put together. It was a blend of visiting breweries from large to small, tasting their products, visiting their museums and learning about their history.
On one day, we got directly involved in the making of premium sake. We came to realise it was hard work! We only did some of each activity for a day, and we were very tired and sore by the end. In between these, we stayed at Onsen and Ryoken, experienced a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony, and ate many local dishes, from humble hot pot to multi course Michelin style dining with beautifully presented and delicately flavoured tofu and sashimi. It was fantastic and memorable and has helped me teach more effectively!
Kikichoko tasting cups are often paired with sake for tasting. Do different materials help to bring out the flavour of certain drinks?
There’s a wide variety of drinkware available- so it’s mostly down to personal preference. Some of it is expensive, handmade stuff that is beautiful to look at on your shelf. The small choko were a cultural thing, a symbol of generosity and friendship by the act of filling one another’s cups up regularly.
Personally, I prefer Ginjo and Daiginjo in a wine glass as it helps emphasise their delicate fruity characteristics. Room temperature or warmed sake that is meatier and more savoury, I like to have in larger earthenware choko. They radiate heat less than glass, so you don’t burn your hands, but still get to appreciate the warmth as you hold them.
In recent years, sparkling sake seems to have emerged as a popular drink of choice for a younger generation. Do you think it could overtake more traditional blends like futsu-shu in the future?
Sparkling sake exploits the fact that wines and craft beers are popular with younger people. It is a very effective way of getting people to try sake and encouraging them to try more. I do like it myself, it’s very rich and fruity. The trouble is, it tends to come in half bottles and is quite expensive- so it’s not one that’s for regular drinking.
Sake is a lot like wine in many ways. You can enjoy the simpler ones for everyday drinking, then really appreciate those special occasions when you have a bottle of something more complex and expensive.
You recently got to be a judge for the London Sake challenge. What was the experience like?
What people don’t often realise, is how much hard work judging these competitions are. Just as with the wines and spirits ones, it is not simply a case of relaxing and enjoying drinking nice sake all day. There are normally hundreds of samples to get through. Each one keenly submitted by a hopeful brewery. They are not just looking for medals and trophies (although that is a nice bonus!) They are usually paying a premium to enter and get the feedback of industry professionals in the market they are hoping to launch into or grow.
Effectively, we get just a few minutes per sample, in which time we must assess their quality against style expected, write detailed tasting notes and local food pairing suggestions as well as appraise label and packaging design. The judges are normally exhausted by the end of the process!
If you could recommend any kind of meal to try with sake, what would it be and why?
Try it with the one you enjoy most! There are so many styles of sake, which makes it incredibly versatile with every time of food imaginable- Not just Japanese and Asian cuisine! You may be pleasantly surprised. I like Ginjo and Daiginjos with fish and chips, they pair great with fried foods like tempura, so why not a British classic too?
Are there any new sakes you came across recently that you’d recommend trying?
LaChamte sparkling sake is a very well-made example of the style. I use it on my SSA courses as a tasting sample. I also recently tried Tosatsuru Azure Ginjo sake. It’s presented in a striking, elegant blue bottle this is uniquely made with spring water filtered through the deep seabed of the Pacific Ocean. It was light, delicate and had a slightly saline taste.
For anyone who is interested in becoming a sake sommelier, what would your best advice be?
Start with self-learning and tasting the different styles. There are some fantastic books out there about enjoying sake. My favourite is Sake Confidential by American sake expert, John Gauntner. He is THE leading western authority on the subject. He writes in a very clear and engaging way, cutting through all the technical terms.
If you become enthralled by it, then formal qualifications like the SSA courses can be a useful way of enhancing your knowledge and appreciation. I recommend starting with one of their Introduction to sake evenings, which lasts 2 hours with a certified sake sommelier.
With the likes of the Sake Sommelier Association in London and the introduction sessions you’ve brought to Manchester, the UK sake industry feels like it’s going from strength to strength. How would you like to see the industry develop in the future?
The future is bright for sake in the UK. We now have two breweries making it here: Kanpai in Peckham, London and Fordham Abbey recently purchased, refurbished and opened to visitors by Japanese Dojima Sake Brewery.
More and more restaurants and bars in Manchester are stocking sake, finding innovative ways to emphasise its charm to younger people through cocktails and tasting flights. Amazon stocks a good range, as do upmarket department stores Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. I have also recently discovered my local independent wine and spirits merchant stocks one brewery’s range, which is exciting!
I think the biggest challenge will be convincing the merits of paying the premium to the consumer, who will no doubt compare it to prices of wines and spirits. A lot of hard work goes into making good quality sake, so it will never be inexpensive.
John Callow is a Certified wine, spirits and sake educator based in Manchester, UK. He runs Northern Wine School, who host informal tasting evenings and afternoons for the public and corporate tasting events. They also offer beverage training for hospitality staff and accredited vocational courses in wines, sprits and sake with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), Wine Scholar Guild and Sake Sommelier Association (SSA).