If you haven’t yet discovered the delights of Japanese sake, now is the time to add it to your drinking repertoire.
Cast aside any preconceptions you may have of that cheap and nasty stuff served hot in Aussie-Japanese restaurants.
Premium Japanese sake is every bit as rich in heritage, sophistication and complexity as fine wine, and it is a superior match for many cuisines.
Australian visitation to Japan continues to increase and with that, growing numbers of us are looking to enjoy fine Japanese food and drink on our return.
The increased interest in Japanese sake has driven the growth of exports to Australia, which is now the second fastest growing market for Japanese sake worldwide.
Eighteen sake breweries recently participated in a sake showcase and masterclass in Sydney organised by Japanese trade authorities, attended by the local restaurant trade.
Drinks Adventures attended to find out a bit more about what makes sake unique. We spoke with leading sake brewers and local champions of Japanese sake including Yukino Ochiai of De Ja Vu Sake, Melbourne restaurateur Andre Bishop and Sakeshop founder Leigh Hudson.
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Check out our guide on Where to Buy Japanese sake in Australia.
Japanese sake is finding fans in Australia – Transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Hello and welcome to the Drinks Adventures podcast. I’m James Atkinson and in this first episode I’m going to be exploring the Japanese sake scene in Australia, and if you stick around until the end you can find out how to win an awesome prize.
But before we get down to that, a bit of an introduction to the podcast and also myself. I’ve been writing about beer, wine, spirits and all forms of drinks really for the last few years now and looking at the current podcast landscape, there wasn’t really much out there covering all categories of drinks.
The drinks media generally tends to be more fragmented into covering wine or beer or whisky or gin individually, for me personally I enjoy all of the above depending on my mood.
And I’m not alone in that, there’s been plenty of research to show that drinkers today are much more open-minded and adventurous than in previous generations. And meanwhile, we have craft breweries and distilleries and cideries opening at a remarkable rate across Australia.
There’s a lot of collaboration happening and in some cases, some products being released that can no longer be classified as simply a beer or a wine or a gin – they’ve got a foot in several camps.
There’s myriad examples of this and it’s really not something that’s just happening on the fringes, we’ve even got Jacobs Creek bringing out wines aged in whisky barrels, Jameson Irish Whisky bringing out whiskey that has been aged in barrels that have previously held india pale ale.
So I thought doing a podcast that doesn’t respect these traditional boundaries between categories reflects where the market for alcoholic drinks is today.
This is the first episode of season one, which will continue for an as yet undetermined number of episodes. Each week I’ll play an interview with an interesting guest or in some cases, I’ll try and present content in more of a documentary-style format.
With that, it’s probably time to introduce the substance of this first program. Australia, somewhat surprisingly, is currently the second fastest growing export market for Japanese sake globally. I attended a recent Sake Masterclass & Showcase held by Japanese trade and tourism authorities in Sydney to find out more about Japanese sake and what’s driving this increased consumption.
And if you stay listening after this segment, you’ll find out how to win a bottle of beautiful Japanese sake supplied by leading sake importer, De Ja Vu Sake.
LEIGH HUDSON: From my perspective I had stopped drinking so much wine a few years back, probably about eight or ten years ago, and started to replace, sneak a single bottle of sake into the mix amongst the dozen bottles of wine and now it’s come all the other way around.
JAMES ATKINSON: That’s Leigh Hudson, a sake educator and founder of Australia’s first specialist sake retailer, Sake Shop. Lee was presenting a sake masterclass in Sydney as part of a recent showcase of 18 sake breweries organised by the Japan External Trade Organisation. Hiroyuki Nakazato is managing director.
HIROYUKI NAKAZATO: And we are very pleased to have this kind of event, and Japanese sake is getting popular here in Australia, but still there is a room to expand that saké into here. That is why we decided to organise this event with the other organisations.
JAMES ATKINSON: You said it’s getting popular?
HIROYUKI NAKAZATO: Yeah.
JAMES ATKINSON: What’s driving that popularity?
HIROYUKI NAKAZATO: Yes, popularity of sake is related to the popularity of Japanese food and Japanese food is very delicious and also this is very good quality. And the Japanese food is getting popular among other countries also then with those Japanese foods, sake is very important. And actually, last year 500,000 people went from Australia to Japan, and that is a record high. So popularity of Japan among Australians for tourism and also it’s a kind of parallel with the popularity of Japanese food and sake.
LEIGH HUDSON: What we’re seeing is we’re seeing better quality Japanese food and better quality Japanese restaurants in Australia and they’re serving better quality saké. And I think all of that is leading towards a trend of people accepting it as a regular drink.
JAMES ATKINSON: Leigh Hudson again so twelve years ago we started Chef’s Armoury which is Australia’s coolest knife shop, it’s Japanese knives only. And sort of a few years into it, the constant travelling to Japan you start drinking sake and really enjoying it. So I thought, ‘why don’t we start to import saké and we’ll sell it in our knife shop in Melbourne?’ So, into that I decided to educate myself and did absolutely every educational course I could find in English and then also started to teach Wine Spirit Education Trust classes butches which was lot of fun and just drinking as much as I can.
JAMES ATKINSON: How has the market changed for sake in Australia over the last few years? I mean, when you opened your shop it must have been pretty slow early on I would have thought.
LEIGH HUDSON: When we started it was difficult to find a bottle of great saké in a retail store and our whole intention was to offer something that was different that was fresh and delicious and really amazing compared to the offering that was there. In the beginning people were a little bit tentative, ‘I don’t drink saké because it’s horrible’, you know, so it took a little bit of time to convince people that they should drink it. But now I think with increased travel in Japan people are actually experiencing good saké for the first time during travel and they come back and they want to relive that experience and they relive that experienced by buying good quality sake.
LEIGH HUDSON: So let’s have a look at the flavour spectrum of sake. I think it’s very important when we’re talking to a customer or a friend or shopping for sake, that we need to be able to divide things quite neatly. And if somebody comes into the store I have three ways of looking at it if they want want to choose some saké. Floral and fruity, so ginjo grades or non-ginjo grades, something sort of earthy, rich or maybe buttery. Do you enjoy sweet or do you enjoy dry? Or, maybe do you enjoy hot or do you enjoy cold sake? So they’re three very neat little divisions that we can make to try and narrow it down for a good choice for a customer.
JAMES ATKINSON: The ginjo grade sake Leigh speaks of represents the top 10 percent of all sake made. Like all sake grades, it’s legally defined by how much the rice is polished or in other words milled before brewing.
YUKINO OCHIAI: People think ginjo, daiginjo has been with the sake industry forever, it’s not, it’s only since the 80s. My grandma didn’t have daiginjo; poor thing, because she liked the sake! It’s just because we needed the machines that could do it.
JAMES ATKINSON: To polish the rice further?
YUKINO OCHAI: Yes, because if you want to polish the rice say half of it 50 per cent which is required for daiginjo grade, it’s going to take maybe 80 hours or 100 hours non-stop, you need to have a very sophisticated machine to do it.
JAMES ATKINSON: That was sake expert Yukino Ochai who last year became Australia’s third sake samurai an award given by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association to people who champion the culture and identity of sake.
ANDRE BISHOP: I’m Andre Bishop, I wear a variety of different hats. One, I’m a restauranteur with multiple venues in Melbourne. Two, I’m a sake professional, so an educator – I do training and I’m also a brand manager for Dassai, which is a prestigious sake brand in Japan and expanding around the world, so I think I mean I’ve been involved in cycling for the last 25 years so one of the kind of early kids in the sake scene in Australia. So I guess because of my dedication in trying to get more Australians to drink more sake over the years I got the notice of the Japan Sake and Shochu brewers association and they honoured me with sake samurai in 2013. Because I guess earlier on back in the early years there wasn’t a lot of people prophesying about sake in Australia. It was very much a misunderstood and underappreciated thing, so I kind of picked up the banner in the early days.
HIRONOBU KUBOTA: My name is Hironobu Kubota, I’m from the Fukuju brewery. Our brewery is located in the Hyogo prefecture which is located in the centre of Japan. Our brewery was established in 1751 and my elder brother is now president of our brewery and he is the 13th generation. We are using very hard water which has plenty of the minerals.
JAMES ATKINSON: One third of all sake produced in Japan comes from Kobe’s Nada district, where Fukuju is based. Yukino recommends comparing the classic Nada-style sakes, versus those of another important region; Fushimi in Kyoto.
YUKINO OCHIAI: Nada sake, the sake from Kobe, that’s harder sake. Harder water is used in the sake, so we call that ‘men style’ or more masculine style. As you have more minerals in the water, Your fermentation goes much faster and you have much less residual sugar because fermentation is faster. So you can get much drier sensation in sake. But then I always compare it to the sake from Kyoto or Fushimi. Their water is from the lake so it’s much more softer water, then the texture is much more mouthfeeling and gentle. So I think those two places are a good place to start your sake journey.
LEIGH HUDSON: So sake and food pairings, some positive attributes. The high umami characteristic in saké enables it to be a very good deodoriser, especially with fishy flavours. So if you’re having something that’s an especially fishy dish and I’m thinking some grilled mackerel or maybe some sardines, and you want to cleanse the palate a little bit in between, the amino acids, which are the umami characters, will cleanse that palate in between and have you ready for another bite of sardine on toast for breakfast. Does everybody drink sake at breakfast? Just us. Some more positives; sake loves acidity, wine not so much. I mentioned in the session earlier I like to drink wine and when I do drink wine I like a chablis. And when I’m sitting down drinking my chablis and I’m served a dish which will work so well with it and then the salad comes out and it has this really vinegary vinaigrette dressing. I don’t want to eat that salad, because I’ve just bought this delicious bottle of wine. But if I had a glass of sake, it’ll just laugh at it.
JAMES ATKINSON: And do you see Australia as having a lot of potential for sake?
HIRONOBU KUBOTA: It’s not such a huge market but I think it’s growing because they have a very good seafood and they have very good beef and they have very good vegetables, so it’s very similar to Japan.
LEIGH HUDSON: I think we should think outside the box of Japanese cuisine or even Japanese-inspired dishes when we’re thinking about sake matches because it works so well with Spanish and Italian and French, Namibian and other cuisines. Whenever I’m sitting down to a tapas restaurant we go to, I always wish they allowed BYO because I could bring a great bottle of sake that will go well with it.
JAMES ATKINSON: It’s such a distinctly Japanese product in every way not just the liquid but the branding and everything. Do you think it’s going to be hard for it to break out of the pigeonhole that you talked about earlier?
LEIGH HUDSON: Yes and no. I honestly think that that the difficulty of understanding it with all of the Japanese writing on the label is also its appeal. We all we all love to know something special about something that our friend doesn’t know, and I remember drinking Italian wines many many years ago with all these strange Italian words on it, and now that’s become a very, very mainstream thing. I think as it evolves we might see a little bit more English on the front labels but certainly still keeping the beautiful kanji and things like that and that will certainly help drive the market forward as well.
ANDRE BISHOP: The landscape nowadays is amazing and the fact that sake’s in the food press and it’s in chefs’ minds… People are coming to these events and sake festivals and going to restaurants for tastings and signing up for education classes. I mean that is the portent for the future. So I think that sake has really managed to get a foothold in the mind of Australian drinkers. It’s certainly got a long way to go. If we look at say markets that are a little bit more developed, like the states, where in a lot of places you can walk into a bottle shop and there’ll be a whole fridge of sake there. I mean we’re far from that but that’s where I hope we’re going to head.
JAMES ATKINSON: That was sake master Andre Bishop. So there you have it, a bit of a wrap-up of what’s been happening in the Japanese sake scene in Australia.
Yukino from De Ja Vu Sake has given me some beautiful Japanese sake to give away, it’s a bottle of Junmai Ginjo from Dewazakura Sake Brewery, which is located in Tendo City in Yamagata Prefecture, located 300 kilometres north of Tokyo.
How you can win is pretty simple. Go onto iTunes or Stitcher and leave us a review, which is one of the factors that helps determine our ranking on those platforms and ultimately how much exposure we get that will ensure more people will listen to it.
Then email a screen grab of your review to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, so I know how to get in touch with you. I’ll choose my favourite review each week and that person will win the weekly prize, which this week is this beautiful bottle of sake from our friends at De Ja Vu sake.
We want meaningful and honest reviews, if you just say ‘A1 would listen again’, that’s probably not going to cut it.
This competition is open only to Australian residents aged 18 and over and entries will close the following Tuesday after each episode is released.
That’s about it for this week. You can expect to receive a new episode every Thursday for the duration of Season One, so I’ll see you again next Thursday.
Before I go, a huge thank you to Dave Robertson aka Cameo Culture who composed the podcast theme song and most of the other music I used in this episode. A full track listing and links to where you can hear more from Dave are available in the show notes. See you next week.