Sake finds a new audience in the evolved wine drinker - Hindustan Times
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Sake finds a new audience in the evolved wine drinker

Apr 06, 2024 10:40 AM IST

Sake, a cornerstone of Japanese culture, is crafted from rice, water, and koji, a unique mold that develops on rice husks, imparting distinct flavours.

The first time I had sake was in Japan well over a decade ago, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Then, late last year, I got reacquainted with the Japanese rice wine at a dinner in Mumbai where the hostess, a wine lover, treated her guests to a bottle of chilled, crisp namazake (unpasteurised sake).

While sake consumption in Japan has been in a freefall, with the younger generation showing a marked disinterest in the beverage, exports have grown(Freepik)
While sake consumption in Japan has been in a freefall, with the younger generation showing a marked disinterest in the beverage, exports have grown(Freepik)

The mellow, aged sake from the Kamoizumi brewery, near Hiroshima, was the highlight of the evening for me. Over the next few months, in a kind of pleasant variation of the frequency illusion, I encountered sake (or news about India-specific plans for it) over and over again: at a dedicated tasting, at the Vault Craft Spirits Festival, which had over ten different varieties, and finally, of prominent Mumbai-based wine importer Vishal Kadakia’s recent trip to Japan to scope out boutique sakes. Is sake slowly moving out of the orbit of Japanese restaurants and into the homes of the affluent and well-travelled? (Also read | We see Indian single malts as a stepping stone to luxury malts: William Grant & Sons’ Sachin Mehta and Brian Kinsman)

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Kadakia, who plans to launch a bunch of sakes this year, isn’t too sanguine about its prospects in the country yet. He cites formidable challenges such as lack of awareness and the paucity of avenues where sake can be consumed, but he has also discerned an interesting trend over the last couple of years. “There is this set of evolved wine lovers that is also gravitating towards sake. People will order a couple of bottles of wine from us and then also ask for a sake. It’s a tiny niche, but it’s a start,” he says.

Sake, one of Japan’s cultural touchstones, is brewed using rice, water, and koji, a funky mould that grows on the husks of rice plants. Other than the addition of yeast and lactic acid which takes place in the second stage of brewing, sake contains no sulfites or additives of any sort.

Sake is ideally made from sakamai, a rice with a huge starchy centre that is grown expressly for making the beverage. The rice is milled to get as close as possible to the starch centre and the amount of milling of the rice determines the category into which the sake falls. There are many varieties of sake, from junmai and honjozo to ginjo and daiginjo. The beverage can have a wide range of flavours, from fruity and floral to savoury.

Many countries in the world make rice wine, but the Japanese have taken it to another level when it comes to popularising sake, says Lolita Sarkar, a Goa-based certified sake professional who works with importers to put sake on more tables in India.

While sake consumption in Japan has been in a freefall, with the younger generation showing a marked disinterest in the beverage, exports have grown from some 14 million litres in 2011 to over 35 million in 2022, according to the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association (JSS). China and the US remain its biggest markets, but the spirit is also being actively promoted in Latin America, Canada, and Mexico.

Exports to India, where sake retails for anywhere between 2,000 to 8,000, have risen over 900% in the last decade and grew 62.4% year-on-year in 2023, but Ravi Joshi, who started Sake Club India during the pandemic, says the growth has happened on a small base.

“There is definitely a rising interest and great curiosity and there are several regulatory constraints as well, but the good news is sake has just been awarded a GI tag in India and that should make it a lot more accessible.” (The Geographical Indications Registry awarded the GI certificate earlier this month.)

Sonal Holland, India’s only Master of Wine and the founder of India Wine Awards, says that sake and wine share several similarities and echoes Kadakia’s observation of wine lovers also taking to sake. “They both have more or less similar alcohol levels. (Still) Wine tends to stop at 15%, while sake is between 15% to 17%. But there are both drinks that can be enjoyed with food, and it is a misconception that sake only pairs well with Japanese cuisine.” Last year sake was introduced as a new category at the India Wine Awards. Holland says that she doesn't see sake becoming as mainstream as she expects wine to be in the next ten years, but is “confident of it becoming a definitive category with its own popularity and demand.”

Decoding sake

Futsuu-shu: Futsuu-shu is table sake. It’s widely produced in Japan, affordably priced, and contains a fair bit of pure distilled alcohol. There is no rice milling requirement for futsuu-shu. That doesn’t mean it’s to be avoided. A lot of izakayas (traditional drinking restaurants) in Japan serve futsuu-shu and it’s perfectly drinkable, says Lolita Sarkar.

Honjozo: A honjozo sake uses rice milled to about 70% of its original size, and contains 10 % of distilled alcohol, which is added to bring out its flavours.

Junmai: Junmai is also made with rice that has a minimum polishing ratio of 70%. “However, junmai does not contain any distilled alcohol,” says Sarkar. Junmai sake (like other sakes made purely of rice, koji and water) exhibits pure umami and the hearty sweetness of rice.

Ginjo: Ginjo is made from rice polished to at least 60% of its original size and has about 10% of alcohol added to it.

Junmai Ginjo: With the rice milled down to 60 %, this variety of sake has no added alcohol.

Daiginjo: Daiginjo is sake made from rice that has been milled to 50% or higher. Daiginjos are considered to be absolutely top-shelf sakes and are generally light, complex, and fragrant.

Junmai Daiginjo: This variety of sake is similar to daiginjo. It has no added alcohol and is both delicate and complex.

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