In an attempt to reverse flagging sales in its birthplace where sake is considered “an old man’s drink,” the Sake Sommelier Association is challenging adventurous gourmands to think outside the wine box and consider pairing the fermented rice wine with their French or Italian dinner.
Unlike wine, which boasts legions of professional and amateur fans decoding the age-old beverage, sake remains a bit of a mystery for Western consumers -- something London-based sake sommelier Xavier Chapelou hopes to change.
Here’s a primer on how to differentiate various types of sake, and why it works well with foie gras, duck confit and truffles:
There are more than 30 different types of sake, says Chapelou, but here are the main ones you’ll find in liquor stores.
Honjozo Shiboritate: a fresh type of sake with a light palate and fragrant nose
Ginjo: Normally very floral, medium to rich-bodied sake
Junmai Daiginjo: Very fragrant nose with hint of exotic fruit. A usually full-bodied type of sake with a long finish
Nama Zake: Unpasteurized sake
Taru Zake: Aged sake in a cedar barrel
Nigori Zake: Cloudy, unfiltered sake
Happo shu: Sparkling sake
Koshu: Aged sake, often soft and mellow
Why it goes well with certain foods
Sake has a higher alcohol content than wine and is therefore more volatile, explains Chapelou. In the mouth, alcohol content evaporates more quickly, turning the drink into a kind of solvent. That in turn kickstarts a process known as retro-olfaction or retro-nasal, in which the nose and the mouth work in tandem to discern all the aromas of the sake and food.
Some of the common noses of sake include green apple, melon, peach, ripe banana, lychee and chestnuts, he says.
High levels of natural monosodium glutamate in sake also help enhance and concentrate the flavor profiles of foods rich in umami – the fifth sense which detects earthy, meaty flavors -- like black truffle, ripe tomato, miso stock, and Parmesan.