Simone Maynard, the Sake Mistress, is a sake professional with the qualifications to prove it. She holds the WSET Sake Level 3 Certification, and in January 2018, travelled to Tokyo to participate in John Gauntner’s Sake Professional Course, receiving a Sake Professional Certification from the Sake Education Council.
Most importantly, she just loves sake, and her enthusiasm for all things sake is infectious. We sat down with her to find out how we can turn our love of drinking sake in Japan into something we can enjoy at home in Melbourne.
How did you first get interested in sake?
It was just a natural flow on from my early fascination with Japanese culture. I studied art and was greatly influenced by the old woodblock prints which often depicted the ritual of drinking sake.
Like most people in the Western world, my first experience of sake was in a Japanese restaurant. It was served hot, in a ceramic tokkuri (flask) with little ceramic cups (o-choko). There wasn’t a lot to it in terms of aroma or flavour, but the idea of drinking warm alcohol and having a ‘cultural’ experience, sat comfortably enough back in the day.
I really fell hard for sake in July 2003, when I spent two weeks in Kyoto and happened to stumble into the Gion Matsuri celebrations.
What is the experience of drinking sake in Japan like?
Japanese sake is steeped in tradition and craftsmanship which I find fascinating and I love that there is always more to learn and discover (and of course, taste!)
In Japan, visiting a bar or izakaya to drink sake can be a great way to meet locals, who, more often than not, are very curious and appreciative when they see foreigners enjoying their national beverage. Drinking sake in restaurants can also provide an exceptional experience, especially when you let the chef select the sake to accompany the food being served. Sake and traditional Japanese cuisine are a match made in heaven.
The variety of sake available in Japan is obviously far greater than anywhere else in the world. There is far more namazake (unpasteurised sake) available, and in autumn, a special type of sake called hiya-oroshi is released. Also, there is nothing quite like being able to visit a sake brewery in brewing season and drink freshly pressed sake.
Drinking freshly pressed sake at Fukuju Brewery in Nada, Kobe.
What do you need to know to start enjoying sake at home?
Most labels will give you a serving suggestion in regards to temperature. These are guides only. Many types of sake lend themselves to being served at different temperatures, so you can experiment. For cold sake, my preferred vessel is a wine glass - this allows you to really enjoy the aromas, particularly in a ginjo style sake. When sake is warmed, the aromas tend to be a little more subdued, so I usually use a small ceramic cup or a choko.
Where can you go to buy sake in Australia?
You can buy direct from a local importer, from Asian supermarkets, and even from some bottle shops. When you’re buying from a shop, be aware that sake can deteriorate if not stored correctly. It is sensitive to extreme light, both sunlight and artificial light, and heat so if it’s on a shelf under bright lights, there is a chance it may not be at its best.
What you do need to serve sake at home?
You need some sake and an open mind! You can drink cold sake from a wine glass, and warm sake from a small ceramic cup. A ceramic tokkuri is ideal for heating sake and they can be picked up fairly cheaply, however, a ceramic mug or jug will work just as well. A sake thermometer can be a handy utensil to have but it’s not essential. The most important thing is to have fun exploring different ways to drink sake.
What about drinking warm sake at home?
You don’t need any fancy equipment to enjoy warm sake at home. You can use a microwave but I usually don’t recommend this method as you run the risk of making it too hot. A better way to heat sake at home is to boil some water in a saucepan and once you have turned off the heat, place your ceramic vessel (filled with sake) in the saucepan for several minutes. This water bath will heat the sake evenly without any risk of overheating.
A professional sake warming set up in Japan
How should you pair sake with food?
Sake just happens to be one of the most food-friendly drinks. Pairing sake with traditional Japanese food is a no-brainer and a delightful match. However, sake can be paired with almost anything, as it doesn’t really clash with food. Honestly, I find it easier pairing sake with food than I do wine. Cheese and sake is a favourite pairing of mine and every time I introduce people to this they are surprised at how well it works. Another surprisingly enjoyable pairing is pizza- I highly recommend giving it a go with your next sake!
What do you wish people knew about sake?
I speak to a lot of people about sake and I’ve found that people tend to think that sake is a spirit. When I see sake placed on the shelf next to gin and vodka in liquor stores, I understand where this comes from. However, sake is not distilled, it is brewed from rice and has an average alcohol volume of 15%, only slightly higher than the average for wine. I do hope more people will start to explore and enjoy the world of sake, as there is so much to enjoy. Kanpai!