Hot or cold, sparkling or still, cloudy or clear, fresh or aged - few beverages offer as much versatility as sake. Japan's national drink has a style to suit every palate and makes the perfect accompaniment to everything from sushi to spaghetti.
'Sake brewing in Japan is reaching a new level of creativity with new flavours and techniques experimented continuously, making sake one of the most exciting products in the beverage industry,' says Christian Talpo, general manager of Japanese restaurant Zuma.
All sake begins with two key ingredients: rice and water. Terroir, therefore, plays an inherent role. Sake made in the northern regions, such as Akita, Yamagata and Niigata - known for their long, cold winters - tend to produce more clean and crisp sake. Sake from the warmer southern regions such as Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Fukuoka are more full-bodied and earthy.
A variety of brewing techniques result in an endless assortment of flavours and styles.
The perfect aperitif, sparkling sake can be sweet and usually low in alcohol (6 to 8 per cent) or dry. Examples include Kawanakashima's Fuwari Suisui, which has a fruity aroma and 12 per cent alcohol. It is one of more than 50 sake available at Japanese eatery Se Sa Me in Central.
Nigorizake, or cloudy sake, boasts a rich rice flavour from unfiltered yeast and steamed rice particles. The size of the filter varies, so some may be slightly cloudy and others slurry.
Sake is usually pasteurised twice to sterilise and stabilise it. Unpasteurised sake (namazake) is a treat as it showcases the flavour of freshly brewed sake. Popular yakitori restaurant Yardbird serves a Born seasonal namazake, brewed by Katoukichibee Shouten in western Japan's Fukui Prefecture. Yamahai and kimoto are created using a distinct way of processing the yeast starter, producing a bold sake. Still more adventurous drinkers can try undiluted genshu. Most sake is diluted with water to bring the alcohol level down to about 16 per cent, but genshu is usually 17 to 20 per cent alcohol and richer on the palate.
While most sake is made to be consumed young, often within a year of bottling, some are aged (koshu). Ageing usually brings on heavier and sometimes cloying notes. Yardbird serves Nara's Yoshinisuge no Tarusake, which is aged in a cedar barrel (taruzake). 'It is distinctive and pairs well with our menu but is often drunk on its own as well,' Faber says.
Nanbu Bijin, a brewer in Iwate Prefecture, ages its junmai daiginjo sake at a low temperature for one year to produce a ripe white peach aroma. Hakkaisan's Kongoshin Junmai Daiginjo is aged for two years at minus 3 degrees Celsius. Full-bodied with a mature aroma, it boasts a soft, smooth texture. Both are available at City Super.
To challenge yourself, explore various rice strains. Similar to grape varietals, different strains produce different flavours. Yamada Nishiki, the king of sakamai (sake rice), often brings on aromas of bananas. Kame no O produces bolder, more flavourful sake, while Gohyakumangoku strains are elegant and smooth.
'Sake is varied, so much so that it's possible to match almost any food with sake,' Talpo says. 'Generally, dry sake matches lighter flavours and fattier food, such as sushi. Fruitier, rounder sakes work well with heavier miso-based sauces. Our black cod marinated in miso works really well with the unpasteurised Zuma Daiginjo.'
Faber recommends the unpasteurised Miyasaka Yamahai Namazake paired with Yardbird's quail dish. 'The gamey elements of the sake complement the quail and there is a very subtle sweetness that complements the shichimi and ginger [in the marinade],' he says.
'Sake can be an accompaniment to any food,' says Edith Auyeung of online retailer Koji Sake.