I recently attended an event at Calgary’s Goro + Gun, which paired some amazing food, premium sake and a masu full of wisdom from Sake Samurai Patrick Ellis of Blue Note Wines and Sake in Vancouver. Going in, you could fit what I knew about sake on a grain of rice. Now, I know enough to fill at least 10 grains. Here’s what I learned:
- Drink premium sake out of a wine glass. I know it’s hip to be square (thanks, Huey Lewis!) and drink from traditional sake boxes (more on these later), but Samurai Patrick says you’re missing out on half of sake’s magic if you can’t “nose” it. I don’t know about your nose, but mine doesn’t fit in one of those little cups.
- Sake is made with four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji. What’s koji? I’m glad you asked. Koji is aspergillus oryzae, a filamentous fungus. Koji’s enzymes convert the rice’s starch to sugar, which the yeast then uses to make alcohol. And the alcohol makes it far more fun to try and say “aspergillus-oryzae-the-filamentous-fungus.”
- Sake can go bad. Like my pack-a-day-smoker aunt Liz, sake doesn’t age well. Samurai Patrick says it’s best to drink sake as close to the date you purchase it as possible. Also, keep it in the fridge after you open it, for up to a week. After that…you can cook with it!
- Did I mention you can cook with it? Samurai Patrick says sake never fights with food — which is weird, coming from a samurai. Regardless, use sake where you’d use white wine and you’ll be treated to subtle and interesting notes in your meal.
- Warm sake is for the less premium pours. If you have a not-so-premium sake in your hand or you can’t finish your premium bottle within a week (amateur), you can always heat it up to get some more life out of it. Samurai Patrick doesn’t recommend microwaving your sake. “Treat it like a baby bottle,” he says, as if I’m supposed to know what that means.
- Sake has levels of quality according to how much the grain of sake rice is polished. Sake rice is a nugget of pure starch wrapped in fats, vitamins and proteins. Of course, when drinking sake, we’re more interested in getting wasted than we are in nutrition, so we don’t need the nutritious part of the grain. The more of it that’s polished away, the higher quality the resulting sake.
- Variations in sake flavours come from the extent to which the rice grains are polished (see lesson six), the brewer, the type of rice used and the region in which it’s made. I enjoyed notes of licorice, apples and even bananas (what?) during the tasting. I don’t know how many bananas grow in Japan (OMG, there’s such a thing as a Japanese banana! #research), but when it comes to sake, terroir matters.
- Traditional sake vessels are called masu (the wooden box) and ochoko (those cute little cups). Samurai Patrick tells us that masu were originally used to measure rice when it was used as currency in Japan’s feudal period (1185-1603).
- Sake is seasonal. Sake brewers know how to live. Sake is traditionally brewed in January and February, and then the brewers take the rest of the year off. That’s because fermenting conditions are easier to control when the weather is cold. Truth be told, the same rule applies to me – who has the energy for sass at -30 C?
- Canada’s premium sake industry was started by Samurai Patrick — and Wayne Gretzky! Rumour has it that Samurai Patrick brought seven cases of premium sake back to Vancouver in the late ’90s in hopes of making his fortune. Sadly, no one took the fresh-faced importer seriously. I mean, who would pay that kind of money for sake? Turns out, hockey players would. After one restaurant owner finally relented and agreed to take a case of sake if Samurai Patrick promised to never come back again, he called a week later, asking for more. Mark Messier had just been traded to the Canucks and his buddy, Gretzky, was in town for a game. According to legend, Moose and Gretz had a tradition in New York of hitting up a Japanese restaurant after a game and nursing their wounds with sake – and lots of it. They brought that tradition to Vancouver and cleaned out the restaurant owner in one night with their shenanigans. Let’s face it, if it’s good enough for Gretzky, it’s good enough for all Canadians, and a premium sake industry was born.
Thank-you to Goro + Gun’s Chef Tomo Mitsuno for a beautiful meal, GM Amane Kanai for the exceptional hospitality and Sake Samurai Patrick Ellis, who is one of only about 70 (and the first Canadian) sake samurai worldwide. The title is conferred by the Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council on people who have an exceptional knowledge, and love, of sake and are committed to promoting both sake and Japanese culture within Japan and around the world.