In Vino Päritas – Sake for the sake of it!

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Ever wanted to know a little more about Japan’s national beverage but never really knew where to start or even know where to go? Look no further – at Shibumi (Kungstensgatan 2) there are two experts willing to share their knowledge with you. Together with the Izakaya cuisine, the pairing with some of the world’s best sakes will take you to another level. Sommeliers Evelina Gunnahr and Fixi Lindén (daughter of Åke Nordgren founder and owner of Akebono, Sweden’s number one sake importer) run the sake business at the Esperanto group with a firm hand and a steady goal – to make sake big in Sweden.
Until now, the oft-misunderstood rice wine has been served at sushi restaurants at a lukewarm temperature to a somewhat mixed reception. That the national drink, which goes under the name nihonshu in Japan, is produced by brewing methods closer to that of beer rather than wine has made it somewhat confusing. The core ingredient is polished rice and that too has led to confusion that sake would be a distilled beverage, rather than a wine.
I decided to take a crash course from the experts at Shibumi and hopefully shed some more light on this underrated yet very tasty rice brew.

What is the main purpose for the drink sake, to accompany food or as aperitif?

Evelina Gunnahr: I would say both. Different sakes have different applications. But sake is very good to serve with food, it highlights flavours and is the very best friend of the umami flavour.
Fixi Lindén: In my opinion sake is one of the best food-pairing beverages there is. So definitely accompanied by food.

What are the different sakes best served with?

EG: Elegant sake with elegant food, rustic sake with rustic food. If for example you serve a warmed Yamahai och Kimoto sake with a warm broth or grilled meat it will match very well.
FL: Food with a lot of umami – raw fish, shellfish, meat and fine flavours.

Among all the varieties, what is the single most popular here in Sweden, and why do you think that is?
EG: I think the Ginjo and Daiginjo styles of sake are the most popular. Elegant and fruity, perfect served well chilled.
FL: The trends have changed over the years but a dry, well-balanced, fruit-driven Junmai Daiginjo is always the way to go! In general people enjoy sake that has a lot of flavours, whether it’s fruity or bold nutty ones.

Would you say Swedes in general have any knowledge about sake?
EG: I think the Swedes are getting more and more interested in sake, and alcoholic drinks in general. But almost every night at Shibumi we serve sake to someone who never tried it before. Many people think sake is distilled and very high in alcohol.
FL: At the moment the knowledge isn’t at the level I would like it to be, but the interest is!

Is sake produced elsewhere in the world apart from Japan? Is there any other similar drink out there we know less about?
EG: There are some breweries outside of Japan brewing sake, for example both in Norway and in the US.
FL: Sake production is not origin-protected so countries like the USA, China and even Norway do brew sake. Often there is a misunderstanding that sake is a distilled beverage but it’s not, although the Japanese beverage called Shochu is. Shochu is a distillation made from rice, sweet potato or barley.

At Shibumi, you also work with different sorts of drinks. How did you build the wine/beer/drinks list out of the Izakaya cuisine you are serving?
EG: We try to have a broad range of different drinks at the menu, since we´re serving loads of different dishes. In the cocktail bar we have a different theme every month and wines by the glass, which I try to change every now and then. When it comes to beer, we always have both Swedish and Japanese beer on the list. The guest will always find something they know about on our lists, but also something they have never heard of. I like to give my guests new experiences. We serve all sake by the glass (and by jar), it varies from 10-15 different varieties at any one time. We also serve Shoshu. My wine lists are dominated by white wines, especially from Germany and Austria. I think the style fits very well with a lot of the food that we serve.
FL: We try to change the beverage list as much as possible and most of the ingredients used in the cocktails we produce ourselves. Evelina picks out most of our wines, choosing products that will work with our Izakaya-inspired dishes. When it comes to the sake I have a great opportunity to pick what I see fits the food but also what people are asking for. We have about 15 different sakes that we change according to requests or by the seasons.

How close do you work with the chefs at Shibumi, such as Sayan Isaksson, to create perfect matches? Do you have a wine/drink/sake package deal for the dinner meals?
EG: We don’t work so much with perfect matches, since all the dishes are meant to be shared at the table and you have more than one dish at the table at a time. We like to serve outstanding food and really good drinks, it doesn’t always have to match. We have one set menu at Shibumi, only served at the chef´s table. That menu changes from time to time, so we change the drink pairing in parallel with that. When adding new dishes on the menu, we always try to taste the combinations together with our chefs.
FL: Usually the chefs create dishes first and then Evelina and I pair the beverage best served with it. We try to educate our whole staff as much as possible about sake so that we can serve different sake to each dish. At our chef’s table we serve a set menu with a beverage package including both wine, sake and beer.

Are you also involved in the sommelier work outside your own specialties, or within the Esperanto group as a whole?
EG: Myself, Fixi and Nicklas, our bar manager, work closely together. With sake, wine and beer as well as cocktails. Apart from our “normal” wine list we also offer our guests a “cellar list”, with all the wine from all of our restaurants.
FK: Yes, Evelina, Nicklas and myself try to cooperate to a great extent. We work closely together regarding the different menus between the restaurants and we have an on going dialogue with Sören Polonius, who is our head sommelier.

For a beginner, what would you suggest to try and what story about sake would you bring forward to catch the customer’s interest?
EG: I would suggest a fruity style of Ginjo sake. And I would tell them that it should be served well chilled in wine glass. Sake is a quality beverage with a lot of knowledge, history and time behind it.
FL: Most often I tell them about the history about sake and how it’s made, since a lot of people think it is a distilled beverage, and they have a hard time understanding why you should serve it with food. Usually that’s all it takes to get people’s interest in sake going, and since there are so many different ones to try out, people are curious to do just that. In general I start with quite flavourful sake since we are pretty used to drinking wine with a lot of flavours.

Name your absolute top sake and the best sake/food combination according to your taste.
EG: My absolute top sake (right now) is a Daiginjo Sake from the Brewery Dewasakura in Yamagata, called Ichiro. It’s made from a rice called Yamadanishiki, polished down to 50 percent remaining of the grain. It’s beautiful on its own, but perfect served with sashimi of salmon and arctic char. The other day I tried one of the best combinations in a while. Our homemade chicken liver pate paired with a mature sake called Hana Hato Oak. It’s nutty and slightly sweet, with loads of dried fruits. A match made in heaven with the pate! My taste in sake varies a lot, sometimes I like my sake elegant and sometimes I like it more rough.
FL: This question is so hard to answer, or at least keep the answer short. One of my favourite sakes right now is also Dewasakura Ichiro, a Junmai Daiginjo from Yamagata. It’s a really well-balanced, dry sake with minerals and hints of tropical fruits. And I agree on the eight-year-old aged sweet sake called Hana Hato as one of my favourite food pairings, served with duck liver and caramelised figs.

The range of sake at Systembolaget stores is quite small – is there anything worth finding, and is it anything you could suggest for our readers?
EG: There is some nice sakes at Systembolaget, my favourite is the Karakcuchi Ki-ippon Junmai Ginjo from the Brewery Masumi in Nagano (nr 150, 90 kr at Systembolaget). It’s fruity and nice to pair with shellfish or with grilled fatty fish, for example. If you try a sake in a restaurant that you really like, it’s not so hard to get it from Systembolaget – by requesting a private order you can order almost everything from them.
FL: Well, Systembolaget decides what type of sakes there should be on the shelves of their stores. One of the ones that they carry is Matsukura Junmai Shu (nr 130, 95 kr at Systembolaget), a beautiful, dry sake with nutty flavours that you can combine with both fish and meat.

Words: Pär Strömberg