Why sake should replace beer as your Friday night pizza accompaniment

I've always felt strongly about sake as a drink - it's delicious, fun to say, and it's one of the only alcoholic beverages that you can drink hot or cold.

What's not to love?

I know what you're thinking, this girl knows her stuff. Surprisingly, however, I'm no expert when it comes to ancient alcohol made from fermented rice.

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to spend an evening at the Sugar Club with someone who is - Yukino Ochiai, Australia's only female Sake Samurai and the co-owner of Deja vu Sake Co.

Apart from sounding supremely badass, the title of Sake Samurai is the highest honour dished out in the international sake industry. Yukino doesn't have a sword - I asked - but she does have a vision for the future of sake and how it should be enjoyed.

Yukino Ochiai is Australia's only female Sake Samurai.
Yukino Ochiai is Australia's only female Sake Samurai. Photo credit: Deja vu Sake Co.

"Our dream is to make sake approachable to everyone," she said in a statement.

"I want people to be able to drink sake outside of Japanese restaurants, like at home with a slice of pizza."

The five-course meal prepared by chef Josh Barlow at one of Auckland's finest restaurants was a tiny bit of an upgrade from a slice of Dominos on the couch at my flat, but it did provide solid evidence that sake goes with just about anything.

So please, allow me to share with you my learnings about what makes 'nihonshu' so great. That's Japanese for sake. I'm just showing off now.

Here we go!

Sake = social 

The culture of sharing sake is just a damned good time.

For a start, you get to yell "kanpai" ("Cheers" in Japanese) every time a drink is poured, although one should remember to use their inside voices at fancy restaurants.

Speaking of pouring drinks: generally, you don't ever fill up your own.

Rather, you pour your mate's drink, and they do the same for you. Yukino says in some scenarios, one large sake cup is shared around everyone at the table.

Isn't that just a bit nice?

Why sake should replace beer as your Friday night pizza accompaniment
Photo credit: The Sugar Club

It's not as strong as you think it is 

Surprise, sake isn't a spirit. Nor is it really a wine, even though it's sometimes referred to as Japanese Rice Wine. In fact, it's made from a brewing process more akin to beer, where rice starch is converted into sugar that ferments into booze.

For that reason, and a bunch of other sciencey stuff, many sake varieties sit around the 15-20 percent alcohol mark - far less scary than the 30-40 percent you'll find in vodka or whiskey.

Also, despite the size and appearance of the ochoko cups sake is traditionally served in, it's not made for shots.

Don't embarrass yourself here, sip away and allow the flavours to linger on the tongue before sending it down the hatch.

Why sake should replace beer as your Friday night pizza accompaniment
Photo credit: The Sugar Club

It really does go with anything 

The menu at the Sake Samurai dinner careened wildly and deliciously from alpine salmon to octopus, through Japanese quail and Hawke's Bay wagyu beef. There was a type of sake to pair with every culinary scenario.

I swear, the Dewazakura Dewa Sansan Junmai Ginjo, served in a wine glass, drank just like a Pinot Gris.

Later, a warm Tengumai Yamahai Jikomi Junmai (no, I won't stop with these long names, I love them) took an already melt-in-the-mouth cut of hanger steak to new, heavenly heights.

There was even a tart, sweet, citrusy peach-coloured sake to finish with dessert.

Although I've been a sake fan for many years, until now I never had a proper appreciation of just how well different sakes go with pretty much anything.

It's so versatile, it's basically the Meryl Streep of drinks.


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