With the holiday season in full swing, sparkling wine and Champagne consumption is rising. Fizzy drinks befitting the season, bottles are popped open at office Christmas parties, midday festive lunches, or enjoyed by the fire at night. As a lover of bubbly alcoholic beverages, you may be looking for something a little different this year, to expand your palate and keep the monotony at bay. Have you tried sparkling sake?
It’s currently all the rage in Japan, chosen for its unique sweet and slightly sour character, and wonderful mouth feel and texture. As it is sake, the health benefits of the beverage are still attainable. On a recent research to trip to Japan, I was surprised to see that most liquor stores had fridges purely dedicated to the many different types of sparkling sake. In the Land of the Rising Sun, the products are flying off the shelves – low alcohol expressions, un-filtered ones, even barrel-aged products! Before we get down to flavours and culinary pairings, let’s look at how sake becomes or better, remains, sparkling.
What’s Sparkling Sake?
Most sake is made using rice, koji mold, water, and yeast. Unlike spirits, it isn’t distilled, so its production journey stops at fermentation. The rice is steamed, cooled, and then part of it is mixed with koji mold spores, resulting in the sweet white koji which is used during fermentation alongside the remaining steamed rice. The koji is mixed with water and yeast, the rice is added, and fermentation takes place over a period of two to three weeks.
Each step up until this point is involved in general sake making. The sparkling part come through during fermentation. When yeast is added to the main ingredient of a beverage, be it rice for sake, malt for malt whisky and beer, or corn for bourbon, the yeast begins to “eat” these sugars and converts them into alcohol and carbon dioxide (bubbles).
For normal sake, these bubbles usually escape the fermentation tank, resulting in the more familiar, flat sake. Through a practice called tank fermentation, the CO2 is kept in the tank and forced to dissolve into the beverage through increased pressure. This method is also used in beer production. Carbonation can also be injected straight in to the beverage, like most carbonated drinks on the market. Another way to increase carbonation naturally, is to add some yeast into the bottles, which results in secondary bottle fermentation. This practice results in hazy, wilder sake containing yeast. This makes bottle-fermented sake quite different in flavour and mouthfeel to the clear, filtered expressions more commonly found.
What To Try?
Today, there are hundreds of different sparkling sake expressions, however, many aren’t yet available outside Japan. For sake lovers, the fizziness will make the experience unique. Sparkling sake is also, usually, much lower in ABV than normal sake (around 10% ABV) making it much more accessible to sake beginners.
The light, crisp palate can be a great alternative to Champagne, and depending on which type of sake you choose, flavours can vary from pleasantly sweet to sour or spicy. Here are a few great bottles to look out for, and nibbles to pair them with.
The Mio sake is one of the most popular sparkling expressions around, available both domestically and worldwide.
At a low 5% ABV, Mio is appealing to those who enjoy subtle, delicate flavours, without much of the alcohol content. The gorgeous bottle and branding of the expression makes it even more appealing. The word “Mio” describes the soft roll of foam that forms behind moving boats.
Pairing: The Mio’s light, fruity character pairs wonderfully with a juicy, crisp fruit salad. Add apples, pears, grapes, melon, and strawberries to the bowl, top it with some Greek yogurt or honey, and focus on the flavours. The fizziness will ease the weight of the yogurt, while the fruity, subtly sweet palate will aid to enhance the flavours of the fruit.
Crisp vegetables and light pastries also pair beautifully with the expression. Richer, heavier flavours tend to overwhelm the low ABV and gentle palate .
Ichinokura Co. from Miyagi was founded in 1973, and boarded the sparkling sake train before it became mainstream. The Suzune range is up there with the most widely distributed and known expressions. The most popular Chiming Bells expression is known for its rich, sweet and sour profile, and secondary bottle fermentation, which gives it a pleasant, cloudy appearance.
Pairing: Rich flavours pair well with the Suzune’s complex profile. Try Christmas cake, gingerbread, or your favourite cake or pudding. The bubbles will ease the weight, while the sourness will negate overly sweet desserts.
Pairing with pork and white meat will also work well. Add a sweet sauce to the meat for the best results. The sweet and sour notes from the Suzune will create a flurry of complex notes to enjoy.
Shichiken Mori No So
While Shichiken offers three sparkling sake expressions, the barrel-aged version is the most innovative. Barrel-aging sparkling sake is a quite a new practice, and this release leads the way, by working with one of the most famous whisky distilleries in Japan. Aged in Japanese whisky casks sourced from Suntory’s Hakushu distillery, this bottling brings forth wood, earth, and the floral, slightly smoky character of Hakushu whisky.
Pairing: Above all else, enjoying a dram of Hakushu whisky alongside the sake will help drinkers understand the relation between the two. The deep oak and earth will pair wonderfully with grilled red meat, while the floral character makes the expression burst when paired with seafood and barbecued vegetables. Pair with some Hanukkah latkes to make the pairing extra festive!
Hopefully, the pairings mentioned will only fuel your love for sparkling sake and send you on the drink and food pairing adventure of a lifetime. Expect many more sparkling sake expressions to be reaching Western shores in the years ahead.
As a half Greek Scotsman, who previously lived and worked in Japan’s whisky industry for years, George Koutsakis is a spirits writer specializing in Japanese whisky, world whisky, and spirits. Aside from Alcohol Professor, he currently writes for Liquor.com, Saveur Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Distiller.com, and acts as head of content for dekantā, the largest online retailer and specialist of Japanese whisky. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably swimming, watching Japanese anime, or travelling in search of gorgeous dishes and drams. Follow him on Instagram @whiskyislander