The pleasures of sake


Rory Eaton is the Wine and Beverage Director at Ynyshir, a celebrated destination restaurant with two Michelin stars, perched on the Welsh coast near Snowdonia. Sake has long been one of his favourite drinks, pairing exquisitely with a range of fine dishes. Here, he tells us why he loves sake and shares some recommendations on how to enjoy it.  

I first tried sake while working on a tiki bar in the cocktail scene. It wasn’t on my radar at the time, but sake’s star was already rising in the beverage world. It was served in (what I thought was) an odd wooden box – which is, in fact, the traditional masu cup. Rather inelegantly, I attempted to drink it from the side, and it ended up down my shirt. Drinking etiquette notwithstanding, I was intrigued. Those savoury notes of umami, delicate but generous; that clean mouthfeel, with a body akin to wine. I can’t say I loved the profile initially (like many first-time sake drinkers), but I was excited at the prospect of utilising these unique flavours.  

Nine years later, how things have changed – in large part, thanks to my tenure at Ynyshir restaurant on the Welsh coast. Access to increased quality shows sake in a whole new light. It is one of my most revered beverages, especially for food pairings that can’t be matched with wine.  

On a recent trip to Japan, I visited the atmospheric NinjaBar, located in an underground Tokyo crevice. It soon became impossible to see through all the empty cups that lined the table. At the other end of the spectrum entirely, we later visited the beautiful Mumyo restaurant in Nagano Prefecture. We drank locally from a phenomenal brewery named Masumi, whose sakes were elegantly served in handblown Kimura glassware. I could have sworn I was in heaven.  

What’s in a name?  

Before we delve any deeper, I think it’s important to state that sake has been adopted in the West as the name for rice wine. However, in Japan, the word “sake” relates to any alcoholic beverage. Its real name is “nihonshu”.  

The two main categories – Junmai and non-Junmai – both fall under the higher classification of “premium sake”. Premium sake accounts for only a quarter of all sake produced in Japan. The remaining 75% is known as Futsushu – considered the more “everyday” drinking stuff. It gets a bad rap in the West, often overshadowed by its premium counterpart. Nevertheless, back to the good stuff.  

Junmai literally translates to “pure rice”, brewed using only rice, water, yeast and koji. Comparatively, non-Junmai will contain a small amount of distilled alcohol. I must stress that a non-Junmai sake is in no way inferior to a Junmai; each bears its own specific characteristics. A skilled brewer will add brewer’s alcohol (known as jozo) to enhance unique textures, aromas and flavour profiles.  

The second most important classification is the polishing ratio. Sake undergoes a process in which the exterior of the rice grain is “milled” to attain the purer, starch-rich centre. The extent to which the grain is milled results in three main types: Daiginjo (50%), Ginjo (60%) and Honjozo (70%) – with the percentage indicating the amount of grain remaining after milling. Like most classifications, the former is merely the first step in the door and opens more intricacies as one delves further.  

One of the more common misconceptions is interpreting these percentages as the ABV, when in fact, it relates to the polishing ratios – merely indicating the remaining weight of the original rice grain used (for example, a Honjozo is made using 70% of the original rice grain). I find that many drinkers who are new to sake often mistake it for a spirit. It is far closer to a beer, and it’s never distilled.  

Enjoying sake  

Personally, I tend to lean towards Junmai sakes – especially Junmai Daiginjo. I find Junmai sakes to have a richer, fuller body (a preference that extends to my interest in white wines and Champagnes alike). Daiginjo sake is the pinnacle of elegance and purity, made from the most finely milled rice grains. The flavours are more easily defined and lend themselves perfectly to chilling. Expect detectable fruits, blossoms, aromatics, and precise umami. Ginjo sake, though refined, never reach the heights of Daiginjo, and are subsequently enjoyed for different reasons. They still lend themselves to chilling, though the flavour profiles become less defined. Junmai and Honjozo emphasise the flavours of the rice, more than any discernible fruits, and can be enjoyed at varying temperatures. But each category has its place, and none should be thought of as second-rate. Much like drinking a highly tannic wine without food may seem out of place, a Honjozo with blue-fin tuna is perhaps not the best match.  

Serving temperatures are always interesting. A Honjozo can often be enjoyed warm – which increases the perception of body and umami – though I must admit I rarely stray from chilled. Personally, I deal with sake and food pairings, rather than “everyday” drinking. Pairing sake offers many interesting flavour opportunities. I am privileged at Ynyshir to work with some of the finest global produce. We use a substantial amount of top-end Japanese produce:  sustainably farmed blue-fin tuna, hamachi fish, and A5 wagyu beef (A5 denoting the highest grade available). Generally, I tend to pair sake with dishes based on their sauces, seasoning, sweetness or acidity. However, a simple dish of the finest sashimi, for example, cries out for a highly polished, elegant sake.  

My choice pairing is a chilled Junmai Daiginjo from Fukuoka, with hamachi sashimi. The sake boasts an elegant minerality, with notes of pure red fruit and steamed rice. A daiginjo allows you to easily distinguish the variety of flavours, and the cool temperature brings freshness, with a palate-cleansing property – perfect for fish with high fat content. Another favourite is chicken yakitori, for which we must look towards a ginjo sake. The more robust body, with less nuance of flavour, is a perfect match for smoky, fat-induced dishes, often seasoned with tare soy sauce.  

I urge everyone to try sake at least once. Restaurants and bars can be a great place to ask for help and recommendations. I’m noticing more sommeliers using sake in beverage pairings, seeing them featured on extensive restaurant lists, with now even sake specific bars and shops popping up. It’s clear to see there’s an increasing appetite for sake. As we become an ever more global society, this enticing category should become a firm favourite for many drinkers.  

If you’re new to sake, our Discovery Case offers the perfect introduction, featuring three delicious expressions from top producers