How to drink sake from Masu's sake expert Fumi Nakatani

A beginner’s guide to saké.

An interview with Fumi Nakatani, manager at Masu,  who achieved New Zealand’s first international qualification in saké from the UK-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust.

How do you introduce total newcomers to saké?
Firstly, I like to clear up the biggest misconception about saké, which is its alcohol percentage. People tend to associate saké with Chinese liquor (baijiu) or Korean soju, which has around 20 percent alcohol by volume, whereas saké actually has around 16 percent. That’s only a fraction higher than wine and I like to make diners aware of this straight away. Following this, I introduce them to a range of different styles. I start with a ginjo saké, which is a light, fruity option and, depending how this is received, I like to introduce a deeper style of saké such as kimoto, yamahai or genshu.

Is there such thing as good cheap saké?
Absolutely. You can easily find some good, reasonably priced sakés in Auckland. In most cases, these sakés are made by large mainstream saké breweries in Japan who use automated technology to produce higher quantities. Last year, I visited one of the largest and automated saké breweries in Japan which has received 13 consecutive gold medals for its saké in the Japan Saké competition – it was an amazing experience.

What are the foundations of saké-matching to food?
I like to match saké like for like. For example, if a saké has a floral or lighter character, I’d match this to a soft dish such as sashimi or a vegetable salad. If a saké had more umami and earthiness – like a kimoto or yamahai – then I’d go for something stronger like grilled beef or mushroom and garlic.

I’d tend to recommend sweeter sakés with dessert, much like a dessert wine. At Masu, we sometimes match sakés by what we call the cleansing or contrast method. This is where we serve a sweet and aromatic saké with one of our spicier dishes. The saké does a great job at cutting through the spice and they work well together. I recommend diners experiment.

Why are some sakés served warm and some chilled?
Some sakés are best enjoyed warm to avoid the loss of a flavour called ginjo. This is what can make some sakés more expensive than others. The general rule of thumb is if a saké has umami – the elusive fifth flavour – and a rich structure, it should be enjoyed warm. The process of warming the saké allows more flavour to be released.

Tell us a bit about Masu’s saké list
I’m proud to say that we have the most extensive and unique Japanese drinks list in New Zealand. The highlight of our list is the number of imported sakés we’re able to bring in from Japan. At Masu, we have a good connection with Kenichi Ohashi who is the only Master of Saké and Master of Wine in the world. Kenichi has a strong relationship with various breweries in Japan who regularly supply us with a selection of rare sakés, not otherwise found outside of Japan. In fact, we’ve just received our second delivery of sakés to Masu; some are extremely rare so I highly recommend popping in for a taste.

Where else can people go in Auckland to learn about saké?
I’d recommend two places – Ebisu in central Auckland and Cocoro in Ponsonby.