But it’s fun to taste a couple of different ones first.
I don’t know much about sake. 😬 I’ve probably had it once or twice.
It doesn’t stop me from being curious, though.
A quick search online told me that sake means “alcohol” or “alcoholic beverage” in Japanese, and that it’s actually referred to as “nihonshu” or “rice-based alcohol” in Japan.
Of course, there’s much more to it than that. We all have to start somewhere. 😉
“I was studying to be a sommelier and learnt a bit about sake,” recalls Elliot Faber, the co-founder of Sake Central in Hong Kong, as well as the restaurants Awa Awa and HATCH.
“Then, on a trip to Vancouver to visit my brother, I found Artisan Sake Makers – a small sake brewery on Granville Island. I became friends with the owner, he showed me the ropes, and I was hooked!”
The setting likely helped. 🙂 “I always say it was like the Karate Kid! I walked into the brewery, the sun was shining through the window, and there was Shiroki San, wiping down one of his tanks. As soon as we started chatting, I knew I had a friend – and a new mentor!”
And that was it
Or at least part of the beginning of his sake foundations in Hong Kong. “Moving to Hong Kong to open (the restaurant) Yardbird Hong Kong in 2011 was the real catalyst,” he states.
“I was blown away by the variety and enthusiasm for sake. There is also no import duty in Hong Kong, so it was easier to get more sake. That is when and where my professional sake career took off.”
Sake fans must now be thankful they have a hangout like Sake Central, which opened in 2017. According to Elliot, “Sake Central features retail, casual and more formal dining, along with education. We are dedicated to the promotion of Japanese food and beverage culture done our way, and making ourselves accessible to those who have not been to Japan and familiar to those who have.”
It’s a process
Elliot wasn’t kidding when he said they were also focused on education. Beyond his work with Sake Central, he still constantly learns new things about sake himself, and aims to share these with others.
“Sake is a complex vortex that only gets more interesting as you learn more,” he admits. “There is the science and the history – they both work in tandem to create this product that brings so much joy and respect to Japanese culture, it’s really amazing.
“I continue to learn about production techniques – both modern and ancient – and those techniques are what make sake look and taste the way they do. The more you know, the more you find out there is to know!”
Sake aficionados must feel the same. Or do they? Maybe – or maybe not. 😁 Is there anything you wish people knew, is the question? Well, now that we mention it…
“More expensive sake doesn’t mean better sake,” Elliot stresses. “More expensive sake means higher processing. This processing creates a unique profile and flavour, but it doesn’t make a better profile and flavour – just different!”
He can tell
Elliot does have to try and taste sake often, because of Sake Central. Although “I don’t drink a lot – I just drink often!” he says.
“I’m always tasting and enjoying sake, but it really isn’t enough. If I had my way, one day a week would be dedicated to just tasting sake and learning about brewers.”
There’s also the matter of keeping track of it all…? “I don’t, really – that’s part of the fun! When something resonates with you, whether as a potential distribution, retail or dine-in item, you just know it. Sometimes you drink a lot and forget what you had, but then you get to try it again the next day – that’s the best part! When I really want to make sure a sake leaves an impression on me, I take a photo of it and keep it in an album.”
It’s time for class – sake class, that is
Or a quick lesson on sake from Elliot. It’s time to drink, too – it will help develop our sake expertise. 😊
As we sit down at Sake Central, what kind of preparations do we need to make before we try and taste sake?
What essentials or elements should be in place?
“It’s best to have a clean palate, water beside you, and a spittoon. Alternatively, you can have great friends, lots of energy, and delicious food around you! It depends on the setting and the purpose of your tasting. Both have merit.”
That doesn’t sound too hard. We could be on our way to an ideal sake experience before we know it. Elliot reveals the five things he wants and looks for to achieve just that. “I consider the following when reviewing a sake,” he begins.
#1 The condition the sake has been stored in, and its freshness
“They are not mutually exclusive, but they are both incredibly important. A freshly shipped sake could have been stored improperly before, or kept in bad conditions even for a short term. An older sake could have been stored at optimal temperatures and still show as if it were fresh out of the brewery.”
#2 Who made it?
“The beauty of Japan is that most makers have any or a combination of an incredible story, impeccable attention to detail, and unwavering craftsmanship – so those details often work in tandem to make a beautiful sake.”
#3 The design
“The label isn’t everything, but a little bit of thought goes a long way. Even if it’s not my style, I always appreciate a thought-out label no matter how minimal or exotic.”
#4 The taste is, of course, paramount
“Aroma, structure, palate and finish are all examples of things that professionals look for when tasting. It doesn’t matter if it is wine or sake or beer. However, you must ask yourself the most important question: Do you like it?”
Elliot’s choices might make it easier for you, and give you a couple of ideas to get you going – especially if you’re not that experienced with sake just yet. He tells us what he reaches out for, which maybe you should, too:
If you want sake with attitude
“Get namazake. Raw, unpasteurised sake is full of attitude and expression. After all, since it is unpasteurised, it is alive!”
If you want sake with the best fruity notes
“As a category, Junmai Daiginjo tends to be the ‘fruitiest’ style of sake. Aiming for a sake that is made from less common yeast types tends to give more powerful and exotic fruit aromas.”
If you want sake with the best floral notes
“Likewise, Junmai Daiginjo or Junmai Ginjo styles (along with their alcohol-added Daiginjo and Ginjo styles) tend to have a more floral tone, showing everything from white flower and violet to roses on the nose.”
If you want sake with a wonderful balance
“I often find the Junmai Ginjo or Ginjo styles to have a fine balance of elegant, fruity and floral qualities of a Daiginjo-level sake combined with the lactic, cereal, and sometimes oxidative or earthy styles that Junmai and Honjozo bring.”
What’s the sake he wouldn’t mind travelling far and wide just to have?
“You have to go to the source! Visiting a sake brewery in person is really the best way to taste and understand the real taste of sake. Even though freshness can be preserved and shipped with great care and quality, sake is kind of like a car: The second you drive it off the lot, it starts to depreciate. It can still be shiny and run well and fine-tuned, but there is nothing like the first time you get into that brand-new car.”
What’s the sake for when he’s had a long day?
“A refreshing and dry Sunday’s Junmai made by Ibaraki Shuzo in Akashi prefecture.”
What’s the sake that cleanses and refreshes the palate?
“Sake from Fukui and Niigata tend to have a dry and uplifting character to them. In Niigata, there is even a term called ‘kiré’, which denotes sake with a crisp, clean, almost spirited finish.”
Are you hungry?
We don’t blame you. All this talk about drinking and sake can make anyone feel like having a few bites. Any kind of beverage needs some food. 😉
“The right sake goes with anything! I met my wife at a sake, burger and poutine pop-up in Singapore. My goal that day was to convince everyone that sake could pair well with cheeseburgers, and it worked!”
Oh, and before we forget: What is the proper way to drink sake? 😁
“A wine glass or small sake cup (ochoko) works. It’s up to you and your surroundings,” Elliot answers.
Good thing you can find it all at Sake Central; or even in Hong Kong in general. What does Elliot love about the Hong Kong sake scene?
“You can get anything! Also, freshness is easy to obtain thanks to the close proximity of Hong Kong to Japan.”
You don’t have to worry about where to try sake – and learn anything sake-related – then. 👍