WHEN do you drink saké cold, warm or hot? Daniel Blais, head sommelier and beverage director at Solaire Resorts and Casino, posed the question to the assembly of guests at Yakumi, Solaire’s exquisite Japanese restaurant. That depends on the saké style, but go ahead and discover your preference. Even with ice cubes or with a slice of lemon, he added. That set the tone for the evening’s enjoyment of saké—light-hearted and with an open mind.
A range of saké from the Hakkaisan Brewery was the highlight at dinner and, for the occasion, a representative from Hakkaisan’s International Marketing Department was present to answer questions from the curious, and to meet the saké enthusiasts from both the trade and private sectors. That I was seated just across the table from Mr. Suguru Nakajima was a stroke of good fortune and augured well for my own exploration of saké.
Where saké is made, there is plenty of pure, clean water nearby. That is why a kura (saké brewery) is always situated near an abundant source of pristine water. And then there is rice, but not the kind that goes into the rice cooker. There are sakamai, rice strains suitable for producing saké, each one contributing its own flavors and aromas to the finished product. These rice grains are bigger that the regular rice-for-eating variety and the saké-making protocol includes the delicate process of milling each grain to get to the shinpaku, the starchy core of the grain that gets to be fermented. The different types of saké require specific rice-milling ratios; usually, the more premium, the higher the milling rate. But in the case of the Hakkaisan futsüshu (ordinary saké), the milling rate is an unusual 60 percent, the minimum for (premium) ginjõ saké, Suguru–san explained. That means the outer 40 percent of the grain is milled or polished away, leaving the inner 60 percent of the rice grain. Hakkaisan’s goal is to produce a high-quality saké that is accessible to everyone.
But for dinner, there was more than ordinary futsüshu. There was a tokubetsu junmai and a tokubetsu honjõzõ, ginjõ and a sparkling nigorizaké, each one paired with a dish on the menu.
Tokubetsu means “special”, Suguru-san said, offering the translation when the Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai was served with the first course—an assortment of sashimi, sushi and maki. What makes this saké special is the use of the water from the melted snow filtered by Mount Hakkai. I had expected a dry, crisp ending to the Tokubetsu Junmai, but got a faint, subtly sweet finish, instead. This style was produced for the foreign market, and is not readily available in Japan, Suguru-san added.
After the Tokubetsu Junmai and with the next set of courses, it was rock ’n’ roll with the succeeding Hakkaisan saké styles. The food and saké pairings done by Head Sommelier Daniel Blais succeeded as a guide to other possibilities. So with the marinated red snapper, a family recipe from Solaire Japanese Executive Chef Norimasa Kosaka, I thought the crisp, elegant Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjõ was also a winner. The grilled duck with sansho spices was absolutely shining with the Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Honjõzo, served jokan, the term for slightly hot saké. But the delicate grilled Chilean sea bass with miso sauce could only be matched by the equally delicate Hakkaisan Daiginjõ. Try Sparkling Nigori with the beef tenderloin and garlic-leek beef roll, Blais urged. The pairing was interesting, but so was the Tokubetsu Honjõzo, chilled this time—or the Hakkaisan Ginjõ, said my seat mate at the dinner table.
The Hakkaisan Brewery is in the Niigata Prefecture, one of the most prominent saké-producing regions in Japan, the third-largest producer of saké after the Hyogo and Kyoto Prefectures.
Here, the frigid snowy winters and the melting snow from Mount Hakka leave their imprint on the saké, making it crisp, dry, light. This is the tanrei karakuchi style of saké that the Niigata Prefecture is famous for, Suguru-san explained.
The Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjõ was paired with dessert—saké kasu ice cream and a spring roll with sweet, red-bean filling. But shall we also try the sparkling nigori with dessert? Absolutely. The world of saké is waiting to be explored.
• The range of Hakkaisan saké is imported and distributed by Philippine Wine Merchants (www.pwm.ph, email@example.com) and is available at all Ralph’s Wine stores.