Gone are the days of one cheap bottle of sake on liquor store shelves. Sake is becoming mainstream and widely available throughout Alberta.
“People are attracted to sake and are buying more of it because of how easy it is. There are no rules, and sake lends itself to a much broader palate,” says Patrick Ellis, “sake samurai” and president of Blue Note Sake. Ellis pioneered the premium sake category in western Canada 27 years ago after living in Japan at a time when premium sake was just coming into its own. “It doesn’t matter what you bring home in your grocery bag — whether it is artichokes, asparagus, blue cheese, steak, white fish or salad — sake will pair with it because of the lower acidity and significantly increased levels of umami that just tie it all together.”
Stephen Bezan, sake sommelier, educator and purchasing manager at Sherbrooke Liquor agrees. “It’s a wonderful accompaniment to food, compared to wine where you are dealing with higher acidity and tannins.”
People have overcome misconceptions and preconceived notions about sake and realized that it’s not just a savoury, hot rice beverage served in a little cup, paired exclusively with Japanese food. There are many ways to explore sake as a beverage on its own served chilled in a wine glass, or paired with burgers or pizza. “Sake enhances flavours. It gives you a cleaner starting point and base when pairing, so it’s harder to go wrong. It’s a lot more forgiving than wine or beer and everything comes together in harmony,” says Bezan.
As far as temperature goes, there is a lot of potential in one bottle of sake. Experiment with different styles at different temperatures to experience different aromas: fruity, lighter, and fresher when chilled, and fuller with more cereal aromas when heated. “Try not to get focused on all the technicalities,” says Bezan. “It’s fun to learn if you’re interested, but enjoy the sake for what it is. See what you like because it varies from person to person.”
Although you might be tempted to compare sake to wine or a spirit, it is its own special category most closely resembling beer because of how it is brewed. Sake rice varietals are polished to a specific degree, and combined by a skilled brewmaster with water, yeast, and an enzyme called koji, in a complex multiple parallel fermentation process. This unique process has evolved over time as sake brewmasters’ palates have broadened, attitudes have changed, and rice polishing technology has advanced. The sake brewing scene is fun and vibrant as younger generations of brewmasters develop new ideas and experiment with technology and methods, while still retaining sake’s traditional roots.
Masa Shiroki of Artisan Sakemaker Inc. has been importing sake for the last 20 years and producing his own small-batch Osake sake on Granville Island since 2007 using BC-grown rice. Sake was originally developed more than 2,000 years ago in Japan with the intention of complementing the local food by region. Shiroki has applied this same approach with Osake, so that it pairs well with locally produced sausages, cheeses, pastas and vegetables. “The new future of sake is, I would say, a cultural paradigm shift to develop another level of culinary experience. It is a collaboration between sake makers and consumers sharing information and contributing to a multicultural culinary scene. It is authenticity with innovation.”
Premium sake importers and co-founders of Calgary’s Sake Gami, Toshiki Uehara and Yasuhiro Washiyama echo this sentiment. “We’re so happy to see that the scene has changed so much,” says Uehara. “We have made an effort to bring in many varieties and styles of sake, and people are now realizing it doesn’t have to be enjoyed with only Japanese food.”
Many Albertans, especially over the last few years, have really embraced sake and are understanding its stylistic differences, which Uehara attributes to the evolving restaurant scene in Alberta. “We have worked to educate how sake pairs with different foods such as pizza and steak. We have educated non-Japanese chefs, restaurant owners and sommeliers to help them make great pairings and find the sake magic in Alberta,” adds Washiyama.
With an alcohol content around 12 to 16 percent, similar to wine, Uehara and Washiyama are witnessing more people enjoying a glass of sake instead of a glass of wine, or choosing sparkling sake over champagne for special occasions. A premium sake can run upwards of $40, but because sake offers a variety of serving temperature it can be enjoyed multiple ways with different characteristics coming through at each temperature change and enhancing whatever food it is paired with. “Sake is like a best supporting actor in a movie. Sake is always there, it is not the main actor but without it, the food that you are tasting wouldn’t be the same for many types of cuisines,” says Uehara.
Calgary’s Sensei Bar opened in 2021 with a goal of showcasing sake’s versatility and ability to pair with robust Asian and European flavours. “There is a Japanese saying that sake doesn’t fight with food,” says Amane Kanai, Sensei Bar managing partner and international sake sommelier. There are roughly 40 sakes on the Sensei Bar menu, with rare sakes sometimes making an appearance. Industry professionals and consumers are discovering that premium sake is delicate, floral, and complex. It’s essentially umami in a glass. “What makes sake food-friendly is the lower acidity, lack of tannins and sulfites, and it’s full of amino acids. Umami-driven food paired with sake, creates an umami explosion in your mouth,” says Kanai.
If sake is still too intimidating, Kanai suggests trying fruit-flavoured sake as an easy way to step into the sake world. Although it’s not entirely traditional, it can make a nice aperitif and provides an accessible way to try the drink.
Kanai also offers Sake 101 courses at Sensei Bar. The Ninja package is an introductory course more focused on sake with lower polishing rates, while the Samurai package focuses on higher polished sakes, that have more delicate and complex fruity aromas. “People love these classes. It’s nice for me to engage and provide a sake experience and have fun. My goal is to educate customers, so they get to learn to appreciate sake and my culture.”
Want to try sake? A good place to start is at a local restaurant that has a good sake list or at a craft-focused store that has a good array of refrigerated sake bottles. Don’t be afraid to ask staff for advice. Online resources such as tippsysake.com or the Sake Revolution podcast are also a great way to learn about sake.
Sake styles, courtesy Stephen Bezan:
Junmai - essentially means "pure rice" and is meant to denote styles of premium sake that are brewed with only rice, water, koji, and yeast. A straight Junmai sake (meaning not a Junmai Ginjo or Junmai Daiginjo) tends to be full bodied and powerful with notes of rice.
Junmai Ginjo - Premium grade sake using rice with the outer layers milled down to at least 60 percent remaining. A great intro sake for those just getting into the premium stuff! Good balance of umami, rice/grain notes, and fruity elements.
Junmai Daiginjo - Premium grade sake using rice milled down to at least 50 percent remaining - the top of the line super premium style. Typically, very delicate, nuanced, and fragrant. Can sometimes be expensive.
Honjozo - Premium grade sake using rice milled down to at least 70 percent. However, there is a small portion of Brewer's Alcohol (usually a distilled grain alcohol) added to Honjozo, so it does not have the Junmai prefix. Usually light-bodied, fragrant, and a very versatile and approachable sake.