Think sake is a spirit or a kind of wine? Think it has to be drunk warm? Think again. Educate yourself as we demolish five myths about the Japanese alcoholic drink with the help of an Australian sake expert.Wayne Shennen is the sake expert at Sydney restaurant and bar Sake, which (as the name suggests) specialises in high-quality sake. Thanks to the kind folk at Symantec, I recently attended a sake education session at Sake hosted by Shennen, who regularly travels to Japan to visit sake breweries and update his knowledge. Here are the five myths I heard dismissed on that day.
MYTH: Sake has a massively high alcohol content. The exact proportion varies depending on the brewer, but the typical percentage is 16% or so. That's higher than wine, but not by much, and way lower than typical top-shelf spirits.
MYTH: Sake is a kind of spirit or wine. Sake is often described as "rice wine", which is inaccurate, and sometimes compared to spirits because of its appearance and perceived strength. As we've already noted, the strength is actually not close to that of spirits, and you certainly wouldn't want to take the same approach and mix sake with Coke.
Shennen argued that sake needs to be considered as its own category. In production terms, it's actually more like beer than anything else, but still so distinct that grouping it together with other western-oriented alcoholic drink categories is fairly pointless.
MYTH: Sake has to be served warm. "I've never had a sake served warm that I've particularly enjoyed," Shennen commented, adding that heating is sometimes used as a novelty to distract from lower-quality brews. He suggests sake should be served "slightly colder than room temperature" — so no long-term refrigeration or heating.
MYTH: Sake should be swilled from shot glasses. Again, this myth might have started with drinkers of bad-tasting, low-quality sake. "If you think of the taste of tequila, there's a reason you drink shots quickly," Shennen said.
In a Japanese context, the key rule is that you shouldn't top up your own drink — keep an eye on your table-mates and they will keep an eye on you. "It's a social event and you're not allowed to serve yourself," Shennen added.
MYTH: Drinking high-quality sake won't give you a hangover the next day. Unsurprisingly in a culture where someone else is constantly topping up your drink, this won't always hold. "My personal experience is that my hangovers are smaller with the expensive stuff, but everyone has to learn for themselves what happens," Shennen said. I didn't experience a hangover myself following the tasting session, but I'd hardly gone to town.
Got your own sake drinking tips to share? Tell us in the comments.