Is it worth switching to sake?

Japanese rice wine is said to be a ‘clean’ option for drinkers – Jonathan McAloon gave it a try

Is it a spirit? Do you have to drink it warm? Does it prevent hangovers? It still feels hard to separate the truth from the misconceptions surrounding sake, even though the days of a bad bottle in a British restaurant – microwaved to disguise impurities – seem a thing of the past. Last year even Aldi introduced a budget sake to their shelves. And in an age of healthy living and faddish clean eating, you’d think the rice wine would be a staple of all craft bars by now.

Made from rice, water, yeast and a mould called koji (though some types contain added alcohol), good sake is sulphate-free. Technically, if you keep hydrated and drink responsibly, the belief that sake doesn’t give you a hangover will hold true. It’s so pure you can keep it, once opened, in the fridge for months. Gluten free and very low in histamines, it’s an obvious choice for allergy-sufferers. Wine and champagne, also gluten-free, are three times more acidic.

At the top end of this spectrum, geared towards western palates and ambitious to be assimilated into European drinking and dining culture, is Heavensake. Developed with the insight of Champagne cellar master Regis Camus, it aims for a Franco-Mediterranean freshness. I had my mind opened to this posh sake – as well as sake in general – over dinner with friends who knew a bit more about it than me.

We paired it with straightforward, predominantly European flavours to test its versatility with casual fare: Joe, an excellent cook who knows a thing or two about drinks, made a light caprese salad with a soy sauce dressing to start, then spatchcocked a chicken and roasted potatoes in the bird’s own fat.

Good sake can be enjoyed warm or cold, but the makers of Heavensake recommend you drink this one out of the fridge, and suggested I try it first over ice to reveal its complexities.

It is a specifically Western thing, based on booze containing fruit, to seek to identify all the different flavours in a drink. But for a point of comparison, Heavensake’s floral Junmai Ginjo (£45) reminded me of a Gewürztraminer, with notes I interpreted as lychee, pear and gala apple. This was rounded off with a deeply savoury, umami hit. It leans towards a spirit without being one, spreading a satisfying warmth around the whole head. This was perfect with the tomato salad, and also oddly paired with the salty chicken that followed.

We were encouraged to move on to the premium Junmai Daiginjo (£90) halfway into the main course, and drank it cellar chilled. Much richer, more singular and challenging, this one developed better in the mouth. The rub: if you’ve got £90 to splash out on a bottle of something, why wouldn’t you go with a known quantity – a champagne or wine of the same price? Yet, what I like about Heavensake is how it seems different, but isn’t actually such a big leap from what drinkers might be used to.

As the Junmai Daiginjo reached room temperature, it opened out. What had begun as the articulate spotting of tastes that either were or weren’t there gave way to babbling about how nice it was, and noises of inarticulate appreciation. As for the next day? I admit it: I had a slight hangover. But I indulged. And it was worth it.


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