Nearly every culture has a particular alcohol authentic to its region. While the French have their wine, the Scotts have their whisky. Even us Malaysians have our local alcohol: tuak. For the Japanese, sake, a silky smooth sake made from fermented rice comes to mind.

Yet for the beginner just learning to appreciate the drink’s finer points, picking out a label for the first time may prove daunting. We get it: the Japanese names are confusing and it’s hard to really gauge what it is you’re looking for.

guide to sake
You can often find empty sake barrels used as decoration outside of Shinto shrines.

Yet sake has an important place in Japanese culture. If you’ve been to Japan, you might have noticed sake barrels particularly outside of Shinto shrines. The barrels are usually empty and placed there for decorative purposes, but there’s a deeper meaning behind them. To the Japanese, sake has always been a way of bringing the gods and people closer together. The spirit is usually given out during shrine festivals, and sipping on it during these occasions is a symbol of unification with the gods.

Rice polishing matters
The key feature that distinguishes sake’s different grades boils down to its rice polishing ratio. Every bottle of sake has a rice polishing percentage printed on it. This basically represents the percentage of rice that is left after the husk is polished off. For example, if the bottle says that the sake has a 70% rice polishing ratio, it means that only 30% of the rice has been polished away.

guide to sake
The more polished the rice, the more refined and sweet the sake will be.

This ratio greatly affects the taste of the sake, because the rice husk and outer portion of the kernel contains more protein and fat than the inner portion of the rice grain. These are the components that affect the flavouring of the sake. Generally, the lower the rice polishing ratio, the lighter and smoother the sake becomes.

Types of sake
There are five basic types of sake produced: Honjozo-shu, Ginjo-shu, Junmai-shu, Daiginjo-shu, and Nama-zake. Generally, you would find the first four in most places that sell sake, because Nama-zake refers to sake that is not pasteurised.

Honjozo is the only type out of the other basic types of sake that has been added with some distilled brewer’s alcohol, usually added to smooth out the flavour profiles and aroma. The rest — Ginjo, Junmai, and Daiginjo — are pure rice sake types.

guide to sake
Light-tasting sake such as Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo pair well with equally light dishes such as sashimi.

Having this in mind, we spoke to the InterContinental Kuala Lumpur’s resident sommelier Sherra Yeong to find out about the flavour profiles of the different types of sake and how to accurately pair them with food.

Yeong is key in the upcoming six-course sake dinner at Tatsu, InterContinental Kuala Lumpur. This dinner features a variety of Saito sake paired with a six-course tasting menu that includes sashimi, tempura, and wagyu A5 beef.

The first thing to note, according to Yeong, is to know what kind of flavours you like in a sake: “Even for beginners, some may prefer a stronger tasting sake while some prefer the elegant, sweet, and easy-drinking types.”

“If you prefer a stronger-tasting, heavier type of sake, I would recommend going for the Honjozo or Junmai,” explained Yeong.

“Should you prefer the fruity, elegant, and smoother types of sake, you may like the Junmai Ginjo or Junmai Daiginjo.”

guide to sake
On the flip side, pair your heavy Honjozo sake with dense food such as tempura.

It’s only when you’ve known your own preference for the type of sake that food pairing can happen. The rule of thumb? Match it in proportion with the heaviness of the food. Pair lighter tasting sakes with light tasting food and heavy tasting sakes with heavy food.

Prefer your sake strong and stiff? Pick the Honjozo, which can be slightly more acidic and heavy. “It can be paired with heavy food such as tempura or wagyu. If it’s Western food you’re looking for, something such as fish and chips would pair well too — the fried or grilled types of food,” said Yeong.

But if you’re heading for an Omakase course that serves mainly nigiri sushi and sashimi, what sort of sake should you pick? “Generally, Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo are smoother and softer. It would be better to pair it with lighter tasting foods such as sushi and sashimi,” she said. “You could even pair it with Chinese-style steamed fish.”

guide to sake
Never falter again the next time you’re tasked with picking out sake for the night.

As for why it’s a general rule of thumb to pair sake and food as such, it boils down to the flavours of the sake. Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo types of sake are so elegant and subtle in flavour, that you would almost certainly overwhelm it if you were to pair it with heavy tasting food such as a curry.

But ultimately, Yeong has this to say about the types of sake you’ll come to pick: “I personally believe that good sake depends on your own preference. Trust your palate and what it tells you. If you like a particular type of sake, then so be it.”

The Saito six-course Sake Dinner at Tatsu Japanese Cuisine, InterContinental Kuala Lumpur will be available from the 1st of April 2018 to the 16th of May 2018. 

PohNee Chin
Editor, Kuala Lumpur
Poh Nee is the editor and writes about travel and drinks. When she's not living out her holiday dreams via Google Earth and sipping on an Old Fashioned down at the local bars, you can find her snug at home bingeing on Netflix and mystery fiction. Reach out to Poh Nee via email at pohnee@lifestyleasia.com.