If sushi is your jam and you can’t go past your local Japanese on a Friday night (pre-lockdown of course!), it’s more than likely you’ve tried sake – the national beverage of Japan. Pronounced ‘sak- keh’, sake is a traditional alcoholic beverage made from four basic ingredients: rice, water, koji mold and some yeast to ferment. Although it’s sometimes referred to as ‘rice wine’, sake is brewed more like a beer.
Like both wine and beer, not all sake is created equal. It comes in a wide variety of flavours, aromas, and complexities. There are wallet-friendly standard brands through to ultra-premium brands – with eye-watering price tags to match. Unlike wine and beer, sake can be served both gently warmed or chilled, and the temperature that its served can change the taste dramatically. It’s fun to experiment! The alcohol content is usually around 15 per cent.
If (like me) you’ve drank a ‘shot’ of sake like a shot of tequila – you’ve been doing it all wrong. Sake is a ceremonial drink; it’s meant to be sipped and savoured. Instead, you should raise your cup, say cheers or ‘Kanpai’ in Japanese, and appreciate the unique flavours of this very special tipple known as ‘the drink of the gods’.
Nara; The Birthplace of Modern Sake
Nara – an ancient capital and one of the jewels of Japanese heritage – is the birthplace of modern sake in Japan. Nara city is located in central Japan south of Kyoto, and is an hour train ride from both Kyoto and Osaka. You may have heard of Nara because of its famous ‘celebrity’ deer that roam free in Nara Park, but it’s also a perfect place to immerse yourself in Japanese history and culture – and in particular, the fascinating culture of sake. In Nara, you can combine your sake tasting journey with a spot of sumo wrestling, a dip in an onsen pool, a tour of one of the region’s world heritage listed ancient monuments or even a forest bathing experience in amongst Nara’s incredible nature.
Although sake wasn’t invented in Nara, it was first refined there, making what was once a thick, cloudy brew mostly used for ceremonies into a pleasant drink. Believe it or not, the brewing masters behind this sake evolution were monks… yes, monks! In fact, temples and shrines were the primary distilleries of sake in Japan for centuries. Sake made in Nara was called Narazake and represented high-grade sake at the time.
At Shoryakuji Temple in Nara, monks have made Shobushu sake since the Muromachi period, pioneering new techniques. That was 600 years ago, and these sophisticated filtering techniques form the foundation of modern sake drank today. They still hold a sake tasting festival every November.
Where to Sample Sake in Nara
As you’d expect from the birthplace of refined sake, Nara is home to numerous long-running breweries and sake stores. Whether you’re an aficionado or a novice, there are many ways to enjoy sake, from award-winning brews to sake ice cream and even vegetables pickled in sake lees. Venture out of the city and explore the wider region of Nara Prefecture to get a true taste of what’s on offer.
1. Harushika Sake Imanishi Seibei Store – a sake brewery in Naramachi, Nara, established in 1884. You can do brewery tours, sake tasting and buy souvenirs.
2. Yamada Sake Store – photogenic Edo period store with an impressive selection of local sake, vintage sake pots and a nostalgic interior.
3. Imanishi Sake Brewery – join up for a brewery tour or sake tasting session at this brewery, run by the same family for over 350 years!
4. Nishiuchi Sake Brewery – On the way to Tanzan Jinja Shrine, you can visit this traditional sake brewery, founded in the Meiji period. They have a close relationship with the shrine, making the sake used for ceremonies there.
5. Kawai Sake Brewery – free sake-tasting and the opportunity to tour parts of a luxurious on- site Edo townhouse at this picturesque brewery.
Lockdown-Friendly Sake Tastings
Can’t wait until borders open up to sample some Japanese sake? Us neither (after all, we could all do with a drink to get through this extended lockdown!). To help get you through, we’ve rounded up a few of our favourite Japanese sakes available on Aussie shores:
1. Takacho Junmai Bodaimoto 720ml – $52.95 from sakeshop.com.au
Bodaimoto is an ancient way of making sake from over 500 years ago using a starter made at Nara’s very own Shoryakuji temple. It’s very rare so we were excited to find a bottle available in Australia! Expect rich and bold flavours including manuka honey, citrus, ripe banana, chestnut, black muscat grapes and brown sugar.
2. Kaze No Mori Akitsuho 657 720ml – $38.95 from sakeshop.com.au
Also from Nara – Yucho Shuzo's flagship sake. This super fresh Namazake is brewed all year round and pressed days before shipping. Aromas of banana, pear, apple, lychee, minerals and sweet rice pudding are a pure expression of freshness of this sake.
3. Oita Oni Koroshi Dohatsu Shoten Dry 720ml – $39.95 from sakeshop.com.au
One of Sake Shop’s most popular bottles, this is a big, dry, muscular sake. Palate is addictively dry with almond, cotton candy, strong umami and a crisp acid finish. Drink chilled or warm.
To plan your sake tasting journey of exploration in Nara Prefecture head to www.visitnara.jp