Sake Reigns Supreme at The Sushi Bar in Saigon

drink - Saigon/HCMC: Oct. 23, 2018

Since its inception in 1999, The Sushi Bar has focused on introducing Japanese culture and products to Vietnam. Now, 20 years later, The Sushi Bar has its eye set on boosting the Vietnamese knowledge of Japanese rice wine, known as Nihon Shu or more commonly as sake in Japanese.

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The Sushi Bar restaurant regularly has five types of sake available at its four locations around Ho Chi Minh City, ranging from the lower priced Ta Kai Hon Jyozo to the premium Shichi Ken Jyun Mai. But at this one time master sake brewers event, brewers from the Yamanashi prefecture of Japan bring with them a special selection of the rice wines that are sure to be some of the best bottles of sake available this side south of Kagoshima.

Masters of Sake at The Sushi Bar

Outside, the rain pours down with the intensity of a squall and the clamour of the storm drums up the excitement on the rooftop of The Sushi Bar on Hai Bà Trưng in Saigon’s District 3. Here we find six master sake brewers wrapped in cotton kimono-style robes with the names of their breweries embroidered on the chest. The mood is festive with Japanese, Vietnamese and Western guests milling around examining the labels on different bottles of sake and sipping small cups of the clear liquid with the concentration of master sommeliers.

Sake is still a relatively new import to the Saigon dinner and drinking scene but this event aims to promote both the art of these delicate rice wines and the ethos of the Japanese brewers who make them. Sake brewers are known as tojis in Japanese, which translates to sake master. From the seriousness with which the tojis speak about their craft, the word master is far from an overstatement.

When we walked into the event we at City Pass Guide knew that we would taste some excellent sake but what we didn’t know was that we would have the honour of getting a crash course in sake making from the tojis themselves.

The Key to Good Japanese Sake is Polishing and More Polishing

The first toji we spoke to was Mr Tsushima Kitahara, Executive Director of Shichiken brewery in Hokuto-City, and a member of the Kitahara family who has been making sake for 13 generations in Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture. Mr Kitahara speaks English perfectly due to a three-year stint as a sake importer to the US.

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He explained to us that considering the complicated flavours that can emerge from a well-made bottle of sake, it is surprising to remember that this alcohol is simply made from rice and water. But like any product that strives for excellence, the quality of the root ingredients is what makes or breaks the finished bottle of wine. A true bottle of Japanese sake must be made with rice grown in Japan and naturally sourced Japanese spring water. The water is especially important because every mineral in the water can change the flavours of the final product.

The first step after the rice is harvested is to polish back the outer layers of each individual grain. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of polished grains it takes to make just one bottle of sake!

These outer layers contain harsher-tasting proteins, which mar the flavour of the liquor. This is why the price point and standards of quality are based largely upon the percentage of polishing that occured before fermentation. The more you polish the rice, the lighter the flavour and the more expensive it is.

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Fun with Fermentation and Fungus at The Sushi Bar

After the grain has been polished it’s time for fermentationthe key to making any type of boozy beverage. In a classic bottle of wine the conversion from base product (grapes) to alcohol is relatively simple. Over time, yeasts transform the sugars in the fruit into ethanol. The difference between a great bottle of red and someone’s home-brew is the care, timing and quality ingredients that go in from the beginning of the process.

To make sake, the conversion to alcohol is a bit more tricky. Rice only contains starch, not sugar, so a special Japanese fungus known as a koji spore is dusted on the rice along with yeasts to help along the process. While the idea of fungus in our alcohol might upset the sensibilities of a layperson, our tojis at The Sushi Bar assured us that in fact there is mould present in all wine and beer and that is part of what makes the differences in the notes and aromas.

A good bottle of sake typically takes around 90 days to make from start to drink. However, each brewery is different. Some focus on having fresh sake that is best consumed quickly. Other breweries are looking for a product that can be aged, which is, of course, better for export. Unlike wine made from grapes, an aged rice wine is not necessarily of better quality; it is just constructed to have a different life-span and a different flavour profile.

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How to Read the Label on Your Bottle of Sake at The Sushi Bar

When you pick up your bottle, you’ll notice a lot of writing on the label. For those who are not well-versed in Japanese, the label might be pretty to look at but incomprehensible.

However, amid all the swirly calligraphy you should notice a few numbers. The first one will likely be a number between 70% to 10%. This is not the alcohol content. It is there to show you what kind of quality you’ll be getting based on the polishing ratio. 70% means 30% of the rice grain has been polished away, whereas a prime bottle with 10% listed on the label means 80% of the initial grain has been removed.

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If you are looking for a cup of hot sake, go for a higher ratio, since lower quality sakes are typically served heated. Mr. Kitahara-san gasps when asked if a bottle ofShichiken Daiginjo sake can be served hot.

“Definitely not”, he says. “Daiginjosake is considered to be the most premium sake and should be served cold or room temperature only”, he responds.

The Tasting

Kitahara-san sets out small traditional sake cups along with several wide-bowl wine glassesthe like of which would normally be seen filled with a dark red Bordeaux or something of that ilk. He pours a small shot of cold Junmai Ginjo sake into the short cups and then into the wine glasses. Junmai Ginjo sake is more versatile than a Daiginjo sake. It can be served cold or very gently heated but is still of a top quality and has a nice, dry finish.

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Kitahara-san invites us to taste.

The shot glass of sake has a strong alcoholic flavour but is far from the ethanol-heavy odours of the hot sake typically consumed in large quantities at cheap sushi joints. This sake has a delicate, fruity aroma, which is difficult to place.

“Melon and pineapple”, Kitahara-santells us handing us the wine glasses of the same liquor. This time the notes fill our noses and mouths and the melon and pineapple are so obvious we wonder how we could have missed it before. These fruits, along with others such as apple, lychee, banana, strawberry and citrus are often present in the top bottles of sake. While vinegar, yoghurt, butter and cheese undertones often creep out in less polished versions. In the spectrum in between, like wine, you can run into many other surprising flavours such as spices, cedar and rose, mushroom, honey and even soy sauce.

Who knew that a glass filled with a colourless liquid could be so complicated?

Also present at the sake brewers event is Rei Amano, Executive Director at the Sasaichi Sake Brewery Co. The brewery’s signature bottle of junmai sake stands out as a lovely lavender colour, like the sky just before dusk. Alone amongst the sake masters, there is also the President of the Shirayuri Winery, which has been producing European-style wines in Japan since 1938.

Sake Pairings at The Sushi Bar

From a classic “tekka maki” (tuna roll) to The Sushi Bar’s signature “salmon skin healthy roll”, which includes grilled salmon belly, and two types of radishes rolled up in rice paper, everything on the food menu at The Sushi Bar can be paired well with sake.

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To learn more about the types of sakes City Pass Guide sampled at the master sake brewers event, head to The Sushi Bar where you can sample Junmai sakes from both Sasaichi and the Shichiken breweries. They can be purchased in a 300 ml carafe or a 1.8l bottle for VND 1,620,000 and VND 2,160,000, respectively.

If sake is not to your liking you can try your luck with 11 options for shochu, which are Japanese spirits made out of rice, wheat, potatoes or plums. Classic beer options such as Sapporo, Heineken and Tiger are also available. And for the alcohol-free? Soft drinks and free-flow green tea are always on hand.

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