The Japanese rice brew used to be a hard sell. Not any more, writes Jane Faulkner.
For more than a decade, Andre Bishop has dreamed of the day Australian diners would drink and love sake the way he does. To appreciate it as much as grand cru burgundy or to recognise names such as daiginjo, junmai and koshu in the way that we know sauvignon blanc and pinot noir.
He bit the bullet in the middle of last year and opened an izakaya dedicated to the drink. Kumo Izakaya, in East Brunswick, is now home to the biggest range of quality sake in Australia, complementing his other businesses, Chuji in the city and South Melbourne, and the Nihonshu sake and shochu bar, also in the city.
Sake can, just like wine, be very, very different.
''It's always been my secret plan to get more people to drink more sake,'' he says. ''That's what it's been about ever since I started with Robot [Bishop's first bar]. It was about taking sake out of the Japanese restaurant environment and putting it into a bar environment so that others could appreciate it.
''Now, 11 years later, I've been able to build my sake temple at last.''
Supporting that ideal is Bishop's San Francisco-based friend Todd Eng, aka the Sake Man, who helped compile Kumo's impressive list. Asked why sake has been slow to take off, Eng says Australians and Americans have similar misconceptions. ''They have pigeonholed it for one reason or another as being a particular drink and having a very specific taste.''
Australia's introduction has also been through mass-produced cheap sake, known as futsushu, which is often shockingly rough, bitter and unrecognisable from the quality stuff.
Eng says his attitude changed when a friend bought him a junmai daiginjo. ''It was unlike anything I had ever tried and all I had tried was hot, cheap sake. My immediate reaction was, 'Wow, if this is sake, what was I drinking before?'''
That was in 2000. Since then, he has been on a sake pilgrimage of sorts, learning all he can, educating others and piquing people's interest about just how good it can be.
''What we are doing at Kumo is challenging the idea that sake is just a beverage,'' he says. ''We want people to experience sake as a premium drink and that is junmai ginjo or daiginjo, which are more aromatic and refined.''
Stalwart food and beverage importers Daiwa and Jun-Pacific played a part by bringing sake into Australia in the first place but it has been largely for a Japanese audience. Only in the past five years or so has premium sake appeared in local Japanese restaurants. Taxi Dining Room started that trend, followed by Simon Denton's Izakaya Den, which he co-owns with Miyuki Nakahara and Takashi Omi. The Den's range, including its own imports, comprises about 28 bottles, seven of them premium, including the stunning Cel-24 and Shikisakura Blue. Kanochi junmai daiginjo, the most expensive, costs $170 (750ml).
Toshi Maeda, owner of Maedaya Sake & Grill in Richmond, has witnessed an increase in sales at his restaurant, as well as through his online site sakejapan.com.au.
''Four years ago, when I started sakejapan online, business was slow and the interest was from Japanese clients,'' he says. ''But now sales are up 800 per cent. I get inquiries from New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.'' And Maedaya, with its 85-strong sake list, is going gangbusters. ''Thanks to sushi, Japanese food is now accepted in Australia and that's been very important for promoting sake,'' Maeda says. ''About 75 per cent of my customers are Aussies and they are now using words about sake, saying they want to try junmai or ginjo. It's great.''
Even Dan Murphy's stocks a small range. But sake still hasn't exactly hit the mainstream, in part because of the language barrier. Labels are in Japanese and difficult to decipher. Education is fundamental for sommeliers and retailers who have never considered sake as a suitable food match other than for Japanese cuisine.
That was what Matt Young was up against despite being one of Sydney's most respected sommeliers, lately at Aria. But Young saw a gap in the way sake was promoted and sold in Australia and about 18 months ago, with partner Linda Wiss, he set up Black Market Sake, importing premium junmai sake from artisanal kura (brewers). His plan is working.
''Having a name in the industry has helped get a foot in the door in lots of places and that's not lost on me,'' he says.
He and Wiss took sake to more casual restaurants, where chefs were more cutting-edge and adventurous. All the while he used the language of wine to describe sake and talk about food matches - how koshu (aged sake) is great with cheese, or one of his favourite combos: koshu with duck consomme.
Melbourne has embraced the Black Market philosophy. Its sake is popping up in diverse places, including Provenance in Beechworth, where it complements Michael Ryan's food, which the chef describes as fragrant with Japanese flavours rather than Japanese dishes.
''When I first put sake on the list, I thought I'd never sell a bottle and I'd be drinking it instead,'' Ryan says. ''But sake is surprisingly adaptable, which is why it's on the dego [degustation] menu. People do try sake but it is very much a hand-sell.
''It will always be a niche market and that's OK. It means we can always get our hands on fantastic sake now and that's been a long time coming.''
Kumo Izakaya is hosting the Sake Master v Sommelier taste-off on March 19 as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. At the dinner, sake and wine will be served to determine what works best. Tickets $150 a head. Bookings 9388 1505.
Getting to know my ginjo
SAKE is so hot right now. Not that it should be. Served hot, that is.
This, and much more, a group of hospitality types - restaurateurs, sommeliers - and media learnt at a tasting hosted recently by the consulate-general of Japan.
Organised to increase knowledge about the production methods and classification of sake, and to raise awareness about the region of Tohoku- the premium sake area heavily affected by the earthquake and tsunami last year - it was an opportunity to go straight to the source, with two Japanese brewers on hand to offer insights and answer questions.
Also on hand was Andre Bishop, self-confessed Japanophile and owner of several Melbourne haunts. He knows a bit about sake, does Andre.
A rundown of classifications kicked things off - very important to know your ginjo and daiginjo from your junmai and honjozo, obviously. It's all to do with the level of rice polishing. Then there's the brewing methods - koshu, genshu, namazake, nigorizake, taruzake and even sparkling sake. If you're perplexed by that, had you been there I could have welcomed you to my world. My brain started to hurt somewhere between multiple parallel fermentation and saccharification.
Thankfully, we soon moved to the tasting, of two brackets of four sakes, some matched with canapes to highlight how food and sake matching is as important as it is in the wine world.
Ranging from the lighter styles through to rich, complex examples, this isn't the sake you'd normally find on the dinner tables of Japan. One example, a daiginjo from Saura's Urakasumi brewery, in the Miyagi prefecture, had been brought from Japan for the tasting. It's even hard to obtain in its homeland, we were told.
If three lessons were learnt from the worthy event, the first was that sake can, just like wine, be very, very different (and confusing); the second is that the right food can take it to a new level; the third is that the Japanese take it very, very seriously.