New Zealanders are starting to fall in love with sake
New Zealand is known for its exceptional wine and beer, but one of the country's newest breweries is winning awards with sake.
Misconceptions surrounding sake have seen it relegated to lonely pages at the back of Japanese restaurant menus, and not many at that, but sake is beginning to gain recognition as a versatile drop.
Varieties of the drink are beginning to appear on some of the country's best restaurants and there's even a brewery in New Zealand winning awards for their products.
Sommelier Wayne Shennen says there are misconceptions and assumptions made about the rice beverage, but they're slowly being amended.
Shennen is one of just 200 Advanced Sake Professionals worldwide, a certification from the Sake Education Council in the United States.
At Auckland waterfront restaurant, Ebisu, which Shennen manages, he says they sell at least one bottle a day. About two bottles were sold each month when he started in 2014.
"Because [sake] is something I'm certified in, it's a focus.
"There was already great product in the venue, just no confidence in making recommendations."
Shennen says sake is more versatile than wine when it comes to food pairing and it can be consumed warm or cold depending on the variety and personal preference.
While many consider sake rice wine, the brewing process is more closely aligned to brewing beer. Shennen says it's in a class of its own, there's no need to compare sake to anything else.
"It's a beer made from rice that should be treated like a wine," he explains.
People often try it once and decide they don't like it. But that's like tasting a bad chardonnay and deciding all wine is not tasty, he says.
Various sakes can carry fruity and floral flavours or hints of spices or grains.
Three of the sakes on Ebisu's menu are made in Queenstown by Zenkuro, New Zealand's first and only brewery.
The South Island business has only been producing sake for about two years and has already earned accolades for its work at the London Sake Challenge, last year taking home gold and silver medals for two nigori and shizuku shibori varieties.
Head brewer, Dave Joll, took his first sips of sake 30 years ago, when he went to Japan to play rugby and attend university.
"I worked there for 15 years straight. My whole life revolves around Japanese things. I love sake, I always have, I love Japanese food and it all kind of just fits together."
Joll runs a Japanese tourism company in Queenstown, but started brewing as his "next Japanese project".
"I found that it's growing outside of Japan - not yet in New Zealand. There are breweries in Canada, Spain, the States.
"Normally you come up with ideas and people say 'get real', but this was the first time everyone was like 'great idea, sounds like fun'. So here we are."
Joll is now an Advanced Sake Professional and is working with partners Craig McLaclan and Richard Rile, who he runs the tourism company with, to bolster the business.
Zenkuro is making nigori, a coarsely filtered sweet and milky variety; shizuku shibori, the most refined drip-pressed sake; junmai-shu, the baseline 14 per cent sake; and junmai, which has a slightly higher, 16 per cent alcohol content. All are junmai, which means there's no added alcohol.
"They all have their own flavour profiles, with overlap. Some sakes obviously are junmai, some are ginjo, but there's a lot of overlap."
They're now in the process of experimenting with higher quality rice from Japan, which is usually guarded by Japanese brewers.
During an interview with Sake Today, an international trade magazine, he mentioned he'd received a delivery of the coveted rice.
"Brewers all over the world gave us a lot of feed back, asking 'how'd you get that?'"
He says sake brewers are realising there's a growing taste for sake outside of Japan.
Zenkuro's sake features on the menu at many of Auckland's top restaurants, including Josh Emett's Rata. The fine dining establishment, nearby the brewery, has been stocking the high-end shizuku shibori junmai and milky-sweet nigori sakes since October last year.
Emett is a big fan of the beverage and has used it in his cooking over the years - in marinades, desserts and dressings. His restaurant currently has a sake cocktail using Zenkuro's nigori, called Momo no Kumo, combined with vodka, creme de peche, lemon and peach bitters.
"I think Japanese cuisine is very popular in New Zealand and people often drink sake when at Japanese restaurants. The next step is to transition sake into the home... which perhaps will happen in just a matter of time," Emett says.
It's versatile when it comes to pairing it well with foods, so it's not just Japanese food that is made to match.
A final tip from the expert - if you're wanting to try some proper sake, it's best to try something with junmai or ginjo on the label as a starting point.
KEY WORDS IN THE SAKE WORLD:
Shizuku: premium, cleanest and lightest smoothest finish (low yield)
Daiginjo: made with sake rice polished to at least 50 per cent of its original weight.
Ginjo: one of the premium grades, which calls for sake rice that has been milled down to 60 per cent of its original size
Futsushu: Table sake, which is accounts for 70 per cent of all produced in the world (additives
Junmai: Means no additives or preservatives (including distilled alcohol). Junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo are sub categories.
Nigori: coarsely filtered sake, known for silky and sweeter profile.