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New sake sommelier at Unkai
February 6th, 2012
Rice wine is actually a misleading translation of sake, says Jelena Harms-Tisma, sommelier at the Japanese gourmet restaurant Unkai. "Sake is brewed, not made from pressed juice. So the process is much more similar to beer making than wine production."
But how exactly is the rice transformed into a high proof Japanese beverage? For sake production, brown rice is first polished to prepare it for the fermentation process. In the polishing stage, the outer layers of each grain of rice are removed. For the highest grade and most expensive types of sake, this can be up to 50 percent of the original volume. Afterwards, the rice is washed and soaked in water. Once the rice has been prepared in this manner, a yeast starter is added and the roughly 25-day fermentation process begins. In the next stage, sake often matures for up to twelve more months in tanks. "Another difference between sake and wine is that sake does not improve through long storage," explains Jelena Harms-Tisma. "But," she adds, "as with wine, with sake the quality and flavor depend on a number of different factors. The quality of the water, for instance, plays a major role, as do the climate and location of the rice field."
By the way, despite these brief instructions on sake brewing, don't try to make it yourself using the kind of rice you can buy in the store. Sake calls for a special type of rice, called sakamai.
New sake list at the Unkai
Maybe you want to know why we took you on this little journey to the world of sake production? It's simple: Jelena Harms-Tisma, who has been responsible for the wine selection at the Japanese gourmet restaurant Unkai on the 7th floor of the Grand Hotel Wien for some time, just completed her training as a sake sommelier and has developed a special sake list for the Unkai.
"I made an effort to put together an exciting cross-section from the eclectic world of sake. The list includes both exquisite premium sake as well as popular brands and the latest trends. For instance, I highly recommend the Rihaku Dreamy Clouds Junmai (0.3-liter bottle for €58.00). It's a truly delicious sake - slightly cloudy because it is unfiltered, with a fruity and nutty flavor. Another one, Tabata Shuzo Rashomon Junmai Ginjo (0.72-liter bottle for €220.00), is a real star among sakes and has been decorated with a total of twenty-two medals."
Other sakes worth tasting have what the sake sommelier grinningly describes as a "pink perfume." Hana Awake Ozeki (0.25-liter bottle for €16.80), for example, is a sparkling and pleasing sake, reminiscent of a sparkling wine, that can also be served as an aperitif with raspberry purée. "Currently there is also a trend in Japan to add fruits during the brewing process. For instance, we have the Nanbu Bijn Ume Rose on the list, a pink colored sake liqueur that contains the Japanese ume plum."
The art of drinking sake
At the Unkai, you not only get advice about the types of sake, but also how to best serve them. Sake is either drunk hot, or at body temperature, or at room temperature. "It depends on the type, but usually the cheaper types tend to be heated, less so the premium sakes," explains Jelena Harms-Tisma.
In addition, in the Land of the Rising Sun, sake is traditionally served in a small wooden box that for Europeans is a little unwieldy. "But upscale restaurants in Japan have already started serving sake in a glass," says Harms-Tisma. "And in fact we really couldn't use the traditional Japanese 'beer mugs' made of wood anyway, because in our climate the wood would distort the flavor of the sake."
If you've read enough and are ready to taste the real thing, the Unkai has a special sake tasting set waiting for you. Four types of sake are served with a selection of Japanese appetizers (€65.00 per person). And of course with all of the other traditional menus at the Unkai, you can choose between wine or sake accompaniment. Whatever you prefer, a trip to the 7th floor of the Grand Hotel Wien is more than worth your while.