Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Sake is not just for sushi. Master of Sake John Gauntner talks pairing possibilities from cheese to calamari

Published:  10 May, 2018

The next time you order oysters in a restaurant, why not ask for a glass of sake?

It may not be the first thing you look for on the drinks menu, but Japan’s national drink is more versatile than people might think. Since Japan’s breweries turned their attention to overseas markets such as the UK, amid declining domestic consumption, sales of premium sakes have more than doubled.

It’s this revival in the UK that’s making sake the coolest drink of the Summer. Just as craft gin enjoyed the limelight last year, sake – served chilled in a wine glass - is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to wine, turning business around for Japan’s 1,800 sake breweries.

Having first discovered sake on New Year’s Day 1989 – an encounter that led me to study to become the only non-Japanese certified Master of Sake Tasting in the world and write five books on the subject, it’s thrilling to see sake enjoying this well-deserved attention.

It’s not surprising that increased sales of sake are largely being driven by a growing number of restaurants serving the rice wine. For centuries sake has developed to go well with Japanese food. Sake displays a remarkably broad range of flavours that manage to coax out the inherent textures and aromas of food - whether it’s fish, meat or vegetables. That’s why sake is so accommodating when it comes to pairing with food from around the world. There are no overly ostentatious aspects of sake that lead to mismatches with food. Aromas, flavours and acidity are all expressed in just the right measure.

So what are the best sake-food pairings, and why do people insist food actually tastes better with sake?

Many types of sake have a creamy, rice-tinged flavour that means they showcase the taste and texture of fleshy oysters. The acidity of the sake cleanses and refreshes the palate, readying it for the next mouthful, and a subtlety sweet sake will also embrace the salinity found in many oysters.

Fried calamari is another great pairing for sake, especially with a chilled sparkling sake. Varieties with enough acidity will balance the slightly oily impact of the fried squid, and combine with the light umani of the fish to create complex flavours.

Prosciutto and cheese are also outstanding with sake. A rich, sweet sake will lure out the savoury flavours of the strong saltiness of the ham, while an aged sake that offers a full, nutty aroma deepens the flavour of cheeses such as mature cheddar, parmesan and blue cheese.

Sake also matches surprisingly well with vegetables that have a slight bitterness - such as asparagus, Brussels sprouts or arugula.

Perhaps the only mismatches are spicy food, strong sauces or overly rich and fatty dishes, which tend to overpower the subtle favours in sake.

Selecting sake is like selecting wine; every sake is different. But there are a few rules that can help you get started.

First of all, sake is made from rice, and the more the rice has been milled before brewing, the more refined the sake will be. Sake is fairly priced in that the more you pay, the better the sake – at least technically.

If you just want to remember one word about sake, make it ‘ginjo’. This indicates the sake was made with highly milled rice and with craft-laden methods.

One more word? ‘Daiginjo’ – this is a subclass of ginjo and basically ‘ginjo to die for.’

Finally, most premium sake is better off slightly chilled, like a white wine. But there are exceptions to this, and the world of warmed premium sake is one of endless fun and satisfaction.

Be very sure to expand your horizons toward other grades of sake and as many brands as you can try. That’s the best possible way to educate yourself about sake.

So the next time you find yourself ordering oysters in a restaurant, impress your friends by asking for a glass of sake. For further information on where to try sake, and suggestions for food pairings, go to the recently launched

John Gauntner is recognized as the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert. John is the only non-Japanese certified Master of Sake Tasting in the world, as administered by the Nihon Jouzo Kyoukai, or Brewing Society of Japan, the organization that, among other things, provides the majority of yeast strains to the brewing industry. He has also achieved the very difficult Sake Expert Assessor certification from Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing.