I'm sure you'll agree that nothing screams Christmas like Plum Sake. What? You've never even heard of Plum Sake?!! Fair enough, nor had I until a few years ago, but now, along with Bing Crosby, Burgundy, and Star Wars Lego, it's on my Christmas essentials list.
This sweet plum liqueur has a lovely fruity tang, stopping it from being in any way cloying. It also has some lovely almond notes and just one sip can elevate even the most glorious of mince pies to previously unimagined levels of gastronomic glory! I'm talking of course about Akashi-Tai Shiraume Ginjo Umeshu. That's a pretty impenetrable title, but if we break it down, the tale of this wonderful elixir is revealed.
As it's Japanese, we'll go right to left!
Umeshu More than a sake, this drink is an Umeshu, meaning a plum liqueur made by preserving Japanese Ume plums in sake. Traditionally Umeshu is made using distilled spirit (Shochu) but Akashi-Tai use sake for a more subtle character.
Ginjo The word sake is actually just a general term for booze in Japan, whereas the rice-based drink that we know as sake is called 'nihonshu'. There are over 70 rice varieties used for sake production, and to make the drink the brewery must mill or polish the outer layer of bran down to the starch in the centre. The degree of milling is the main signifier of quality within sake.
With a minimum degree of 40% polishing, Ginjo sake is the second highest quality level of the main styles of Sake. I'll list these different styles at the end of the blog. After polishing, they introduce the magical Koji mould (which is similar to the spores used to make blue cheese) and this converts the starch to sugar to allow fermentation. Yeast and water are now added to start this process.
Shiraume Shiraume is the beautiful, historical region near Kyoto that produces the plums.
Akashi-Tai The Yonezawa family commenced sake production in 1886 in Akashi - one of the major fishing towns in the west part of Japan. They combine tradition, uncompromising quality, and particularly since present president Kimio Yonezawa took over, innovation.
So that's Akashi-Tai Shiraume Ginjo Umeshu!
It's undoubtedly a wonderfully alternative but worthy addition to the Christmas drinks cabinet, but there's so much more to sake. Here's a quick guide to the four main styles:
Junmai The purest form of sake. Just rice, water, yeast and koji with no minimum polishing ratio, and no distilled alcohol added.
Honjozo A minimum of 30% polishing; with a small amount of distilled alcohol is added to enhance fragrance.
Ginjo As mentioned earlier, a premium sake with a minimum of 40% polishing.
Daiginjo Top quality sake with a minimum of 50% polishing. Bottles labelled Junmai Ginjo or Junmai Daiginjo have no additional distilled alcohol.
So there you have it. Everything you never knew you wanted or needed to know about sake but were afraid to ask!