Sake Restaurant is one of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane’s top tier restaurants. Serving up beautiful Japanese fusion dishes against Melbourne’s waterfront on Southbank, locals associate the venue with fresh and delectable sushi and a cold, refreshing Japanese beer on a badly Melbourne night.
On the other hand, whiskey is associated with the hills of Scotland or Ireland – where a stiff drink marks the occasion of a hard days’ work. It is an usual coupling – Japan and whiskey – but in a very short period of time Japans whiskey trade has quickly risen to the top. Whilst still in its infancy compared to the established Sake industry, Japanese whiskey has been included to its already impressive drinks selection at Sake – along with sake, sochu and boutique Japanese beers.
Here at The Modern Connoisseur, we were invited to meet Head Bar Manager John Ross-Jones and explore the drinks on offer at Sake (including three special Japanese whiskeys), and we must say that it was a surprising journey of the tastebuds.
Tanktakatan Shochu and iced green tea matched with Edamame
Her: The The Tanktakatan Shochu was smooth but almost vodka-like in flavour. It lacked any harsh backlash in its profile, and tasted its best once it was mildly diluted by the ice. It was a strong, but great way to kick off the meals which was matched with warm edamame. The iced green was a non-alcoholic alternative to kicking off our beverage and it was light and aromatic. The flavours of the macha were subtle and not overbearing or bitter.
His: Edamame is a simple but vital starter dish to any Japanese dining experience. Matched with the Edamame was a chilled Shochu called Tankakatan (produced in Asahikawa, Hokkaido) and contains the juice from red shiso leaves, dates and white liquor. The flavours were quite strong – most notably a hint of peach – and were well matched with the soft flavours of the Edamame. The Tankakatan had a very crisp taste on the back of the palate, which could be perhaps attributed to high quality local water used for the brewing process.
Amabuki Daiginjo matched with Kingfish Jalapeno
Her: The Amabuki has an alcohol by volume percentage of 16.5%, and is a rice wine with a distinct floral aroma. The drink itself is sweet with a slight kick at the end which, when combined with the kingfish, is like a battle in the mouth for which element will prevail. The outcome is that each party neutralises each other, and you are left with a sweet, almost fruity, linger on the palate.
His: The Kingfish Jalapeno is one of my favorite fusion dishes at Sake – it packs a lot of heat. The heat of the Jalapeno elevated the natural flavours of the King Fish and the chilled Amabuki Daiginjo Sake was a much needed relief.
The entire sake selection here is served chilled and is a testament to Sakes mission seek and source the best sakes on offer. The Amabuki Daiginjo was a favourite of mine with its exceptionally light and very smooth taste on the back of the palate. I noted light floral and sweet notes within the beverage.
Hitachino Nest White Ale matched with Panko Rice Balls & Shumai
Her: What makes the Hitachino Nest White Ale so special is the exciting ingredients included in the brewing process – coriander, orange peel and nutmeg! We must admit that it sounded more like an exotic salad than it did a beer, but Jones explained to us that the brewers achieved the creation of this drink by adding the ingredients early into the brewing process. The result? A refreshing punch-like beer without the sweetness. Think fizzy and fruity inside a beer. The panko fried rice-balls are a nice filler or snack if you’re just out for a few drinks on a balmy Melbourne evening and feeling a bit nibbly without wanting to spend the bigger bucks. The star of this dish was the wasabi mayonnaise – it has a really refreshing kick to it!
The prawn dumplings (shumai) were super delicious – meaty juicy and packed with flavour, the accompanying Jalapeno soy sauce was a beautiful combination.
His: Japanese beer history is as odd as it is political in nature. In 1925, the Japanese government – in a bid to limit beer consumption – imposed a huge tax levy on brewers who couldn’t produce more than two million barrels of beer. The policy had limited success, effectively pushing out micro brewers and paving the way for the likes of Sapporo and Asahi to flourish. The exclusion, however, didn’t include non-malt beers and so the 1980s saw a number of Japanese micro brewers and sake brewers releasing non-malt beers, which are still popular today. In a knee-jerk reaction, the Japanese government reduced the threshold and kickstarted the emergence of micro brewers.
Sake currently stocks three micro beers from a 200 year old Sake brewer – Kiuchi Brewery. Tasting the Hitachine Nest White Ale was unique and truly special. It was light on the palate but packs a surprising flavour profile. This beer contains a medium citrus flavour as orange peel are included within the brewing process, as well with coriander and nutmeg.
The light and refreshing white ale was matched perfectly with Sake’s take on Izakaya-style food. The battered panko rice ball had a delectable crunch with a creamy mushroom filling. Equally impressive was the Shumai prawn dumplings.
Kozaemon Junmai Yamadanishiki Banshu served with Wagyu Teriyaki
Her: The Kozaemon Junmai Yamadanishiki Banshu (now that’s a mouthful!) is a sweet, full-bodied sake made from the same rice as the Amabuki Daiginjo (second course). It was aromatic, rich, sweet and is a really beautiful sake – perhaps even one of the best sakes I’ve ever had. Despite its sweetness, it is the perfect combination to the wagyu beef, which is very dense and also sweet. The Banshu just cuts through the density of the meal and sweetness of the barley that is served with the meat.
His: Red wine has always been the ‘go to’ when matched with red meat. But over the years, it has been appreciated that a selection of sakes can also be a good match with red meat. Jones’ selection for the Wagyu Teriyaki was an aged Kozaemon Junmai Yamadanishiki Banshu. The same rice is used as in the Daiginjo but this drink only uses the natural ingredients to make sake – polished rice, water and Koji. This sake was noticeably dry and I found to be heavier in taste.
The dryness of the sake was matched exceptionally well with the wagyu pieces. Complementing the wagyu was a barley grain that elegantly pushed out the meal without compromising the start of the dish – the wagyu.
Kokuto Umeshu served with Yuzu tart
Her: This Choya, or plum wine, was incredibly sweet and definitely a dessert wine. Sweet and full-bodied the Kokuto is served with the ume plum, which was firm but very sweet – much sweeter than the bitter ume plum I had in a restaurant in Japan! Once having a bite of the alcohol-soaked ume plum, the flavour of the ume is immediately evident in the beverage.
His: Plum wine was selected to match the Yuzu tart. The Kokuto Umeshu is another world class distiller from Choya, which infuses the plum wine with brown sugar, dark rum & black vinegar. The brewing process can take up to an excess of six months to age – the longer the duration of the fermentation, the sweeter it becomes. Served on the rocks with an ume plum, this dessert beverage was delightfully sweet with a sharp impact on the palate.
From the beverages tasted on the night, the Kokuto Umeshu was my favourite. It was equally matched well with the Yuzu tart, which had a strong lemon curd finish.
Nikka Whisky flight – Nikka from the barrel, Nikka 12yo Miyagikyo, Nikka 15yo Yoichi
Her: I’m going to admit this straight up – I’m not a whiskey drinker. Try and try as I may, even the incredible whiskeys on offer at Sake could not convert me – much to the dismay of my co-workers when I described the beverages on offer. I started with the Nikka barrel, and I was immediately hit with the scent of toffee and that distinct whiskey scent. It had a real kick to it that left a lasting aftertaste on my palate, with mild hints of spice.
Next was the Nikka 12 year old whiskey that had a mild aroma of sherry that immediately reminded me of a time long ago when my mothers friends used to give us a little cap of sherry after dinner. It was full of flavour, with oak barrel and smoke the most evident profiles coming to the forefront of the palate. I must admit by this point I threw in the towel with the whiskey tasting – whilst I can appreciate the complexities and beauty of the beverage and craft, it was not for me. Give me a umesha or Junmai any day of the week!
His: Jones (whether having extremely good foresight or was a sucker for a great deal) had ordered a number of Japanese whiskey bottles from a representative without consent from his boss! Whilst ironing out any issues with his boss, it later transpired that Japanese whiskey had received some positive press and has been considered one of the best in the world.
Jones considers the founder of Nikka whiskey (Masataka Taketsuru) to be the founding father of Japanese whiskey. Masataka learnt all there was to know about whiskey in the early 1920s by working for free with a few distilleries in the hills of Scotland. He later returned to Japan (with a wife named Rita) and set out to develop his own whiskey.
Starting with the Nikka from the barrel, I found it to be easy and neat on the palate. With an alcohol content of 51.4% there is enough depth –including a hint of spice – to be appreciated for both the seasoned and beginner drinker.
The Nikka 12 year old Miyagikyo was powerful but allowed itself to be slightly fruity on the palate. There was a light tanginess and I had enjoyed this well-balanced whiskey. The oak aromas were also very intoxicating to experience. Followed with the Nikka 15 year old Yoichi was a little too much for my palate – going straight to my head. Not being the everyday drinker of whiskey, I couldn’t identify the claimed flavours of subtle fruit with hints of nut from this expansive bottle.
Leaving Sake’s whiskey masterclass and sampling other fine liquor, it was clear that Sake is exceptional in matching food and alcohol from an array of Japanese liquors. The knowledge that Jones possesses is exceptional, and he carries a strong passion and enthusiasm in sourcing the best Japaneses liquor to be enjoyed as part of the Sake experience.
The Modern Connoisseur dined as a guest of Sake Restaurant compliments of Thrive PR + Communication. All opinions are fair and true to the contributors experience.