SINGAPORE (Feb 26): The first time Eugene Wong drank sake, he thought it tasted horrible. It was at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Singapore and the alcohol felt rough and pungent on his palate. Maybe it was such a shock as Wong was a dedicated beer drinker, with a soft spot for Stella Artois. More likely, the sake was not stored well, he reckons in retrospect.
Today, more than a decade on, Wong is a certified sake professional and sommelier, spending most of his days tasting and promoting Japanese fermented rice wine. What started out as a gastronomical diversion has turned into a full-time passion as well as a growing enterprise for the 37-year-old.
Wong waded back into the world of sake as he loved eating Japanese food, especially sushi and sashimi. One day, a Japanese friend introduced him to a bottle of Kikuzakari Daiginjo from a tiny brewery in mountainous Nagano, three hours north of Tokyo. “It was really pure and very aromatic, with notes of lilies and red apples,” he says. “And, it had a very smooth, long and elegant finish. Very sexy.” Wong was seduced.
He got in touch with the 173-year-old brewery, Shinshuumeijyou Shuzo, and managed to order a few cases. Wong found the sake paired well with local cuisine, such as Cantonese food, and shared it with friends who overwhelmingly gave it the two thumbs up. In 2014, on a family holiday to Japan, he made a detour to -Nagano to meet Kyoji Takizawa-san, the president and brew master, who graciously showed him around the brewery, which only has six full-time staff. Wong then began importing Kikuzakari into Singapore on a small scale. “It flies under the radar but has won 11 gold medals in Japan in the last 15 years,” he notes.
Wong (left) and his wife (far right) with Takizawa-san (second from left) at the 173-year-old Shinshuumeijyou Shuzo brewery in Nagano
At the time, Wong had a full-time job doing regional marketing for an international lifestyle brand. His sake start-up, named Mr Otaru after a seaside village in Hokkaido that he and his family holidayed at and loved, was a hobby. Then, at the end of 2015, as fate would have it, Wong was at a corporate event that featured a sake master class led by John Gauntner, widely recognised as the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert. There was a food and sake pairing competition where the participants, numbering over 100, had to pair nine different sakes with food such as spaghetti bolognaise, chicken rice and egg tarts. Wong won the contest and the opportunity to attend a course with Gauntner in Japan that would make him a certified sake professional.
So, in January 2016, Wong spent six wintry days in Tokyo and Kyoto, learning all about sake from Gauntner, an American who has been designated a “sake samurai” by the Japan Sake Brewers Association. This included the importance of rice — there are no less than 100 varieties designated as sake rice — and tours of breweries that rarely open their doors to -outsiders. He -returned all fired up to be an advocate of Japan’s national tipple and to build up Mr Otaru into a purveyor of premium craft sake.
There are about 100 varieties of rice designated as sake rice
Business in Japan
The challenge was to find names that were not mass-market brands, such as Dassai, or those found on supermarket shelves. One hurdle was the sheer number of producers. There are currently about 1,240 active breweries in Japan, most small in size, producing less than 100 kilo litres a year. The other hurdle was the lingua franca: Wong only knew a smattering of Japanese words.
However, that did not deter him. Armed with Google Translate, he would type in his questions on his phone and then show the Japanese translations to the brewery representative. The brewery guy would do the reverse with his own translation app. It sapped up a lot of time but his Japanese counterparties must have been swayed by his earnestness and genuine interest. “When we talked, it was always about the flavours or the rice they used. Not about numbers or how many cases I would take,” he says.
Beyond that, Wong discovered that in true Japanese fashion, sake makers were concerned about how he was going to look after and sell their products. “They want reassurance that the customer will taste their sake the way it is meant to be tasted,” he says. That meant serving the sake at the right temperature and storing it under the right conditions along the entire supply chain right through to delivery. Doing business in Japan, he learnt, revolved around trust and personal relationships.
Aside from Kikuzakari, Mr Otaru distributes Isichi sake, a boutique label that Wong came across at a trade show. Isichi is made by a small brewery called Kumaya Shuzo which is in Okayama, a prefecture in southwest Japan known for its omachi variety of rice. This strain has a bolder, grainier flavour compared with yamada nishiki, a softer, more delicate type of sake rice favoured by the vast majority of brewers.
Wong was taken by how unique Isichi tasted. “Okayama weather tends to be warmer and milder than, say, Tokyo, so the sake is more earthy,” he says. Aside from omachi rice, the brewery uses another less common strain called asahi. In general, Isichi sake tends to be on the dry side of the spectrum. What Wong likes about craft brewers such as Kumaya Shuzo is that the sake is designed to cater to the local cuisine and the micro-climate. “They really brew just for the local market,” he says. Sales of Isichi to other parts of Japan, for example, are limited, which makes it uncommon beyond Okayama and pretty rare outside Japan.
Through Kumaya Shuzo, he was introduced to another small brewery in the Okayama area called Shiragiku Shuzo. “The brewing circle is really small there and everyone knows and is supportive of each other,” he says. Dating back to 1886, its sake is named Taiten Shiragiku after the shiragiku flower, a white chrysanthemum that starts to bloom in autumn.
What stands out with this 132-year-old brewery is that it has revived an almost-extinct strain of rice distantly related to yamada nishiki. This gives its sake the fruitiness often associated with yamada nishiki plus a deeper, earthier flavour from the locally regrown rice. “It’s a great choice for people looking for something a little different and goes great with smoky, grilled dishes,” Wong says, adding that the sake has developed a bit of a cult following even outside Japan.
Rock star dreams
Mr Otaru is currently the exclusive supplier of these three sake labels. Bottles are sold online via the website and directly to small, independent bars and restaurants such as The Flying Squirrel in Amoy Street, one of the first to stock his sake. Wong is a long-time friend of musician Jack Ho, who co-owns The Flying Squirrel with his wife Angeline Leong and fellow musician Rai Kannu.
Back in the late 1990s and early noughties, Wong used to play electric and bass guitar with Ho and Kannu (who are known professionally as Jack and Rai) at bars such as Wala Wala. “I harboured rock star dreams,” laughs Wong, who is self-taught and played on a few commercially released albums. However, those aspirations took a backseat after Wong embarked on a career in public relations, followed by marketing in the luxury goods sector. After close to nine years in the latter, he decided to do something on his own.
“It’s been tough starting from absolute zero. I had no prior experience in F&B, no reputation and minimal contacts,” concedes Wong, who has two children, aged eight and four. However, response has been encouraging, with growing interest from corporates for sake appreciation events and sake-pairing dinners. “Plus, the cool thing about being the alcohol guy is people are very happy to see you,” he laughs.
Wong hopes to open Singaporeans’ taste buds to the rice wine beyond Japanese food. “Sake is light and a bit sweet, so it goes very well with salty and oily food,” he says. He advocates trying the tipple with local food such as char kueh teow or chye tau kueh. He also feels it pairs well with Italian and French food. Aside from that, Wong is banking on premium sake gaining appeal once people realise it is a relatively clean and price-friendly drink. High-quality sake has no preservatives unlike wine, which tends to have sulphites. Nor does it have added sugar. Sake is also good value for money, as it can be 30% to 50% cheaper than wine, Wong points out.
Today, Wong, is a certified sake sommelier, one of a large handful in Singapore. This month, he journeys to Japan to complete his Advanced Sake Professional certification, which will include a tasting exam. His ultimate goal is to be a sake samurai, which is the pinnacle of recognition within the industry. For a guy who once thought sake was horrible, that is probably the highest homage he could give to the drink.
Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, usually finds inspiration after a glass of wine. Or sake.
Taiten Shiragiku Junmai Daiginjo Omachi
Sake is technically not a wine or liquor. It is brewed, not distilled, putting it closer to beer than wine. While there is a significant beer and wine drinking culture in Singapore, sake appreciation is largely tied to the realm of Japanese gastronomy. “Don’t be afraid of sake,” says Wong. Yes, the labels are all in Japanese, which makes them hard to decipher. However, drinkers can look out for these cues to get an idea of what’s in the bottle.
The first is the rice polishing ratio. The lower the ratio, the higher the grade of sake, as this means more husk has been milled away, leaving the sake cleaner and lighter-bodied. “Sixty per cent and under is generally a good place to start,” he says. “It is value for money as it is on the more elegant side and you get the more aromatic tones.”
Sake with a rice polishing ratio of 60% is referred to as ginjo. Scour the label for the Japanese characters 吟醸. Super premium sake, meanwhile, is made with rice that has been polished to 50% and below. This highest grade of sake is known as daiginjo or 大吟醸.
Next, look for the sake meter value, a number that indicates how sweet or dry the alcoholic beverage will be. It is a measure of how much of the sugar created from the starch in the rice was converted to alcohol and how much remained to contribute to sweetness. A more positive number (for example +10) suggests a drier sake, while a negative number (for example -10) would convey the converse.
The percentage figure at the back of the bottle refers to the alcohol content. This generally ranges from 15% to 17%. Good-quality sake is typically made of just four ingredients: rice, yeast, water and distilled alcohol. The last is optional. If the brewer opts not to add alcohol, banking wholly on fermentation to create alcohol, the sake is known as junmai or 純米. “This sake tends to be a bit heavier and deeper in flavour,” notes Wong.
Finally, hot or cold? Premium sake should be drunk chilled, especially ginjo and daiginjo. “The magic is in the aroma, lightness, elegance. Heat masks a lot of it,” he says. And unlike wine, sake should be drunk young. As a rule of thumb, the shelf life is about two years from the bottling date. It should be kept under 20°C and out of sunlight. Once opened, it should ideally be consumed within seven to 10 days.
If you want something light, Wong recommends the Kikuzakari Daiginjo ($95). It has scents of pineapple and apple, a +3 dryness and a nice finish. He finds that it goes well with steamboat.
Isichi Junmai Ginjo Asahi is made with the less common asahi rice variety
If you prefer something bold, try the Ishichi Junmai Ginjo Asahi ($65). The sake, which clinched the 2017 Fine Sake Awards Gold Medal, has a nice round body with a strong umami flavour that makes you want to tear into a juicy steak, says Wong.
For something different, he suggests the Taiten Shiragiku Junmai Daiginjo Omachi ($99). The sake won gold at the Annual Japan Sake Awards from 2015 to 2017 consecutively. Wong says: “It has an earthy, dry flavour and is wonderful with mushrooms, grilled vegetables and soup dishes such as yong tau foo or kake udon.”
This article appeared in Issue 819 (Feb 26) of The Edge Singapore.
Subscribe to The Edge at https://www.theedgesingapore.com/subscribe