"There are about 1,800 breweries producing more than 10,000 different sakes. All tastes are catered for, ranging from the low-grade firewater available in vending machines, through cloudy chewy brews to soft handmade sakes that slip down the throat like liquid silver"
Sake . . . isn't that the weird warm stuff I end up with when I want a bevvy in my local Japanese restaurant?
Perhaps, but forget all previous encounters and let me whisk you off to the home of sake to taste it.
Sounds good to me; where should we start?
In a sake bar in downtown Tokyo.
You get paid to research this stuff?
Too right . . . now concentrate. You are in Japan, you go out for a meal and see a row of enormous bottles of exotic booze staring at you from across the bar.
What do I do?
Just point to a label that looks nice (it'll cost you a maximum of £6). The bartender will give you a 180ml shot, usually with a smaller glass or cup to decant into. Have a sip; what do you recognise?
Always encouraging. Are you getting anything else? Unripe almonds? Papery dryness with a woody overtone?
I'm getting . . . I'm getting another glass; it's delicious.
Welcome to the wonderful world of sake. A few explanations are called for. First, sake is a not an oriental wine or distilled spirit, it is a brew made from fermented rice. There are about 1,800 breweries producing more than 10,000 different sakes. All tastes are catered for, ranging from the low-grade firewater available in vending machines, through cloudy chewy brews to soft handmade sakes that slip down the throat like liquid silver.
Is there anything that would help me through the sake jungle?
Please, ginjoshu, or ginjo for short, is the word you should use if you want to try great sake. By asking for ginjo you will raise the odds of finding delicate fragrances and flavours, rather like distinguishing between a blended whisky and a single malt.
But what does the word actually mean?
Ginjoshu is classification for sake for which the rice used has been polished until at least 40 per cent of the grain has been removed.
Seems a bit of a waste; why do they do that?
Purity is everything in good sake, and polishing removes the outer layers containing amino acids, fats and minerals until the brewer is left with the 100 per cent starch at the centre. He can then apply his expertise to producing an almost handmade product.
And where should one seek out the refined brew?
Just look for the red lantern and cloth banner of the traditional restaurants-cum-drinking dens, called izakayas. Most stock a selection of sakes and if you are lucky top-grade ginjoshu.
So how can you spot a good bar?
Just like pubs in England they come in all shapes and sizes. Judge for yourself; if it's a bit cheesy the owner probably won't be keeping his sake very well. Look out for the signs of a specialist such as stacked sake casks and a spiky cedar ball (sakabayashi) hanging from the ceiling. John Gauntner's excellent The Sake Handbook (published by Yenbooks and available on order from amazon.co.uk for £8.11) lists and reviews Tokyo's best sake bars. His top tip is Sasagin (03 5454 3715 for reservations), close to Yoyogi-Uehara train station. This well stocked bar will show you how sophisticated the world of sake quaffing can be.
Cheers! So where else should I go on the sake trail?
Acquaint yourself with the brewing process in Kobe, where there is a concentration of some of the oldest and finest breweries.
East of the city in a rather unpromising industrial area called Nara. Here, among the factories and tower blocks, you'll find seven breweries with museums. If you ask at the Kobe tourist office, they will give you a map of the area with a marked route between the karas (breweries).
Should I visit them all?
Of course, because like good sake they have different characteristics. The Kiku-Masamune and Hakutsuru have well designed displays with accompanying videos in English. The Kobe Shu-shin-kan has a terrific restaurant and a shop where you can buy local specialities - and most of the museums offer tastings.
Great, free drinks . . .
Steady on, it's not a pub crawl. Besides, be careful as sake has an alcohol content of 15 to 20 per cent.
Any suggestions if I don't visit Kobe?
If you happen to be in Kyoto, take a break from the temples and shrines and travel to the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum in Fushimi, south of the city. But bear in mind that wherever you are in Japan there will be a brewery not too far away.
What about buying sake to take home?
Visit the food halls of the large Japanese department stores.
What should I look for?
You can trust price as a measure of quality. For the smaller 720ml bottle you should pay from 1,000 yen to 4,000 yen (£5-£20); anything above that and you're buying packaging and hype. Go for brews that travel well by avoiding bottles kept in the chilled sections and steer clear of the unpasteurised sake.
While we on the subject, what is the score with the correct serving temperature?
Anything from 40F-130F (5C-55C); it all depends on the sake and personal preference. The Japanese tend to select their drinking temperature depending on the season and type of food they are eating. Only a few high-quality sakes are served hot, as it can be a way of bringing out the alcohol at the expense of the more subtle tastes. A good comparison is mulled wine, where the heat will help to disguise the taste of cheap red plonk, but still give you a satisfyingly warm buzz.
And what should I eat it with?
Like the perfect marriage of wine and cheese, sake goes brilliantly with pickles.
Booze and pickled onions sounds more like divorce to me.
No, Japanese pickling is a sophisticated art in itself. The fragrance and textures of the vegetables and fish go perfectly with robust fermented sake. For the more delicate flavours of fish and seafood you should select a softer more subtle sake. If you are in doubt, ask your barman or waiter.
It all sounds a little daunting.
Don't worry. The main thing is to dive in, try a selection and trust your own taste buds. After a few o-chokos (cups), you'll be quoting that old Japanese cliche, "I don't know much about sake but I know what I like."