To most, sake is something kitschy to accompany sushi, served warm to mask its flavours. Premium sake, however, is served chilled and it can be as dynamic as a fine bottle of wine.

In Japan, sake refers to all alcoholic beverages, In the West, it is commonly referred to as Japanese rice wine.

Sake is an oddity in the booze world. It is created using a unique parallel fermentation process including both yeast and mould (koji) to fully ferment the complex starches of the rice. The brewing process takes one to two months and the drink is often aged six or more months. There is only one other spirit in the liquor world that uses this parallel fermentation method and that’s sour mash bourbon. But note that sake is not distilled and despite being referred to as rice wine, some argue it is part of the beer family.

Sake is made from polished rice —the more polishing done to the rice kernels the better the quality of sake. Polishing removes the layers of oil and protein from the rice grain. The cheaper varieties have less polishing and use a lower quality of rice with more proteins and oils that add unwanted flavours.

Most sake sitting on the shelves in Alberta is lower quality, brewed in California using a poorer quality rice than the high-end Japanese brews.

Canada’s first and only sake brewery was opened January 2007 by Masa Shiroki, a Japanese-born entrepreneur, on Vancouver’s Granville Island. To say Masa is a sake geek might be an understatement. Shiroki imports top-of-the-line Japanese sakes to Canada and sources the best Junmai rice for his own line. His own Osake sakes are hand-pressed and hand-bottled and unlike most sakes we see in Calgary, they are unpasteurized, preservative-free and have no distilled liquor added (some are even unfiltered, which is unique). The Osake sakes are delicate, fruity beverages that differ from the less-than-appetizing selections that dominate Calgary’s liquor stores.

Osake has three sakes in the province. The Junmai prefix on the labels means they are pure rice sakes with no additives.

Osake Junmai Nama Genshu (18 per cent) — This is a fragrant sake; rich, creamy and big enough to be paired with the stinkiest blue cheeses or the fattiest of seafood.

Osake Junmai Nama (15 per cent) — This sake has big notes of fresh fruit. Suggested pairings include melons, fresh fruit and, of course, sushi.

Osake Junmai Nama Nigori (14 per cent) — This cloudy, unfiltered sake is built for spicy foods. This is my favourite of the bunch and a style that’s hard to find in Canada.

Serve all these fine sakes chilled in a wine glass — not warm. Osake is a niche product and only available at a couple of stores: Willow Park and Franklin Liquor Stop. If you want to try these sakes with their natural partner, sushi, Sushi Club in Kensington stocks two Osake products. For those sampling at home, think outside the bento box and pair with cheese platters, smoked fish, prosciutto, melons, braised short ribs or crab cakes. These sakes are a great conversation piece that will outshine more traditional summer drinks. Kampai!

For visitors to Vancouver, Osake is developing a range of kasu-based products — the spent grain rice left over from sake production — including hot sauce and salad dressing (hand cream may not be far behind, really).

[via Fast Forward Weekly]