Discovering sake at Hyper Japan

Sake is one of those drinks that I've never really got along with, particularly when served warm alongside a bento box or the like (I'm looking at you Little Tokyo, Leeds).

But as any serious drinkie knows (what is the drinks equivalent of 'foodie'?) it's all about trying the good stuff before making your judgement.

Hyper Japan at Earls Court is a strange event, mixing manga and video games with sushi and dim sum - expect to see a line of fully costumed geishas walk past followed by a pack of rucksacked teenagers. But in many ways this randomness makes perfect sense, with the old and new facets of Japanese culture both getting some sort of a look in.

The sake tasting was a little bit badly organised and a bit crowded, being effectively a big horseshoe of 11 taster tables around a centre square. The entrance was crowded with people and the first few tables we were reaching over others to get our mini shot glass sized tasters (with an average of three sakes per table that was more than enough).

Once we got a bit of space the experience was much more enjoyable, passing from table to table hearing about the history and method of the sake and tasting some truly outstanding examples.

The thing that really stuck with me was the depth and variety of flavour that can be derived from something as simple as a grain of rice. People talk about rice in beer as an adjunct but here it was singing the solo, and giving a bravura performance.

We tried sparkling sakes, re-fermented in the bottle just like champagne, which had flavours from aromatic peach skin and apricot stone to sweet pear and sharp green apple, all derived from rice and nothing else. Freshly bottled strong sakes in the 14-17% abv range were hotter and less forgiving but also had a real depth of flavour, often with a floral, orange blossom aroma - some gave off banana and honey in the flavour whereas others veered towards citrus, all were impressive and eye opening.

The sparkling sakes I can see becoming a real crowd pleaser as they're sweet and fun on the whole, with approachable flavours not too far removed from a decent prosecco.

Of the traditional sakes it was the Maibijin Junmaishu which really stood out, with beautifully varied flavours and aromas that on paper shouldn't work, but in practice were stunning. The aroma was butterscotch and banana like an aged rum might give off, but then the flavour developed into something sharper, more acidic, with flavours of stewed citrus fruit and that ever present orange blossom honey in the background. Floral, woody, perfectly balanced and massively complex yet not too challenging for a newcomer like me to enjoy.

Stunning, though at £50 a pop I resisted the urge to bring a bottle home.

It was a fantastic event and one which has certainly peaked my interest in a drink I might previously have dismissed as flat and boring - oh how I was wrong - sake can be subtle, but it's never one dimensional.

Oh, and all of the sakes we drank were chilled or served at room temp. The consensus I came away with is only heat the cheap stuff. Which makes sense.

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