• Mariko Schmitz

The drink for the gods.

SAKE shutterstock 1935487507

Mariko Schmitz is one of Germany's few sake sommelières certified in Japan. To all those who get wanderlust for Japan when the Olympics start in Tokyo in July, she advises to refine the evening with sake.

My mother is Japanese, my father German. So I grew up in both cultures. When I first started visiting the izakayas - the Japanese pubs - I always noticed the dark glass 1.8-liter sake bottles lined up on shelves and large refrigerators like promises. And although I speak Japanese well, I couldn't understand their exotic labels. I wondered what secrets lay behind them.

I began to taste the sake - and was overwhelmed. What a wealth of aromas! What a variety of flavors! Yet sake actually consists of only three ingredients: Rice, water and yeast. But I perceived the most diverse nuances. I tasted pear and mango, green melon and papaya, a hint of sweet potato, even shiitake mushrooms. I wanted to learn more about it and dove deep into the world of sake.

To appreciate sake it is important to know how it is made. So much handwork, tradition, technique and knowledge goes into it! On my visits to Japan, I traveled to remote prefectures. I got off the train in small villages, where the train only stops a few times a day, and visited the old sake breweries - places from which a magic emanates. Only about four percent of sake comes from the big breweries. All the other varieties are made in craft breweries, and each sake has its own unique character and flavor.

The craft of sake brewing is hard and, in centuries-old tradition, is practiced almost exclusively by men. They receive visitors in their time-honored wooden houses, where the sake often matures to perfection in cedar barrels that are almost as old and no longer made at all. In the autumn after the rice harvest, when the brewing season begins, the toji, the brewmaster, hangs a huge green cedar ball outside the gates. When the ball turns brown, everyone in the village knows that the fresh sake is ready to be tasted.

Originally, sake was used as an offering to the nature gods of the Shinto religion to give thanks for the blessings of the harvest. Later, sake was reserved only for the imperial court and monasteries. There is still a small Shinto shrine in every sake brewery. The workers bow when they pass it.

In general, sake is a symbol of Japanese life culture and tradition. No measuring jug or magnum bottle: the Japanese prefer to enjoy sake in many sips from small vessels. In the imperial city of Kyoto, I loved wandering through hidden antique shops to grab old hand-painted ochokos, small ceramic cups, or kirikos, small hand-cut glasses, for my collection.

If you're tasting sake for the first time, I recommend: Buy three different types of sake at a Japanese deli and cook up some umami-rich dishes: Pasta with pesto, Bavarian knuckle of pork, paella with mussels, sushi or grilled Kobe beef - anything goes. You'll find that sake tastes different every time, depending on whether you pair it with something sweet, salty, or umami. If you don't want to cook, snacks will do: salt small dishes with soy sauce, cheese with lots of umami, and chocolate mousse for sweetness.

Premium sake is best drunk chilled. But also try sake at room temperature or slightly heated. You can even let the heated sake cool down again and then taste it again - I bet you'll have a completely new taste experience every time. By the way, sake is very digestible - a hangover is rare. Why? Sake is 80 percent water. It has only one-third the acidity of wine, contains no sulfites, no preservatives, and its histamine level is very low.

Now do you see why sake excites me so much? I consider myself an advocate for this liquid cultural asset and my work is also to help save the small sake breweries from extinction. Join me and enjoy the Olympics with some Ochokos sake. But be careful: it could be the beginning of a love affair! ®

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