Sake may not be new to Bangkok, but here’s why its time is now.
Ask any Bangkokian about sake and they’ll probably be able to tell you it’s a Japanese rice wine. They may even know their daiginjo from their honjozo. But how about its mythic status as tipple of choice for ancient gods on their 180-day drinking binges? Or its secret beautifying properties, bathed in by geisha to maintain their radiant skin?
Almost half of Japan’s sake breweries have closed since the 1980s, taking with them the ancient knowledge passed down through generations of skilled kuramoto (brewery owners) and toji (head sake brewers). Efforts to prevent further loss have seen sake exports soar. In Thailand, sales have tripled in the past decade, with producers like Shimane prefecture’s Akana Sake Brewing opening a Bangkok office back in 2017 to respond to local demand. This, too, is helping to demystify sake.
“[Some] sake labels have now started showing detailed information in English. This was rarely the case 15 years ago,” says Plowes. “The better sake importers and distributors are helping out with this as well, applying their own back labels with technical information about sake.”
As a result, he's not only importing sake, but also sake knowledge, flying in experts from Japan and recruiting translators to host educational sake events, aimed at the top level sommeliers who are looking for more interesting alcohol pairings than just wine to go with their chefs' innovative food.
Understanding the basics
Chalson agrees: “There is a growing appreciation for quality sake in Bangkok right now… The consumer base is getting more and more sophisticated and there is a visible hunger for knowledge.”
Become a sake samurai
Don't let the sake menu scare you. Brush up on your ordering skills with these must-know phrases.
Very low levels of brewer’s alcohol (distilled pure alcohol) added to enhance flavor and fragrance—considered the original brewing method.
Seimaibuai: At least 70-percent.
Taste: Lighter, drier, and less acidic than other types, with a mild fragrance. Often sweet, soft, earthy and complex.
Good for: Pairing with a range of dishes, including Western food. Enjoy warm (36-45 degrees C) or chilled.
Pure sake, brewed with only rice, water, yeast and koji—no added alcohol. Other types of sake can also be junmai if they contain no added alcohol or additives.
Seimaibuai: Not legally specified, but usually 70-percent minimum.
Taste: Full, rich body, with a subdued aroma and a higher-than-average acidity.
Good for: Hardcore sake fans; pairing with food. Enjoy chilled (5-10 degrees C); room temperature; or warm (45 degrees C).
High quality, labor intensive sake that is fermented with special yeast at colder temperatures than lower grades. Can be made with or without (ginjo-junmai) added alcohol.
Seimaibuai: At least 60-percent (highly-milled), often with additional alcohol added.
Taste: Delicate, smooth, complex and light; often fruity or floral and aromatic with a soft finish.
Good for: Everyone—these tend to be crowd pleasers. Usually served chilled (around 10 degrees C—any colder and you might lose the delicate aroma and taste).
Highest quality sake, represents the pinnacle of the craft. Brewers use their best rice, highest polishing rate and often smaller tanks for tighter regulation and consistent high quality. Can be made with or without (daiginjo-junmai) added alcohol.
Seimaibuai: Around 50-percent, though sometimes as high as 35-percent (very highly milled).
Taste: Light, fragrant, slightly sweet, complex yet natural tasting, with a soft acidity.
Good for: Special occasions; beginners as it is easy to drink. Usually served chilled (around 10 degrees C).
Other important terminology
Nama – unpasteurized sake.
Nigori – unfiltered or coarsely filtered sake.
Happo – sparkling sake.
Koshu – aged sake.
Tokubetsu – applied to Junmai to specify a minimum 60-percent seimaibuai.
Bangkok's new breed of sake bar
Stopping short of a flight to Tokyo, this sleek sake bar’s your surest bet for making like a Japanese salaryman. Untuck your shirt, loosen your tie and let the passionate staff guide you into the wonderful world of rice wine—more than 90 bottles of the good stuff.
Park Lane, Sukhumvit Soi 63 (Ekkamai), 02-382-0131. Open Mon-Sat 5pm-midnight
At 100 labels, the collection of Rain Hill’s bottle shop puts it in the class of the city’s finest sake establishments. They often host tastings.
2/F, Rain Hill, Sukhumvit Rd., 02-258-4975. Open Mon-Sat 11am-8pm
Chalked up on a board, there are 16 labels of sake sold by the bottle, ranging from B1,800-4,900, and 10 by the glass from B200-380.
9:53 Community Mall, 124 Sukhumvit Soi 53, 02-115-2944. Open Mon-Sat 5pm-1am
Chef Chet Adkins knows his Japanese-style skewers, but you could delete Jua’s food menu and it would hold up as a respectable booze den. His business partner, photographer Jason Lang, is an expert on sake and ensures the bar remains well stocked—hence why Charoenkrung’s party set clamor to get near that smooth, smooth terrazzo counter.
672/49 Charoenkrung Soi 28, 02-103-6598. Open Mon-Sat 6pm-midnight; Sun 5-10pm.