THERE’S A HUGE AND TEMPTING RANGE OF SPIRITS ORIGINATING FROM ACROSS ASIA, SAYS TASH MCGILL.
THE MOST EXTREME spirit I ever tried was a lobster-infused vodka, designed for the high-end Asian market. It wasn’t a great success, but there are plenty of gold-laced spirits that aim to entice and attract a caricature of the Asian audience. But, I believe it’s always more interesting to go inside another culture, learn and understand previously unknown delights. For too many of us, our introduction to the world of Asian flavours and beverages has been cheap beer on the beach in Bali or taking a guess at the sake menu of the local Japanese joint. While there is much to be said for both approaches, there’s a world of flavour, diversity and opportunity right on our doorstep. While our smaller market means accessing a broad range of Asian spirits can be challenging, each year extends the array of choices we have here in New Zealand.
The IWSR (International Wines and Spirits Record) 2018 top ten list of best-selling spirits features primarily Indian and Asian brands across familiar categories like whisky, rum and gin. However, the best selling spirit in the world is Jinro Soju, a Korean spirit made from rice. Here, we find one of the ancient principles of civilisation – where you find a carbohydrate, crush it, brew it or distil it. Unlike sake, that is brewed and fermented, soju is distilled. Largely responsible for much of Korean drinking culture, it is generally lower in alcohol than vodka but with much more flavour.
There is much to be said for the sweet, floral and fruity notes that come from rice-based distillate or wine. In fact, while sake is more commonly known as rice wine, it’s closer to beer than anything. There are six primary types of sake, determined by the way the rice is treated and the use or absence of brewer’s alcohol. Within each of these types, myriad variations are possible depending on the region, brewer’s technique and tradition; all of which govern so much of sake production. Initially sake might be considered light and delicate, but a little time spent between the varieties shows the complexity of flavours and food matches that are possible.
Sake is best approached in the same way you might a line-up of diverse whisky or gin – it’s all the same general flavour profile but the fun is in learning the unique characteristics of each one. It’s crucial to understand the warm, funky aroma of sake comes from koji mold, a critical ingredient of the fermentation process that helps bring out the sweetness that can be found in every sake.
While sake deserves ample attention, there are other spirits deserving of your time too. Just as Japanese and Indian whiskies gently redefine a local expression of the spirit, so does Indonesian and Filipino rum. Again, local ingredients take provenance every time – so it’s rum, but not as you know it on an adventure for your tastebuds.
Tash’s top picks…
GEKKEIKAN PLUM WINE
Plum wine, or umeshu, is made from soaking green or unripe Japanese plums in shochu and sugar. Sweet and sour, umeshu can be served warm, cold or at room temperature and mixes well with green tea and cocktails. I prefer it cold over a large ice-cube.
DEWAZAKURA ICHIRO JUNMAI DAIJINJO SAKE
Junmai Daijinjo sake uses milled rice and brewer’s alcohol in the fermentation process. The result of this ‘Ginjo’ technique is a delicate style of sake that delivers surprising punch with its floral and fruity aromas. This is a sake that stands up to rich beef, seafood and umami food flavours.
24 The Korean flavour wave sweeping the Western hemisphere includes the world’s best-selling spirit, Jinro Soju. Soju is traditionally made from rice (like sake), wheat, barley or sweet potatoes, but is distilled rather than brewed. Crisp, clean and clear like vodka, it is subtly sweet. At 24% abv, it can be an excellent cocktail mixer.
BY THE DUTCH BATAVIA ARRACK
Arrack or Indonesian rum is made from 100% sugarcane molasses that gets a kickstart in the fermentation process from adding Indonesian red rice. Distilled in Indonesia and then aged in oak in Amsterdam, Batavia Arrack has citrus and chocolate notes, with plenty of oak. A great cocktail or punch rum.
GEKKEIKAN KOME TO MIZU NO SAKE SKY BLUE
A Junmai-shu sake, made only from unmilled rice, koji mold, yeast and water. Dry and with low acidity, the mellow nature of this sake allows the fruity aroma and umami character to shine through. As with most sake, it can be served at a variety of temperatures but I enjoy it most at room temperature to enjoy the full-bodied character.