A third Australian has achieved the highest honour possible in the global sake industry, that of Sake Samurai.
The Japan Sake Brewers Association recently named Yukino Ochia, a sake educator and wholesaler based in Sydney, as the country's first female to hold the title.
There is no equivalent qualification in wine, nor beer. Unlike a Sommelier or a Cicerone, becoming a Samurai is not a matter of studying and tasting and sitting an exam.
Champions of industry
Established in 2005, the award is given to people who champion the culture and identity of sake in Japan and global markets.
Ochiai is the third Australian to receive Samurai distinction, following the appointments of renowned Sydney chef Tetsuya Wakuda in 2007 and sake ambassador Andre Bishop in 2013.
Including this year's appointments, only 70 people hold a Sake Samurai title worldwide, and just 16 of them are women.
Japanese-born Ochiai established Deja vu Sake Co in 2012 with her husband Andrew Cameron (co-owner of Deja vu Wine Co), inspired by a vision to introduce boutique and small-batch Japanese sake to Australia.
At a recent event in Sydney celebrating Ochiai's Samurai status, Deja vu showcased sake from several different different regions, highlighting the impact of different water sources and rice strains.
"Harder water or softer water influences sake a lot. For example, if you use the harder water from Kobe City, it becomes much more drier and crisper," she says.
"If you use softer water, the texture is much more round and delicate and gentle. It's giving you the sense of sweetness."
Sake brewers can also influence the final product by tweaking the 'rice polishing ratio', the percentage of rice that remains after the husk is polished away. Yeast selection, fermentation techniques and maturation regimes are also important.
"The rice will give the structure or body to the sake. The more polished rice you use, the lighter the body," Ochiai says.
"Some yeast could produce very fruity aromatics, and some of them could make very good acidity. A lot of breweries now are using a combination of yeast."
A better wine all round
Commonly referred to as a 'rice wine', sake remains a niche affair overall in Australia, where the dining occasion remains dominated by wine. This is despite grain-based beverages often providing vastly superior food matches.
But Ochiai and Cameron are making some headway. Already 40 per cent of Deja vu's sales are through bottleshops rather than simply the traditional Japanese restaurant trade, in stark contrast to traditional importing channels.
"The Australian market is very quickly learning about Japanese sake. We've been in the market only five or six years but the level of knowledge and awareness is dramatically changing," Ochiai says.
Ochiai says sake has several attributes that make it versatile across a range of cuisines, far beyond its natural affinity with Japanese food.
"One is enhancing deliciousness because there are lots of umami components in the sake as well as the food. Cheese has a lot of umami, so cheese and sake go really well," she says.
Ochiai says wine is typically three times more acidic than sake, which is sweeter and more subtle overall, another benefit for interplay with food.
"In sake the acidity is a small amount… it's not sour, it is a gentle mouth-coating acidity, so it doesn't disturb vinegar-oriented food. Sweet and sour go well," she says.
"Our dream at Deja vu is to make sake approachable to everyone. I want Australians to be able to drink sake outside of Japanese restaurants, like at home with a slice of pizza."