I like a good challenge. I also really like desserts – so when I came up with the theme, "The Great Dessert Challenge," for this month's Sake Gumi, the wheels in my head started turning with enthusiasm. Drinking sake with my meal comes naturally to me – whether it's spaghetti and meatballs or sushi. But I have to admit, having sake alongside dessert is not a common occurrence, and I daydreamed about all the possible pairing combinations for sakes with sweets. Desserts I love range from fruit pies and flan, to chocolate tarts and cheesecakes – some worked well with sake, while others didn't at all. It took many trials in the past couple months to triumph in this Challenge.
Although many sake publications from Japan suggest pairing desserts with nigoris and other sweet sakes, I actually found that I enjoyed desserts with sakes that weren't obviously sweet (this may be just personal preference, so I encourage experimentation for every palate). Desserts that are mellow (like vanillla ice cream) mingle beautifully with dry junmais and junmai ginjos. On the other hand, if there are more unique flavors in a sake (like the Shirayuki Edo Genroku in Level 2), the pairing may require a more dynamic flavor. Although there were a lot of dessert flavors that went well with sake, I was sadly unable to find a sake that worked well with a 70%+ dark chocolate (one of my favorite desserts) – at least for now. I will leave that for the next season of the Great Dessert Challenge.
After countless trials, I found that desserts rich in dairy or those incorporating a savory element were great for sake pairing. With the exception of the fruit and sparkling sake pairing in Level 1, all of the desserts that I found to pair best with sake either had butter, cream or a salt. While a dark chocolate bar didn't pair well with sake, a creamy chocolate mousse did. And while an apple pie didn't click for me, a pumpkin pie (which was more savory than a fruit-filled pie) was a home run pairing.
With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I hope that you can bring these sakes onto the holiday tabletop amongst fall pies à la mode, salty peanut brittles and rich mousses. C’mon and join the Great Dessert Challenge!
LEVEL 1: Introductory Membership (Two 300ml bottles)
Ichidai Misen Sparkling
Chugoku Brewery (Hiroshima, Japan)
Seimaibuai: N/A, SMV: -4
This sparkling sake is made in the same way that champagne is, integrating pressurized carbonic acid. It took three years to get it right – the result is a refreshingly dry sake with fine bubbles that is resistant to volatility. We love this sparkling because it’s especially dry, and with a lower alcohol content of 11% it’s just the right amount of buzz to ease into or out of dinner. For a light dessert pairing, I recommend sipping on chilled Ichidai Misen with fresh fruit. Since this sake is quite dry, you don’t need a lot of sweetness in the dessert – a bowl of berries or slices of pear is my answer for this dessert challenge.
Seikyo "Mirror of Truth" Takehara Junmai
Nakao Brewery (Hiroshima, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Shinsenbon 65%, SMV: +1
I love this mellow, easy-to-drink junmai that has a hint of something very familiar in the nose – honeycomb (I am a beekeeper)! With a gentle finish that lingers like butter, this sake is made with local rice from Hiroshima called Shinsenbon. The brewery also prides itself on taking more than 50 hours on koji making (versus the usual 40 hours) to preserve the characteristics of the rice in the final product. The answer to this Dessert Challenge is to enjoy this sake at room temperature with pumpkin pie a la mode or with shortbread cookies. I loved how the hint of honeycomb and gentleness of the sake paired with some thing buttery and crisp (like pie crust or shortbread).
LEVEL 2: Premium Membership (Two 720ml bottles)
Aiyu Dry Junmai Ginjo
Aiyu Brewery (Ibaraki, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Gohyaku Mangoku 60%, SMV: +9
This bottle has been on my list of Sake Gumi contenders for a while and I am excited to introduce it with a delectable dessert pairing - chocolate mousse. This is a bottle that I would describe as yasashii, meaning gentle or kind in Japanese, despite it measuring quite high on the sake meter scale (SMV: +9). Brewed using Gohyaku Mangoku rice, this sake is clean and light with a hint of ricey umami (typical of sakes using this type of rice). Pair this sake chilled with an airy chocolate mousse and notice how the sake brings out the bitterness in the chocolate and the cream in the mousse. I call this pairing "Walking on Clouds" because it feels airy and heavenly.
Shirayuki Edo Genroku Genshu
Konishi Brewering (Hyogo, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yamada Nishiki 88%, SMV: -35
I thought that pairing this sweet genshu with a dessert would be a piece of cake (pun intended) because so many sake scholars suggest sweet sakes for dessert pairings. Akin to a port, this genshu aged in cedar barrels, is oaky and weighty with a hint of tobacco, so I thought it would pair well with dark chocolate. Fail! The nuances of the otherwise deliciously nutty and husky Dandelion 85% Camino Verde fell flat, doing no favors to either the sake and the chocolate. This sake needed something specific in a dessert – salt. It was a perfect match at room temperature for salted caramel. Just in time for the season of salted caramel canisters, sea salt toffee tins and salted peanut brittle bags!
Sake Hot Toddy Tip: This sake can also be enjoyed with hot water 1:1. Cheers!