Sublime Sake: Île Four

31 Jul 2020
10 min read
Using high quality ingredients and small-batch methods, Île Four Modern Sake brings handcrafted Premium Sake to the European market. Perfect for cocktails and even better paired with food, we find out more about this top-class Japanese drink from expert Carl Joachim Kock…

Can you tell us a bit about the story behind Île Four Modern Sake?

Personally, I have been a Sake fan ever since my Japanese brother-in-law and long-time Sake expert Ikuo (and now partner in the business) introduced me to real Premium Sake when I first visited Tokyo in the late nineties! Afterwards, I was struck by how difficult it was to get really good Sake in Europe or even the U.S.

After a few years and many Sake seminars, brewery visits and tasting events later, the three of us (including our third partner Ayda) had gained a clear understanding of the problem: Sake in Europe (and the West in general) is either served as a low quality, piping hot accompaniment to sushi or – if actually available in premium qualities – is difficult or impossible for the average customer to understand or even relate to; not to mention that premium Sake used to be way too expensive!

Thus, we knew we wanted to do something to bring this beautiful drink to all those western consumers that were missing out and Île Four was our answer!

Tell us more about the brand’s identity…

In a nutshell, our ‘western’ brand name and modern design makes Sake approachable and recognizable for the first time to European and American consumers. Our clear, focused assortment of select premium products is the perfect collection of some of the best Sake available and is the ideal introduction to the world of Sake. We offer only high quality Sake handcrafted with the finest materials – and at rather uncommonly reasonable prices.

Even though the Sake market has seen an increase in recent years, many consumers are still unaware of, or perhaps even afraid of, venturing into this relatively unknown product category. Therefore, we need to continue to charge ahead and make it easy for connoisseurs to take note of and start appreciating the subtle flavors of Premium Sake, the explosion of aromas of our Yuzu, Momo or Ume, or the incredibly smooth sensation of sipping our The Distiller Shōchū. While the mission remains, our product line-up has been refined, as has our design language.

What is the meaning behind the name?

We wanted to express the link between Japan and ‘the West’ directly in our name – thus, we use the French word Île and the English word Four to reflect the four main islands of Japan: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku,

You produce premium products – what does ‘premium’ mean to you in terms of Sake?

‘Premium’ to us is essentially the same as the definition of ‘Craft Spirits’ – small batches, select ingredients, made with lots of skilled and caring handicraft instead of industrial processes – and that is precisely how our products – Premium Sake, Fruit Aperitifs and Shōchū – are made!

Premium Sake also has a more legal definition as the Japanese Government defines a set of categories: regular or industrial style Sake makes up somewhere between 65% and 75% of the market by volume; these products are produced in very large batches, with basic ingredients, quick, high temperature fermentation and final products that are often stretched by adding distilled alcohol and other ingredients (that is the Sake that you typically find heated to high temperatures – to allow the undesirable aromas to escape and become more drinkable).

Premium Sake, by contrast, has to be made with designated Sake-rice varieties and the rice has to be polished to certain degrees to remove impurities and produce smoother and more aromatic products. In fact, the resulting flavor profiles are so completely different from industrial-grade Sake and so subtle and multi-textured that heating these products would destroy their taste – this is why Premium Sake is – with very few exceptions – drunk chilled like white wine!

Within this premium category, we distinguish between Sake to which a small percentage of distilled alcohol is added to adjust the taste and Sake that is completely pure and only contains rice, water, yeast and the special mold ‘koji’ that drives the initial phase of fermentation. These Sake that are ‘only rice’ are identified by the prefix ‘Junmai’ (jun=only, mai=rice). In addition, there are three layers from Premium (like our Île Four Premium Junmai Sake) to a middle layer called ‘Ginjo’ (like our Premium Select Junmai Ginjo), which requires that at least 40% of the rice outer layers are polished away, to super premium DaiGinjo (our Île Four Limited Edition Junamio Daiginjo), with at least a 50% polishing ratio. All of our Île Four Sake is truly Premium/Craft: no additions, pure rice and water; slow, low temperature fermentation; small batches (sometimes less than a thousand liters); and extremely experienced, caring Toji’s (brewmasters) that make every batch a true experience for the connoisseur.

Our beautiful Fruit Aperitifs Yuzu, Momo and Ume are likewise absolute premium products. Each of them is a blend with an exclusive – and expensive – Japanese fruit as a basis. For our Yuzu, for instance, we use about 5 whole Yuzu fruits per bottle and then carefully create the perfect balance with Sake, water, sugar and some added alcohol. Our Momo contains more than 40% pure Japanese white peach. This process yields intensely vivid aromas and products that are truly outstanding!

Can you give more details on your product range(s), their definitive characteristics and flavor profiles?

Our range consists of three lines – Premium Sake, Fruit Aperitifs and The Distiller Shochu.

In terms of Premium Sake, the various categories of Sake (see above), coupled with specific additional treatments such as unpasteurized (Namasake), unfiltered (Nigori Sake) or undiluted (Genshu Sake) lead to an enormous array of Sake Premium categories that can be, quite frankly, bewildering for a western consumer. We aim to help in this by presenting a three-tiered line-up of perfect examples of the different Premium levels (all with 15.5-16% Vol.):

Île Four Premium is a great Junmai and entry into the Premium world; strong and dry in taste, this Sake is great for mixing cocktails and pairs excellently with hearty appetizers such as Jamon Iberico, Gambas or cheese.

Île Four Premium Select is a beautiful dry, complex Junmai Ginjo; with a polishing rate of 45%, it counts among the top 6-7% best Sake in the world. Light, dry and with a highly refined aroma and low acidity, but also quite complex with good structure, Île Four Premium Select is a perfect pairing for all lighter meat courses, pasta dishes and, of course, all types of fish and seafood. Enjoy lightly chilled like white wine – or mix a very premium cocktail!

Île Four Limited Edition, as the name implies, is an absolutely excellent, multi-layered, subtle and elegant Junmai Daiginjo. Excellent Sake rice (Yamadanishiki), a high polishing rate (50%) and a long fermentation at low temperatures create a super-premium Sake comparable to single cask bottling of high-end Whiskies or rare wines. Enjoy Île Four Limited Edition chilled and pure – as an Aperitif or with food. Light, delicate, very aromatic and quite complex with a hint of sweetness, this Sake is great paired with light dishes, fish or appetizers like gambas, foie gras or jamon iberico.

In addition to the three classic Premium Sake products, Île Four Sparkling Sake (6-7% Vol.) is an effervescent drink based on our Premium Junmai Sake. A double-tank fermentation gives it beautiful, long-lasting bubbles for a very special drink. Try it with Île Four Momo for an innovative ‘Sake Bellini’.

Aperitifs – our star product is the Île Four YUZU. As the name implies, the key ingredient is the incredibly aromatic (and equally expensive) Yuzu fruit. Instead of just steeping Yuzu in Sake, we chose the – in our opinion far superior – option of blending a lot of Yuzu with just enough Premium Sake to create the perfect taste. With many medals to its name (most recently IWSC GOLD) we feel validated that this product is truly outstanding – crisp, delicate Yuzu in a perfect balance!

Our MOMO and UME follow the same logic by combining large quantities of extra-aromatic Japanese peach and Sake for an explosive burst of aroma in the MOMO and doing the same with the Japanese Ume fruit (technically an apricot, but traditionally called ‘plum’).

Finally, our newest product line is The Distiller – see below!

The Distiller Shōchū is a very unique product – what makes it so different?

Shōchū and the similar Soju from Korea is not only a very old, traditional distilled drink, but also a huge category of its own; yet, most of these products are made from sweet potato, barley or other starches that give these drinks a rather strong taste profile that does not necessarily agree with western palates. By contrast, our The Distiller simply takes our Sake production one step further by using the Sake-lees (the Sake mash that is left after we filter out the finished Premium Sake) to distill an incredibly smooth Shōchū that reminds immediately of very elegant European distillates from fruit or wine. In fact, if you look at the video below of our mega-Robot ‘The Distiller’, you can see how the rice is first milled, then brewed, then distilled (the still is in the arm) and finally filled into our Shōchū bottles (the fingers).

As a classical single-distilled Honkaku Shōchū with a comparatively low alcohol percentage (we currently have a 20% and 25% version and the next Distiller 003 will have 35%), you get an amazingly aromatic nose and a literally ‘soft’ and pleasant taste. I like to enjoy one pure in a grappa-glass after a good meal – but The Distiller is also great in cocktails!

What is it about sake that makes it so special to you, and why do you think it should be on more people’s favorite drinks lists?

It’s the perfect drink, of course! But, seriously, Sake is incredibly versatile and can be enjoyed neat, with food and as a cocktail and our Yuzu and other Sake innovations give even more reason to try these products. Especially Yuzu is simply a must try (just over crushed ice to start) – and once you do, you probably won’t stop!

In terms of Premium Sake – well, a beautiful benefit is that it is so extremely easy to pair Sake with a large variety of food! As with pairing wine, the art is to find the right balance between the characteristics of the food on one hand, and the acidity and alcohol level on the other. For wine, this process is quite complex due to a relatively large concentration of tartaric acid, malic acid, citric acid and acetic acid.

Sake, by contrast, has no tartaric acid, only around one eighth of acetic acid, and altogether only a fifth of the total acid content of wine. Furthermore, Sake contains no sulfates and hardly any tannins.  Together with a slightly higher alcohol content of roughly 16% Vol., this lower acid content makes for a much easier ‘pairing’ than with wine. In other words, Sake fits with almost all dishes, just don’t challenge it with extra heavy sauces.

Another special feature of Sake is a high concentration of succinic and glutamic acid, which are responsible for the fifth basic taste “Umami” (meaning ‘pleasant savory taste’ or ‘delicious’). Since fish is relatively high in Umami as well, this explains why Sake is the perfect company for practically all fish dishes (not just sushi).

Tell us about some of the awards the products have won and their significance…

We are most proud of the IWSC Gold Award (95 points) for our YUZU that we received just last year and that joins a similar high ranking by Falstaff (90 points) – the tasting note of the IWSC judges says it all:

Rich, bright citrus bursts forth from the glass: unmistakable yuzu with a gentle floral aroma; a great combination of sweetness and tartness. A beautiful product that captures the flavour of yuzu perfectly.

Of course, this just confirms what we knew already: our Yuzu is great! In addition, Fallstaff also liked our other Fruit Aperitifs Ume (88 points) and Momo (89 points) and we received many silver medals from the IWSC, the London Wine and London Spirits shows for our Distiller Shochu, Limited Edition Junmai Daiginjo Sake, or our Sparkling Sake.

What interesting trends are going on in the world of sake production?

There clearly is a trend towards better quality and a move to more premium and more innovative products; mirroring other parts of the drinks business. We are trying to lead by focusing on true CRAFT-products – as mentioned before, we employ only craft style methods including (very) small batch production, reliance on the experience of our Toji’s (brewmasters) and careful selection of the best ingredients. Similarly, for our Distiller, the Sake lees are collected by hand and carefully distilled (once!) into a true craft-style drink with unique flavors.

What do you and your team enjoy most about working in the drinks business?

We really love immersing ourselves in the creativity of mixologists who make these beautiful – and very tasty – combinations with our products, and sommeliers who find innovative ways of pairing Premium or fruit Sake with great foods. Also, we enjoy learning from customers and other brands about the industry and new ways of doing things and we have made good friends along the way!

What about sake lends itself to cocktails and what are the best varieties to use to make cocktails?

Premium Sake is indeed an incredibly versatile product – brewed like beer, but with a consistency more like wine and an alcohol volume that goes in the direction of spirits. Thus, while few people would think of mixing a cocktail with wine, Premium Sake is uniquely suited among the lower alcohol, fermented beverages to shine in a beautiful cocktail. It has a stunning fragrance and aroma, harmonizes exceptionally well with fruits, herbs, cucumbers or ginger, and with 15-17% Vol., has enough alcohol content to make itself felt in combination with other ingredients.

We have seen two approaches to cocktail creation with Sake – one is to simply substitute Sake for a stronger-alcohol ingredient such as Vodka, Gin or Rum to remake the classics: a ‘Saketini’ is super smooth, a ‘Capi-Sake’ has that ‘extra’ flavour only a Premium Sake can add. A star bartender in Berlin (Gregor Scholl, Le Croco Bleu) took the Moscow Mule in a new direction by adding our extra smooth, complex and slightly fruity Limited Edition DaiGinjo Sake and calling it the ‘Frog’. Besides offering your customers a novel interpretation of well-known drinks, a side-benefit is that as Sake replaces higher alcohol drinks, the overall alcohol content and, by implication, also the calories of the drink go down! Generally, we would recommend to use our Île Four Premium (Junmai) or Premium Select (Junmai Ginjo) Sake for mixing as they combine slightly dryer and stronger flavors that stand out more vividly in a mixed drink.

The other approach is, of course, to craft novel cocktail creations – besides using our Premium Sake, this is where our Sake-based Aperitifs, Yuzu, Momo and Ume, our sparkling Sake and our Distiller Shōchū really shine. Outstanding examples of what you can do are, for instance, the creations of Star-Bartender Volker Seibert (Seibert’s Bar, Cologne) who has created a beautiful combination of Île Four Yuzu, homemade pineapple Tahiti rum and Champagne in his ‘Sakura Night’, or combined our Île Four Momo with a Jamaican barrel-aged rum and Champagne in the ‘Momolino’. The team of the Chedi Andermatt has also created several amazing drinks around our products: the ‘Nashi’, for instance, combines our Île Four Sparkling Sake with liquor of quince, lemon juice, Williams and Angostura, and the ‘Bircher Muesli’ starts with Île Four Momo and adds a Swiss vodka, lemon juice, raspberry syrup, a Swiss yogurt and some bitters.

Besides these slightly more complex cocktails you can, of course, also mix some amazing and very simple cocktails with Île Four at home – simply pour Yuzu over crushed ice, add a dash of tonic and garnish for the ultimate summer drink ‘Yuzu Crush’, or combine Île Four Momo and Sparkling Sake into a stunning ‘Sake Bellini’!

What’s next – any new products or exciting events on the horizon ?

We are preparing a ‘Matcha Sake’ that we originally wanted to launch at this year’s Prowein but it will now come a bit later. This is a rather unusual product, starting with its near opaque green tint, it combines the beautiful crisp smoothness of Premium Sake and the qualities of Matcha Tea – and does so in a most surprising way. A must try,  because once you take a sip, you will be hooked!

To find out more visit Île Four Modern Sake’s website, Facebook page or Instagram profile.