Chef Willin Low is best known for putting Mod-Sin (short for modern Singaporean) cuisine on the world’s culinary map. Think dishes such as laksa pesto linguine and pandan panna cotta with gula melaka served at his now-defunct restaurant, Wild Rocket.
However, not many people know that the 51-year-old, who runs casual restaurant Relish and is relaunching Roketto Izakaya later this year, is also a bona fide sake professional.
Since 2015, Low has been certified as an Advanced Sake Professional, the highest qualification offered by The Sake Education Council — the first primarily English language-based international body that promotes sake education outside Japan.
He is putting this qualification to good use with the launch of Rasen, a blended sake produced in collaboration with Yaegaki, a sake brewery in Hyogo Prefecture. Rasen, which means ‘spiral’ in Japanese, represents the coming together of two cultures — Singapore and Japan — to create a harmonious collaboration. Established in 1666, the brewery has made major leaps in sake innovation, including inventing fermentation and koji machines that modernised sake-making in the early 1900s.
While most sake is blended behind closed doors, blended sake has come into a category of its own recently thanks to renowned personalities who craft the blends. One of them is Richard Geoffroy, the chef de cave of champagne house Dom Perignon, who started Iwa 5 in 2019.
Rasen is also Yaegaki’s first sake that has been specially crafted to pair with Singaporean cuisine. Rasen, which was launched in April, is available at restaurants and bars including Good Luck Beerhouse, Thevar, and The Kongsee.
A sake created remotely during the pandemic
It all came to be in 2020 when Low received a query from the Yaegaki Brewery’s distribution agent in Singapore — they were looking to partner with a local chef to develop a sake. It was not a stretch given that Low has experience with Singaporean and Japanese cuisines. It helps that he also runs Roketto Niseko, a casual noodle bar in Hokkaido, during the winter.
“When the agent proposed this collaboration, I immediately said yes,” he says. “I’ve made a conscious choice to only work on passion projects recently.” What ensued were many months of remote tastings between him and Yaegaki that spanned the pandemic years before arriving at the final product.
The development process started with the team from Yaegaki enquiring about the characteristics of Singaporean cuisine, the sources of umami, beverages that pair well, and Low’s sake preferences. Based on those answers, they sent sake from their existing range to Low and his team for taste-testing and subsequent feedback.
Pairing well with Singapore food
Food pairing was a major component of the development of Rasen. Low paired the sake with local dishes and made notes about which pairings worked best. He also made observations on how differently the sake tasted on their own.
The selection was then whittled down to highlight several taste profiles — umami, sweetness, and acidity. After savouring the sake with and without food, two bottles became the clear standouts.
Low and his team finally selected the bottle that became Rasen — a recipe that possessed sufficient acidity and fruitiness, coupled with a certain lightness in the sake. It also had to complement local dishes that tend to be spicy, complex, and have full- bodied flavours.
His favourite local dishes to pair with Rasen? “Oyster omelette, satay, and laksa,” he shares. The acidity and sweetness of Rasen balance the bold, rich flavours of laksa, setting the palate up nicely for the next bite. Rasen’s light but lingering finish also doesn’t overwhelm the smoky flavour of satay and can hold its own against the rich peanut sauce.
“A good pairing brings out the best notes from both the dish and the sake, bringing the enjoyment of both to another level, where one plus one equals three.”
More spirited collaborations
More than just sake, Low is expanding his involvement in the alcohol space. In the pipeline are projects with bourbon brand Maker’s Mark and homegrown craft beer maker Off Day. Low is collaborating with Aki Eguchi, Jigger & Pony Group’s bar director on a bourbon with a unique Singaporean character as part of the brand’s City Series. A total of 600 bottles will be available at Changi Airport by early 2024.
While details for his project with Off Day are still in the works, Low says that it will follow in Rasen’s footsteps, where a beer will be specially crafted to be enjoyed in Singapore’s tropical climate and pair well with local cuisine.
“As for sake, I think I am hooked. I hope to continue to collaborate and create other blends in the future. Perhaps one that is very umami and more niche in its appeal.”