Soaking up sake

Ever the keen learner, on his cruise to the Far East, Jochen Erler takes time out to sip some sake at source.

As a professional taster of wine and spirits, with some experience as a beer taster in competitions, I have long been intrigued by the similarities between producing beer and whisk(e)y on the one hand, and sake (rice wine) and its distillate on the other. Both have water and grain as their main ingredients.

Clean water, preferably from the mountains, and not purified ground water, is one of the key ingredients for achieving quality with these products. In the case of beer and whisky, the choice of the grain will also be important for the style and quality. The same is true for the production of sake and its distillate, whereby many rice varietals and different ‘terroirs’ are available to choose from. The addition of a mold (koji) is required to start fermentation to make sake. Its choice plays an important role, similar to that of yeast in producing wine.

What I did not yet know were two things. First, that a certain amount of steamed rice needs to be inoculated with the mold and then added to each batch of steamed rice to be fermented – similar to using a ‘starter’ to prepare for baking sourdough bread. Second, that sake can have alcohol added within certain limits.

My recent sea voyage to the Far East offered me an opportunity to learn more about sake. So far, I knew only the basics about this alcoholic drink. I had tasted it at international fairs and in a London bar specializing in Japanese food and drinks. I realized that ‘sake’ outside of Asia can mean rice wine or a spirit distilled from sake, and that in Japan and neighbouring Korea, the sake spirit has its own names that are not familiar in Europe.

My first visit was part of an excursion from the ship to a small artisanal brewer in Vietnam, a typical ‘garagist’ who manually brews his sake in a one-man operation and sells it to his private clientele in the neighbourhood. He spoke English pretty well – thanks to the long presence of the US Army there – and was able to explain the various stages of sake wine production to us. His sake is sold young, with strong earthy notes both on the nose and palate. It tastes highly rustic, due to the use of inexpensive, slightly polished rice. It is quite suitable as an accompaniment to food – similar to a tannin-rich red wine or a white wine with good minerality. He also produces tofu that tasted clean and pleasant. However, the green tea he offered tasted like spinach water, and was slightly bitter from the tannin of the leaves.

The other two visits were professional tastings at medium-sized producers in Japan, one at a distillery, the other at a brewery, both arranged by me by email. I chose them because they could easily be reached by public transport from the respective ports.

A little lost in translation

Near the town of Naha, I visited the Zuisen distillery in Shuri, once the seat of a royal court. This suburb with its family villas and gardens offered a welcome contrast to the hitherto visited overbuilt cities that reminded me of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I had the tasting with the senior owner of the house, who spoke very little English. One of the employees tried to reply to my questions via a mobile phone app with instant translation. It was of no use because the technical terms for maceration, fermentation, distillation and ageing were not part of the programmed vocabulary. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to see their production facilities. However, their storage room was quite impressive where their product is aged in huge earthen pots.

I tasted their range of ‘Awamori’, which requires a minimum of three years of ageing. The three-year old of 30% alc. has sweet notes, but I found the alcohol quite aggressive. Not so the older products, where the alcohol of up to 43% is well integrated. My favourite was the 18-year old (39% alc.) with its elegance and fruity notes of white flowers. The 15- and 21-year old products are sold in small, 0.7 litre, earthen bottles of the same shape as the Mateus Rosé or the German Bocksbeutel ones. The 21-year old has an impressive price tag of US$93.

Near Osaka, at the Daimon brewery, I had no language problems. Here, an American was the marketing manager, whose wife was of German nationality. This brewery with 200 years of uninterrupted production, by its seven generations of owners, is one of the oldest in Japan. It has maintained the traditional methods of production within its original buildings. I was told that the owner had successfully searched for the koji used to make sake before World War II – a mold that was considered lost. This mold enables the brewer to make his sake in the same style as what is considered to be authentic and original. Another big plus is the water. Daimon uses spring water that flows in the nearby mountains.

I tasted all products of Daimon’s Premier Range, all of them not fortified (called ‘Junmai’) with an alcohol content of around 16%. Their labels carry the degree of rice polishing. Daimond’s 35 indicates a mill polishing ratio of 35%, which means that 65% of the outer surface of the original rice has been milled away. As the outer layers of the rice grain have fat, minerals and protein, this sake with a high polishing ratio is of great elegance with some mellow sweetness and a touch of acidity on the finish. According to the official sake classification, this 35 and the 45 belong to the ‘super premium’ class. 

The following two wines, the 45 and the 55, have more aromas, stronger flavours on the palate and a longer finish, thanks to the less rigid milling of the rice. In Diamond’s 45, I noticed a hint of leather on the palate. It is considered by Daimon as their driest sake. Among the four versions I tasted, I consider it as best suited for rustic food. Daimond’s 55, a ‘premium’ wine according to sake classification, is for me the most quaffable among the wines tasted. It is also vinified as a ‘55 Blue’ with a slightly different complexity of aromas.

Sake wine should be consumed young, preferably within one year of production. Only Koshu, a long-term storage and aged sake, is aged for several years and sold accordingly. This is a confusing name because Koshu is Japan’s only indigenous vitis vinifera grape varietal.