In part 1 of my “guide” to Japanese sake I talked about my initial education in Japanese sake which was highlighted by the awesomeness of Japanese hospitality.
Part 2 of this guide is focused on acquiring sake.
Sake for the home
For a person who speaks very little Japanese and can read even less of it; the sake aisle is essentially a crap shoot. With the wine aisle in America at the very least there are attempts to distract you by having a rad label or a clever name, BraZin, Seven Deadly Zins, Goats Do Roam, and one of my favorites a wine simply called, “Bitch.” Sake on the other hand is labeled almost entirely in “shoji” which is Japanese calligraphy. Nearly all of the bottles look identical.
It is distinctly possible that these are quite clever but I wouldn’t know. Our method for choosing sake is similar to spin the bottle or a dart, a map, and a blindfold. Random.
So far they have all been very palatable. We have not delved in to the sake in a carton or the single serving sake as pictured below.
As I started to do a little more research to find out what I was buying my preconceived notion of sake was ripped to shreds as if a drunken katana wielding samurai had attacked my thoughts. There are two basic types of sake which are further broken down into subcategories. There is futsū-shu which basically translates to “normal liquor.” Then there is tokutei meishō-shu which means, “special name sake.” The special designation sake has at least 8 different subsets of sake that vary in their “rice polishing” ratio. There is another subset of sake based on the specific brewing method. Here is an excellent breakdown from the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association website. I will save the lesson in sake brewing for another post after I go visit an actual sake brewery, however, I do want to point out that the brewing of sake is actually closer to beer than it is to wine.
Most importantly, how do you find the good stuff? 純米大吟醸 (junmai daiginjo-shu) is considered the highest grade of sake. So if you want the good stuff. Learn to read shōji and then pick out one that says, 純米大吟醸. Easy right? There is also a designation called jizake, 地酒, which is specific to a particular area, city, town or region. It may fall into any of the main categories of sake but it has a special designation because it is only made in that particular location.
Just like wine and beer sake taste is based on personal preference. I have yet to familiarize myself with all the different types but I can say that only once or twice the futsū-shu that I have picked up at the grocery store has been not so good. If you can’t read shoji or kanji like me then you’ll have to trust other senses to buy sake that tastes good. Maybe try throwing them up into the air and seeing which one doesn’t break. That’s your sake bottle! Give some thought to the, “ask random Japanese children about sake in English,” method. It’s not illegal if they just pick it out for you. Follow really old Japanese men around until they buy a bottle of sake. Get the same bottle they bought. Sometimes I’m not entirely certain I am even buying sake.
These are all good methods but I needed something more scientific… I decided to do a little more research about what was being sold.
The Sake Industry
Sake has been around since about 710 – 740AD. Today the Japan Sake Brewers Association touts an even 1800 breweries in their membership as, “all the sake brewers in Japan.” Japan guide lists the total number around 2000. I find this to be a bit unimportant. There are a lot. Sake is made from rice.
The sake industry is at a bit of a crossroads due to a couple major factors.
First off, sake consumption had been down in Japan. Beer and wine had become more and more popular with the current generation of drinkers than sake was. There are likely many factors to this decline ranging from, “I don’t drink what my grandpa drinks,” to,”Asahi looks cool… sake doesn’t.” Secondly, in the 1980’s the Japanese government decreased import tariffs on non-Japanese alcohols. (Graph from JSS website). A steady decline since roughly the 1970’s had been in effect dwindling the market for sake in Japan.
In the wake of destruction from the 2011 earthquake the mood around sake seems to have shifted positively. A revivalist surge started taking place particularly in the areas that had been very badly affected by the earthquake and tsunami. From 2011 to 2012 sake consumption in Japan rose above the 2010 levels and for some areas increased nearly 30%. Even a new brand hit the market called fukkoshu or restoration sake. Suddenly sake appeared to be cool again. Sakemamoru.jp (Japanese only, although can be entertaining if you turn on Google Chrome’s auto translate function) is a website dedicated to rebuilding Tohoku through investment in the culture of sake.
Also in 2011 sake brewers had begun to focus on international exports, nearly tripling their volume of exported sake to the United States and Europe. In 2012 Economics Minister Motohisa Furukawa set up the “Enjoy Japanese Kokushu,” project. From the Reuters article,
“…without government efforts sake exports have doubled over the past decade to hit a record of roughly 14 million litres last year, bringing in some $110 million, according to Finance Ministry data.”
“Although overall sales were down slightly, sake exports in 2011 reached a new high of 14,013 kl (up 243 kl from 2010).”
However sake has a long way to go before it can get a whiff of whiskey or wine sales internationally. The sake industry appears to revitalizing in Japan and expanding internationally. Along with the gastropub phenomenon izakayas are starting to sprout up in major US cities. This New York Times article from April 2013 really nails it; the sake is first. Everything else is secondary.
So is the sake industry healthy and for lack of a better term, chugging along? Is this 3 year rise a minor blip of Japanese national pride that will level off? The Hakkasan Group seems to think the trend is still heading upward. At this point after several liters of liquid research and a lot of online news paper reading I still don’t have an answers to some of my original questions.
In fact, I think I have more questions than when I started. Is the sake in America worth the price or are they trying to pass off futsū-shu as high end import sake? What kind of sake do I like? What is the appropriate sake for a dinner? A gift? How do you taste sake to get the most out of it?
I will “settle” for futsū-shu until my palate has been educated… Check out Gai-jinzake – a “guide” to Japanese sake (part 3: the tastening).
ALSO: – Other sake references –
Melinda Joe’s Blog – http://tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.jp/
Sake-Test.com – http://www.saketest.com/start
John Gautner’s Page – http://www.sake-world.com/