Sommelier Shinya Tasaki reveals the secrets to enjoying good sake.
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Q: How did you get involved in the world of sake?
Tasaki: After returning to Japan from France, I worked at a Japanese restaurant for three years, from age 25 onwards. It's the job of a sommelier to deal with all kinds of drinks. I needed to familiarize myself with the products of my own country. As a Japanese person, I felt I had to learn about sake first.
Q: How does one appreciate sake?
Tasaki: The basic flavors of wine are "sweetness," "sourness" and "bitterness." Sake, on the other hand, is a combination of three flavors: "sweetness," "sourness" and "umami." Also, when choosing a drink to go with your meal, the acidity level of a wine is a key factor, whereas sweetness and umami are the things to consider for sake.
Q: So sake can be enjoyed with food then?
Tasaki: That's right. But when you ask for sake at a restaurant, you only ever get asked whether you want it chilled or warmed, even in top-class Japanese establishments. And if you ask why they chose a particular sake for you, the only replies you get are "because it's easy to drink" or "it doesn't interfere with the enjoyment of the meal." This is just not good enough really. When choosing sake, restaurants need to consider which drink will complement the food. The pungent, premium "ginjo" sake does not go well with tuna sashimi or bonito, for example, so it's not always correct to say "ginjo" is best just because it's easy to drink.
Q: How do you choose a good sake to go with sushi?
Tasaki: "Ginjo" sake complements mild-tasting white flesh such as flounder, octopus or calamari, the kind of dishes that go well with a sprinkling of salt or squeezed lemon. "Junmai (pure-rice) yamahai" sake, meanwhile, goes well with rich-tasting food such as tuna or partially grilled "aburineta" dishes, especially when served warm.
Q: Do you age sake like you do wine?
Tasaki: The taste of sake changes according to how long it has been aged, be it six months or one to two years, but a certain amount of aging does make sake taste good. Sake is not really affected by oxidation like wine, so you can keep it in the fridge for several months. Some manufacturers also sell rich-flavored 10- to 20-year-old vintage sake.
Q: Some say sake gives you bad hangovers.
Tasaki: The alcohol content of sake is certainly a lot stronger than wine. At the same time, it is now easier to get sake that tastes good even when chilled. As a result, people are consuming a higher amount of alcohol when they drink, and this has become a factor behind hangovers. I think over-drinking is to blame rather than any particular ingredient in sake (laughs).
Q: So this bad hangover thing is just an image people have?
Tasaki: Whenever you saw a drunken man in an old drama, he always had an upturned bottle of sake next to him. In the olden days sake contained more sugar and amino acids, so your breath stank whenever you drank it. People in their 40s and 50s still have this image of their fathers reeking of alcohol, which is probably a reason why they avoid the drink. Young people in Europe are also drinking less wine. They have this image of drunks sitting in the subway drinking wine and babbling away incoherently.
Q: Sake seems to be getting more popular overseas, isn't it?
Tasaki: With so many people across the world getting a taste for Japanese food, Japanese people should also take more of an interest in their own cuisine. If they do, sake consumption will also naturally recover. Japanese people should start thinking of sake less as a "drink to get you drunk" and more of a "drink that goes well with Japanese food." They can then properly transmit the merits of sake to the rest of the world.
Q: How can sake survive and prosper from hereon?
Tasaki: In recent years, manufacturers have launched a number of "zero sugar" and "low alcohol" products. They are trying to use a healthy image to sell drinks, but this is a simplistic and unsustainable sales method. Some companies also promote their products as being "as easy to drink as wine," but if that's the case, why not just drink wine? I think it would be best to promote sake directly on its own particular merits.
Furthermore, there are still many cheap, industrially processed products on sale that come with lots of added sugar and acidity. I think we should do away with these. It is better to sell 50 bottles at 2,000 yen ($25) a piece than 100 bottles at 1,000 yen a piece. If we can shift the focus away from quantity and more toward quality, I think the glory days of sake can be restored.
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Shinya Tasaki was born in 1958. He is president of the International Sommeliers Association. He traveled to France to study wine when he was 19 before returning to Japan in 1980 to work as a sommelier at a restaurant. In 1995 he won the Best Sommelier in the World prize, the first Japanese person to do so.
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