It's been two years since I stopped drinking all other kinds of alcohol except Japanese sake. Even at banquets and parties, when the cry rings out to "start things off with beer," I go against the grain, saying, "ah, excuse me, but I'll start with some hot sake." This means everyone else must wait as the sake warms, and for that I am truly sorry. Still, I don't want to drink anything other than Japanese sake. Again, I'm sorry.
A fateful meeting.
I originally had no interest in sake. When I drank alcohol I would usually start with beer and then switch to shochu (an alcoholic beverage usually distilled from barley, sweet potatoes or rice) or wine. However, after an order from my boss, I found myself reluctantly having to write a series of articles about sake. Well, I thought, I can't get started on writing until I at least drink some of the stuff, so I made my way to a pub on the second floor of an old building in Osaka.
Behind an aging bar counter stood the shaven-headed proprietor dressed in monk-like garb. He passed across a menu listing the sake on offer. Not knowing the proper reading of the names, I stammered slightly, "can, can you recommend something?"
"OK," said the bar owner in a soft voice that belied his slightly scary appearance, nodding his head in assent. After pouring sake from a 1.8-liter bottle into a small serving flask, he then placed the flask in a pot of hot water to warm it.
"Here you go."
I take a sip, and to my surprise it goes down smoothly. Huh? Wait a second, what's this? This is sake? There's no unpleasant odor or sticky texture. I fill with a warm sense of happiness. What exactly is this?
The barkeeper warms up the next offering. The taste is completely different; however, the savory deliciousness is the same. From that night onward, all other alcohol paled in comparison.
For one year starting in 2010, I visited small brewers reputedly making good sake in the Kinki region around Osaka so I could write a monthly column, "I want to drink delicious locally brewed sake," for the Kinki edition of The Asahi Shimbun. What surprised me the most was that most of the brewers were barely eking out a living. Even so, most of the people I interviewed agreed that "Japanese sake is now at its highest level (of quality) in history."
When sake sales decline, small brewers are unable to sell casks of their product to the major players and are quickly forced out of business. Faced with only the smallest chance of survival against such a backdrop, those who have stepped forward to take on the challenge of brewing sake are conducting thorough research and experimentation with rice, water and microscopic bacterium, the integral components of the brew. This commitment to excellence is not limited to brewers in the Kinki region alone.
Across the entire country, a continuously increasing number of sake producers are working to revive long-forgotten and difficult to grow brewer's rice in their locales, and investing time and effort to make "kimoto" (brewer's yeast) as it had been made in the distant past to draw out the full power of the fungus.
The result: sake that continues to evolve day by day. Isn't it great to be alive in such incredible times!?
Still, many Japanese are unaware of these matters related to sake. Even in this age of boundless information, many have yet to meet a truly delicious sake brew. The industry itself, which continued to sell inferior products in single-minded pursuit of profits, bears heavy responsibility for the situation.
When people hear the word sake, their immediate reaction is to recoil as they recall three major assumptions of the drink that have been imprinted on the national psyche: bad smell, sticky texture, hangover-inducing. However, revulsion turns to delight when people drink a refined sake with a powerful, enticing aroma, happily proclaiming, "This doesn't taste like sake at all."
Based on my own experiences, what I really want to convey to others, however, is that it is precisely because a particular sake is good, that it is meant to be drunk warm.
Many people declaring themselves sake aficionados prefer to drink their brew cold. Drinking establishments purportedly focusing on sake are the same. Their menu consists of a long list of offerings recommended for chilled consumption while for warmed sake there are but a few. With such a limited selection, I have no choice but to peruse the cold offerings. Making my choice, I order, "Warm it up please," and am inevitably lectured by the shopkeeper, "It's a waste to drink such good sake warm."
Without doubt, chilled sake is also delicious. In the beginning, I, too, succumbed to drinking it cold, stating with delight, "Wow, this is easy to drink" and "It tastes like white wine." However, when really good sake is warmed, the experience is much more complex. "Whoa," "Oh my. ...," "Uh-oh," it's difficult to express in words, but the feeling generated reaches deep into your heart.
When drunk warm, you are less likely to be burdened with a hangover the following day. With warmed sake you are consuming something that is close to your own body temperature. Right after partaking you feel a slightly intoxicating effect, which helps prevent you from drinking too much. Additionally, a rich, full-bodied sake will complement almost any meal. I believe it goes especially well with Italian cuisine.
Please, banish your preconceptions and come meet this delightful drink with an open mind. If you come to love sake, your thoughts will turn to the rich, bountiful rice fields and pure, clean water indispensable to its creation, and you'll remind yourself just how fragile and precious those things are. In my humble opinion, the more people come to love sake, the better Japan will be.
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Emiko Inagaki was born in 1965. She worked in the city news section, in the Weekly Asahi editorial department, and as the chief editor for the Asahi's Osaka region pages before starting her current assignment on the city desk in May 2011. She currently writes a blog about sake on the Asahi Shimbun's members site Asparagus Club.
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