Sake at the Japanese Consulate
This month, I was honoured to be invited to the “The Art of Sake” event at the official residence of the Consul-General of Japan in Sydney, Mr Masato Takaoka.
The Consul-General organised this event as part of the Japanese Government’s initiative to raise the profile of the national drink, sake. The sake brewing industry has seen some challenges lately, with domestic consumption gradually declining since the 1970s (although the consumption of premium sake brands is rising).
One happy sake story, though, is the rise and rise of sake popularity overseas. In Australia, for example, sake consumption grows 10% year on year. So, Japan increasingly looks to overseas markets as the saviour of the sake industry. The popularity of sake overseas has another silver lining. The Japanese, despite their strong cultural identity, are enthusiastic followers of international trends. What’s cool in London and Paris (and sake certainly is), is cool in Tokyo, too. Parisians drink sake? Tokyoites will do, too.
Sake’s international success so far, however, isn’t the reason to rest on the laurels. It is still a niche drink, and both the hospitality industry and drinking public need education and targeted promotion to accept sake as an everyday drink, much like wine. Hence “The Art of Sake”!
The highlight of the evening (after the sake itself) was the educational lecture by Andre Bishop, who, along with Tetsuya Wakuda, is one of the two Australian Sake Samurais. Andre is also a bit of a sake pub magnate, and owns 3 izakayas in Melbourne. He is also a graduate of John Gauntner school of sake thought, just like this writer (although I am yet to attend the advanced level, like Mr Bishop. All in good time!).
Mr Takaoka greeted guests with a short introduction, betraying the inherent glamour of the diplomatic life when he spoke of his happiness in sharing good food and drink with a wider audience.
Soon it was Mr Bishop’s turn to command attention. He presented a stunning visual overview of sake making process, and spoke briefly of main sake grades and types. In his presentation, Andre Bishop reflected on the state of sake market in Australia. “Sake has come a long way in Australia, we now have in excess of 400 products on the market. This kind of choice is a dream come true for me, and keeps me going on my quest to spread the sake love. I really enjoy helping people discover the savoury complexity of sake.”
He also acknowledged other sake pioneers that are all striving to make sake widely popular: the celebrated chefs Hideo Dekura and Tetsuya Wakuda, the head chef of the Sake Restaurant Shaun Presland, Australia’s favourite masterchef Adam Liaw, and the people behind Australia’s own sake brewery “Sun Masamune”, Toko Ambo and Alan Noble. With such a team behind it, sake is destined to grow only ever more popular in Australia.
Andre Bishop saw some obstacles, too. “The marketing of sake is a challenge that falls on both brewers and their distribution partners. Australian market is growing but still in its infancy, so both producers and distributors need to invest into sake exposure. Consumers need to see sake in the media”
The 5 distributors present were Daiwa Food, JFC, Jun Pacific, Deja Vu Sake Company and Sakenet.
Also present were the sales manager for the Dassai brand (from Jun Pacific portfolio) and the sales manager for the Ippin brand (from JFC portfolio).
I started my tasting rounds with the Sakenet portfolio. These guys bring very interesting sake. Much deeper in flavour, with a dense, challenging palate. A few wine people in the room stalled at their display, excited to find the familiar complexity in the kōshu (aged sake) flavours. The Sakenet portfolio represents the true complexity of sake – that to every rule, there are exceptions. Think daiginjōs that benefit from warming and sakes that withstand oxidation, and in fact are made to taste “old”. I will soon write in-depth profile of these guys. Sakes that left deep impression on me were:
Hiokizakura Junmai Nigori “Tanzo Nigori”. (Nigori is a “cloudy” sake, pressed through a coarse sieve). It had a strong taste of kasu, the sake lees that are used in cooking, a taste that I find very morish and comforting. It took me Japan, to little shops selling kasu sweets outside breweries.
Tamagawa Junmai Ginjō Omachi. A ginjō served warm (and made to be served warm). Tamagawa brand is brewed by the only non-Japanese tōji working in Japan, Philip Harper. It was a bold, full-flavoured sake, with an earthy aroma of nuts and herbs and some fruits, too. A thinking man’s sake.
Morinukura Junmai Kōshu “Komagura 20 years” was the sake that had wine sommeliers enraptured. It was bottled in 1994. That is OLD! It was delicious, too, with a herbal nose and a velvety palate of liquorice and wood.
Next, I stopped at the Daiwa Food display. At the event, Daiwa focussed on the Kizakura brand. Kizakura is a popular brand from Kyoto, brewed according to the yamahai jikomi method. Yamahai style of sake is made using older, traditional techniques of preparing yeast starter. Instead of adding lactic acid to the fermenting mash to create an acidic environment for sake yeasts to thrive in, the brewery allows lactic acid bacteria naturally accumulate in the tank. This way of fermenting takes longer, and usually results in stronger flavours, and more prominent acidity. Sakes I particularly enjoyed were:
Yamadanishiki Premium Junmai. It had a solid yamahai fragrance with some fruits in it, but a refined and complex palate. I love the solidity of yamahai when dining on food with strong flavours, like fish roe, spices and grilled meat.
Yamahai Jikomi Fustsushu. This sake was a quality table (futsushu) sake suited to a wide variety of food. Yamahai method of brewing added richness to the everyday futsushu.
Kyo no Tokuri Gold. Ok, this was a bit of a gimmick, a sake with gold flakes in it. Apparently, drinking gold brings good health and luck. That one I didn’ spit! Who would say no to more luck? It was quite smooth and mellow, and the main point of interest was floating gold sparkles in your glass. A clear example of the brewer diversifying, and creating some excitement around sake drinking. Well done.
Kizakura range has a few well-priced, well-brewed quality products, and is worth seeking out. Especially if you like value for money!
As a bonus, I got to catch up with Toshi Maeda, Daiwa Food’s resident sake master. I’ve known Mr Maeda for a while, and if you get a chance to catch him present his sake, go – you will be treated to a fun and humorous sake commentary.
Other Daiwa Food brands, although not presented on the night, include Eikun and Michisakari, and quite a few others. Check Daiwa Food lineup online.
Jun Pacific, the Japanese groceries and drinks importing behemoth, presented the crowning glory of their portfolio, Dassai. Dassai is one of the most popular brands in Japan, and famous for its “Niwari Sanbu” sake, also known as Dassai 23. It is a junmai daiginjō brewed with rice milled down to 23% seimaibuai. I had long been a fan of their range, enjoying the three main offerings – Dassai 23, Dassai 39 and Dassai 50. However, at the Consulate, I got to try Dassai sparkling sake for the first time. Oh my! It was also namazake, or unpasteurised sake, and the sparkling freshness was just too gorgeous. It still had that distinct green apple and melon Dassai palate, but overlaid with joyous zing and effervescence. One for celebrating. A must try!
Next stop on my sake tour was Déjà Vu Sake Company. Having loved their sakes for a long time, and used them in my classes, I felt I was catching up with old friends. Not that drinking Deja Vu sakes ever gets old!
Apart from sake, the night featured some delicious food, that showcased the versatility of sake and food matching.
It was a wonderful night and a rare opportunity to compare sake from different suppliers side-by-side. I think it was a fine and innovative example of sake marketing that generated a lot of excitement among the crowd. I hope this is the sign of things to come.
P.S. Read the very insightful interview with Andre Bishop here.