Sakenet – the sake, the people, the philosophy.
Sakenet – the introduction
Selling saké is not our main purpose, our true purpose is introducing these saké, saké makers and their philosophy. So we have no choice, because we love to do this – Masahiro Takahashi.
I feel bad. I’ve had the Sake Guide website for almost two years now, and still haven’t covered Sakenet. Sakenet is a Sydney-based importer (with a Melbourne outpost). Their sake portfolio is vast – 26 breweries, several products from each. Sakenet guys bring important brands – think Taketsuru, Tamagawa, Izumibashi. Those brands are not easy. It takes a certain level of sake experience to understand and appreciate them.
In saying that, I have a confession to make. I first went to Sakenet tasting in 2014. Tasting through the lineup, I wondered. “Could this be right? The sake tastes, well, old! ”
I asked Rey Takahashi, the Sakenet representative on the day, when the sake was opened.
“About a week ago”, he said. “Here, try this daiginjō warm”.
Coming from John Gauntner’s school of sake, I was baffled. Sake opened a week before tasting? Daiginjōs sitting in hot water baths? I had been enjoying fresh, chilled, clear-as-morning-dew sakes from Nagano and Shizuoka. What was going on?
I asked my sake sensei John Gaunter if I was missing something. As it turns out, I was.
There are sake brands that are tough against oxidation, brands that are meant to taste mature, even “old”. There are daiginjōs that will taste better warmed up. There is just a handful of those brands, and Sakenet found them. Shinkame, Taketsuru (toji at Taketsuru used to work at Shinkame, by the way). Fusotsuru, Bentenmusume, Tamagawa – all exceptions to the contemporary trend of fragrant, delicate daiginjos that come to your table chilled, in a glass.
So our first encounter was a sake lesson for me. You learn nothing until you are proven wrong!
Since then, I attended a few more Sakenet tastings, and got to know the family behind the company.
The patriarch, Sakae Takahashi, lives the life of abundance He has a big sake portfolio and a big family. He runs the company with his son Rey and son-in-law Masahiro (who goes by the name Taka). Taka is also part of the successful creative duo Dear Plastic. The other half of Dear Plastic is Sakae’s daughter Yumi Takahashi, Taka’s wife. Another daughter, Miwa Takahashi, is also an artist and designer. Too much talent in one family, if you ask me.
Sakae Takahashi opened Sydney’s first yakitori bar, Toriciya. He has sold it since, but Toriciya was the start of the family’s sake journey. 20 years ago, the only sake he could find in Australia was machine-made sake from large sake makers. Sakae realised that if he wanted to serve good sake, he had to import it himself. Sakae travelled to Japan and went from kura to kura, attending local tastings and talking to brewers. Whenever he liked a sake, he asked the brewer to sell it to him. The first two kura that agreed to sell sake to him were Asahikiku and Morinokura.
I believe sakés like Tamagawa, Fusōzuru, Takesturu and Shinkamé are not the sort of sakés that can be understood in one sitting. Like a Beethoven string quartet, they are filled with subtle complexities that aren’t immediately obvious. It takes time to get to know them – Rey Takahashi.
Ready for something even more interesting? Sakenet also import Izumibashi, a well-respected brand from Kanagawa. Brewers are fastidious about creating a truly local, ecologically clean sake, and grow their own rice.
So far, only six brands covered! I will leave the remaining 20 for another day. I hope your interest in Sakenet sake is piqued by now.
Another thing that Sakenet do differently is the way they treat their sake. In my classes, and my website, I often speak about how important it is to store sake properly. Keep it chilled. Drink it fresh, drink it quickly. Sakenet take a different approach. They maintain that all their brands, once opened, will last 6-7 months, even out of the fridge. I know that many in the sake industry will contest this point. My favourite deadline for drinking freshly opened sake is 2 weeks. Several distributors and brewers told me sake should keep well for a month after opening.
So, why so different? I have already mentioned that several brands in the Sakenet portfolio are indeed brewed to be tough against oxidation. So the brand selection is one reason. Another side of the equation is personal preference. As Taka told me, he would sometimes open a bottle and find it “tasting too fresh”. He then would leave it for a day or two, until it tasted suitably settled.
My advice – experiment yourself. Buy a bottle and drink it over time. See how the taste changes. See what you prefer. There are no hard and fast rules.
To me it is important that saké has been made with loving care and attention—the workers who make good saké are on duty 24 hours a day! I don’t focus on ageing or the need to keep saké for a long time, but if the saké has been properly made, it will age well – Sakae Takahashi.
Sakenet – the interview
Now, to the interesting stuff. I asked Sakae, Rey and Taka about how they choose their sake, how they drink it – and how often they drink it!
Sake Guide: How do you choose which sake to import? Is there an underpinning philosophy?
Around the time of the Sydney Olympics I came across a book about saké, written by Hiroshi Uehara, who worked in the Japanese Department of Taxation in Hiroshimae. He was in charge of the section that deals with the saké industry. This section is not only concerned with collecting taxes from the various sectors of the saké industry, but also with the quality of the saké produced. Hiroshi Uehara’s book sets out in detail the steps necessary to produce good saké—it is equivalent to the saké-makers’ bible. On visits to Japan I tried many of these top sakés and found that my taste in saké is very similar to his. To me it is important that saké has been made with loving care and attention—the workers who make good saké are on duty 24 hours a day! I don’t focus on ageing or the need to keep saké for a long time, but if the saké has been properly made, it will age well.
My requirements for choosing saké are: 1. The saké can be enjoyed at a range of temperatures. 2. Saké that develops with age. 3. Saké that cooperates with food, a wide variety of food.
As for the saké makers, I like saké makers that are just as interested in ‘how’ they make something as ‘what’ they make. I like the makers who take the time and effort to make something good and take pride in what they make and what they do. I especially like the saké makers who love and drink the saké that they make.
I like saké makers who are interested in the welfare and development of saké makers (the workers who make the saké.)
Finally I like saké makers who I like to hang out with, saké makers who I like to drink saké with! I believe that the personality and the energy of the makers comes out in the saké.
We only import saké that we want to drink. With new saké, we will taste it before we decide to import it. For this reason, each of us travel to Japan at least once a year. However with some seasonal or limited saké, due to timing, we have to import without tasting. In this case, our strong connection with saké drinkers, izakaya restaurants, local bottle shops and saké makers in Japan help with collecting information about these saké.
More than the taste, we have a clear philosophy when selecting saké. The last 100 years, the technologies of saké making has changed drastically. Some of them are not purely for creating quality saké, and the importing of western technologies has accelerated these changes too.
These changes now have a long history and have become a part of Japanese tradition.
However, our saké makers are passionate about the saké history before those changes came about. This is what they believe saké should be.
Sakenet Australia also believes and supports these saké makers and their philosophy.
The ageing is part of this philosophy. Similar to wine, it has been thought that saké gains complexity with ageing.
This isn’t only about the taste. If saké had to be consumed very quickly, saké would be only available in Spring to early Summer. But Japanese people have consumed saké in all seasons.
Additionally we believe that the ability of ageing and long life is a key factor for worldwide distribution. And this is why saké could be transported from locals to the big city (like Edo) a long time ago.
Sake Guide: Why do you choose sake with more challenging flavour profile? Do you think you make your job harder because of your preferences?
Choosing saké with a more challenging flavour profile provides more complexity and interest in the drinking experience. I don’t know whether doing this makes my job harder or not. Maybe it demands more educating of the consumer’s palate.
Our sakés are not the fashionable modern sakés, primarily because they are not to our taste. We enjoy ‘traditional’ saké culture; for us traditional saké culture is pre WW2 saké culture, Japanese saké culture that has developed over hundreds of years, as a part of Japanese food culture. Traditional Japanese saké culture is a very unique saké culture, unlike any other fermented beverage culture in the world. As mentioned above saké(traditionally made saké) is designed to be enjoyed heated, i.e. It’s optimal temperature is 40~60˚C. With one bottle of saké(traditional saké) you can do so much, enjoy so many different flavor profiles just by changing the temperature, I find this aspect of saké a lot of fun.
I should mention that Taketsuru and Shinkamé don’t taste “old” from the start, these sakés are aged for a few years before shipping. I believe the complex flavours of matured saké are very good for matching with food (a wide variety of food, not just Japanese food).
When we have done tastings with food, I have noticed, that people really love the matchings with matured sakés.
I believe sakés like Tamagawa, Fusōzuru, Takesturu and Shinkamé are not the sort of sakés that can be understood in one sitting. Like a Beethoven string quartet, they are filled with subtle complexities that aren’t immediately obvious. It takes time to get to know them.
One of the great things about these sakés, and Beethoven, is that you can drink them over and over again and you will not get bored with them. They are sakés for everyday use, to develop a relationship with, not just for a toast.
Maybe marketing this kind of saké is harder, (I’m not sure as I have not tried any other.) but I think working with something you are passionate about makes things easier, and I believe anything that is worth doing comes with a few challenges.
Sakenet started introducing saké makers who has the philosophy in my answer to the previous question.
We know that it is a challenging to sell this type of saké in the current market. However, selling saké is not our main purpose, our true purpose is introducing these saké, saké makers and their philosophy. So we have no choice, because we love to do this.
One of our criteria for choosing saké is, it should taste better when it is heated. This is not only for Junmai, but Junmai-ginjo and Junmai-daiginjo. This is also an indicator if the saké is good for ageing.
Many of saké from Taketsuru or Shinkame are released after a few years ageing in Kura (saké makers site). So these saké are not new from the beginning. These saké makers would like saké to have maturity (calmness), not freshness (fashionable). Shinkame saké maker’s owner, Mr. Ogawahara, says his saké is for adults (over 35 years old), not for kids.
I understand this means saké is similar to people. As it ages, it matures with time.
Sake Guide: What are the top selling brands in your portfolio direct to consumers? And, what are the brands that sell best in restaurants? Is there a difference?
Top selling brands direct to the consumers are: Taka and Koikawa. Tamagawa, Koikawa, Morinokura, Izumibashi and Umetsu sell best in restaurants. This difference probably depends on the price at the restaurants and the food that is served.
I think the top selling brands are: Koikawa, Komagura, Asahikiku, Tamagawa, Taka and Suiryu.
In Melbourne, at this moment, no particular brand has more popularity compared with other brands. However, some consumers and restaurants start showing their interest to some saké with unique or interesting background. We believe this is a result of our work over the last several years. But we know it is not enough and we should work harder to introduce these saké’s true value.
Sake Guide: Do you feel it is harder to market your sake when you have so many brands, or is it easier?
In total we carry saké from 26 different saké-makers. Again I can’t say whether having so many different brands makes it easier or harder to market our saké. I want to provide a wide range of saké types and flavours to our customers and to do this it is necessary to offer saké from a range of saké-makers.
We have 26 saké makers and 9 shōchū/awamori makers. As far as marketing goes I don’t think it makes it much more difficult as they fit our style of saké culture.
We have more than 200 different saké from 26 brands. We are very small family company of only 3 staff members, so at a moment these 26 brands is the maximum for us. But we would like to have more in the future.
Each saké has a different background. The differences are not only about the methods or ingredients.
We have a lot of information and also our own thoughts about each saké. However, this information is sometimes too much for the current market.
So we always try to see our customers’ preferred style /taste or situations. Then we will suggest some saké and show the detail information.
Sake Guide: What do you think sake industry needs to do in order to make sake more popular?
For saké to become more popular, ie more widely consumed, I believe education is required at all levels of the industry, from importers to distributers, restaurant, bar and bottle shop owners, as well as the wait staff in restaurants. At Sakenet we run tastings and workshops for professionals working in restaurants and bars, as well as for interested consumers.
For the last two Japanese winters one of our staff members has spent some months working in a few of our saké-makers, gaining first-hand experience of the saké-making process. I believe everyone connected with the industry needs ongoing education.
I believe the Saké industry should stop trying to be like wine. I believe for too long the saké industry has tried too hard to compete with wine, on wine’s turf, (which to me, is like a Judoka fighting a boxer in a boxing ring, under boxing rules) under these conditions saké won’t be judged and respected on it’s own terms.
I believe language is very important, so I would like to get rid of words like “rice wine” and “brewery” (and all other “brew” related words) when talking about saké. Saké is saké and it’s ‘made’ in a “Kura”, just like wine is made in a winery and beer is brewed in a brewery.
The other point is, I believe saké should be served in tokkuri and choko. Choko and tokkuri were designed as a part of saké culture to bring out the best in saké, so I think it should be promoted thus. No one would think of having a traditional tea ceremony with wedgewood china, so I don’t understand saké in wine glasses.
I love wine and beer as much as I love saké and shōchū. Saké is neither better than nor inferior to wine and beer. It is very different from other fermenting traditions. It has its own unique method of production, its own culture and method of consumption, its own aroma and flavor profiles and it has its own vocabulary so let’s use it. Saké is saké and needs to be treated and promoted as saké. I think if people experience saké this way they will have better tools to appreciate and respect saké for what it is.
Yes I think events promoting saké and saké culture are a great way to promote saké.
We think that the advertising in magazines or some media is only for a short term.
The face to face communication makes longer and stronger connection between us (or saké, saké makers) to consumers. By our experience, small events are better than large events for this reason, and it works for us too.
We also think, for long term popularity (being a part of the culture), saké industry needs to collaborate with other cultural industries like food, ceramics and arts.
Sakenet Australia has invited saké makers to Australia over the past few years. Last year, we organised a saké and ceramic collaborative exhibition.
This year, we will invite 1 to 2 saké makers every month from June to September.
And we will weave Japanese slow food culture into these events.
Sake Guide: And finally – how much sake do you drink yourself? Is there sake with every dinner in Takahashi family? And is there a favourite sake/food pairing?
We do drink saké with dinner most nights. My favourites are Taketsuru, Shinkame, Hiokizakura, Bentenmusume and Asahigiku—warmed, even in summer. It’s hard to say which one is the best. These go with most of our meals and will also go with most Australian meals.
The Takahashi family loves saké and we do get through a fair bit, we have saké with our dinner almost every night of the week. We do try to keep one “alcohol free night”.
For me, my favourite saké pairing is saké and cheese (specifically Suwaizumi Tokubetsu Junmai 20BY and Cremeux D’argental.)
My wife and I have “2 go” (360ml) to “3 go” (540ml) of saké together at the dinner everyday, or sometimes we have wine. So I drink 180ml to 270ml everyday (?).
I don’t have a particular favourite pairing of saké with food, I have lots! I have 2 different pairing methods.
- Choosing food first, then choosing saké.
- Choosing saké first, then choosing food.
For example, for pasta with tomato sauce, I may choose Koikawa Junmai-ginjo “Kameji-kojitsu” at warm temperature.