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While talking about Sake with a buyer for Marks & Spencer today, I was reminded of a few articles I wrote for the Drinks Business while travelling last year. This was the first.  

Aaah Japan, home of sushi and sake, where ancient traditions sit alongside cutting edge technology. Of all the countries on my itinerary, it is the drinks of Japan that intrigue me the most, from the ‘rice wine’ for which it’s perhaps most famous, to the whiskies which are beginning to hold their own on the international stage.

While only a short stop on my travels, I have packed a lot into the plans, visiting distilleries and breweries, and meeting some rather interesting characters along the way.

Sake – the ideal introduction

It is in a dark and deserted street, somewhere north of Kyoto’s downtown area, that I come for my first authentic introduction to sake.

An unassuming, simple sign outside the glass sliding door in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it position heralds my destination – Yoramu Sake Bar. Its proprietor Yoram, an Israeli who settled in Japan over 20 years ago, may not at first glance seem a conventional source of knowledge on this national drink, but he certainly knows his stuff and has experience in expertly guiding visitors who stumble across his bar through their first real introduction to the beverage.

The first step being to explain that sake is actually called ‘Nihonshu’, and the word sake actually refers to an alcoholic drink in Japanese. Second of all, he makes it clear that the sake I have been drinking in the UK probably isn’t the good stuff.

“Sake, or Nihonshu, has had a very unfortunate history in the post-war years,” he explains. “There are a lot of imposters in existence which have a lot of foreign alcohol added to it. Very few people are aware that this proper sake exists, including the locals.

“You have difficulty finding a good Nihonshu. Old people have grown up drinking the very chemically enhanced drinks, so the proper Nihonshu isn’t what they’re looking for when they’re drinking it.

“The proper Nihonshu, which I would compare to something like a single malt whisky as opposed to a blended whisky, makes up a very small niche in the market, about 10%, but this niche is growing. There’s incredible stuff being made, but unfortunately it’s not really established yet. To find good Nihonshu, you have to find someone you trust and try it.”

Which is why I’m here. A lot of the visitors that darken Yoram’s door are those who are interested in drinks, so he has plenty of experience in leading people through tastings. “I try to do tasting sets within the taste range that these people like,” he says. “The taste range of Nihonshu is wide – it can go from being dry and fruity, like a light white wine, to being full-bodied and vegetal.

“Sake is unique in that if you taste the same product aged to one year and 20 years, you won’t know that they’re the same. One will taste like Sherry and one will taste like Chardonnay.” And indeed this is so – tasting one particular variety that had been aged for one year next to its 28-year-old version is an extraordinary experience, with the two liquids standing poles apart, starting with the colour. The former is a pale straw shade while the latter is a deep auburn.

Yoram’s back bar may be compact in comparison to most bars as we know them, but that doesn’t mean that the range and variety of the products on offer is limited, as becomes evident upon tasting.

As with many things in Japan such as drinking tea, there is always the worry that there are secret Nihonshu rituals unknown to outsiders that we may fall prey to, but the consumption of this drink is actually fairly straightforward.

Glassware is simple – it’s best enjoyed in an earthenware bowl, with the usual ritual seeing a basket full of varying shapes and sizes being presented for your choice of receptacle. The wooden square boxes you see can also be used, and when these are brought to you, sip from a corner, not the side.

“Drinking Nihonshu is not as scientific as wine – I once had some French winemakers who came in and blasted my glasses. The thing is that these glasses only make a difference to the smell. If you care about the taste, then you can drink it from a soup bowl or a $200 glass, it’ll be the same.”

And so we set about tasting some of the Nihonshu that Yoram has collected, the correct method of tasting being a new experience in itself. It is best tasted on the tip of the tongue – hold the liquid at the front of your mouth and pull air over it, try not to swill too much.

The varieties we take in swing from pasteurised to unpasteurised, unfiltered varieties which are white and viscous, and ‘Shinshu’, which is the Nihonshu equivalent to Beaujolais Nouveau, and is light, dry and fruity.

A fairly sweet variety – which still maintains some underlying saltiness – is produced using the Kiejoshu method, Yoram explains, which is very similar to Port production in that alcohol is added, however it is Nihonshu made from the previous year that is added rather than foreign alcohol.

Two hours in this lovely little bar pass by in a flash – an unofficial tasting with its proprietor being as informative as a WSET class in London. Except that you’re in the country of the drink’s origin, which makes the whole experience that little bit more fun.

Yoramu Sake Bar: Nijo-dori east of Karasuma, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan

Tel: +81 075-213-1512. Hours: 18:00 – 24:00, Wed-Sat


Sake Bombs

While not a Japanese tradition, I was amused to learn about some of the ‘Bomb’ drink rituals in the US courtesy of some Americans that have been befriended along the way. It turns out that there are plenty, including one celebrating Japan’s drinks.

Taking a glass of Japanese beer, say Asahi, you place a set of chopsticks on top, and on top of this place a shot of sake.

Someone in the group yells ‘When I say sake, you say bomb! Sake!’ and then the group responds by shouting ‘Bomb!’ and hitting the table.

The cries of ‘Sake!’ and ‘Bomb!’ are then repeated, whilst hitting the table, until the shots of sake drop through the chopsticks into the beer, whereupon the drink is supposedly downed in one go.

This is obviously not the kind of behaviour that follows the idea of responsible drinking, but I had to admire the creativity involved.

To see this article in full on the Drinks Business site, click here