It’s always a surprise, though it shouldn’t be. The smoothness, the mountain stream clarity , the way it slips past my lips like a lover’s tongue on its way down my throat to ignite a furnace of everything-will-be-alright.
I love sake. That’s why my stores carry 28 different kinds of this Japanese national drink which has been brewed since at least the 3rd century by fermenting rice until it’s as smooth as the purest stream in a mountain valley. (We also sell 11 kinds of Shochu – Japanese vodka, some made with rice, some with buckwheat, some with sweet potato.)
When I think of sake, I can almost taste bite-size pieces of fresh raw fish and crisp vegetables with just the right amount of wasabi-zing. And it doesn’t hurt that the alcohol content (15-18%) is higher than beer or grape-wine. I sip sake like I’m actually tasting the moments. Clear, sweet, cool, a long swallow to a crisp awakening. For me, drinking good sake approaches perfection.
The story of sake is a perfect metaphor for my business in these times. Grounded in history, improved with technology but returning often to traditional processes to ensure perfection, this is a drink with meaning, symbolic of culture and celebration and solid identity.
The earliest mention of alcohol as a drink in Japan comes from the Book of Wei, a Chinese 3rd century record that illustrates Japanese celebration through drinking and dancing. In the first documents from Japan, the Kojiki, compiled 500 years later in 712, sake is mentioned by name as a significant element in the Japanese way of life.
The first incarnation of this famed beverage was unlike the smooth swallow of today. Called kuchikami no sake, or mouth-chewed sake, it was created by people crunching nuts or grains, spitting them into a pot and allowing fermentation to occur through saliva enzymes. (A great example of time creating an improved product.)
For 500 years beginning in the 10th century, houses of worship were the main centers for sake brewing. A detail that I love is that today, most of the 2,300 sake breweries in Japan are returning to old-fashioned methods of production.
This is a pure drink, with low acidity and no sulfites to mess with your equilibrium, made by the passion of generations and the crystalline water of mountain streams and snow melt. I am heartened to ingest a product protected by the pollutant-free air of the Niigata Mountains, where more than 30 feet of annual snowfall wards off the invasion of impurities.
And in fact, while I almost love all sake the same, as if the different incarnations were individual children of mine, it is the blue bottle from Niigata – Kikusui – that I love most. It’s almost impossible to describe its clarity and hint of sweetness, how it stands apart from the rest just enough to win my heart. The taste is so smooth it instantly becomes part of me and then there is no separation between a sip and a sentiment.
Perhaps this version of sake is so good because it is made according to the natural order of the seasons. Think about what it would be like if we lived dedicated to the local harvest, imbued by our natural environs. If the very climate of our home locale dictated industry and quality. If the mere process of creation demanded only a few wholesome ingredients. If natural air purifiers like a constant winter blanket almost guaranteed that nothing would impinge on the purity of process.
What strikes me most, though, is that despite centuries of change and adjustment and alleged improvement, for the sake of perceived quality or to save a few dimes, the original processes have reappeared time and again as the best true way to create a fine drink. Saving a dollar can sometimes mean sacrifice of meaning.
It’s ok to switch from cedar tanks to ceramic-lined or stainless steel holdings. It’s the way the ingredients are generated, especially the koji, that makes such a difference to sake’s ultimate flavor. Traditionally, koji was made by hand in wood-paneled rooms kept warm and humid, and for the best bottles today, I’m thrilled to know that it’s still hand-pressed.
Koji is this drink’s magic ingredient, steamed rice with koji-kin, or mold spores, added in. Change the way you polish the rice or make the koji and you affect everything.
The art of sake-making is so subtle. Each bottle has its own characteristics, its own saving graces, its own details that make it my preference at that very moment of sipping. I like the clearest. I like the cloudy unfiltered Kuromatsu Hakashika Nigori. I like it all. It is indeed an art to make this fine drink and an art to taste it on a mellow night, in good company, with nowhere more important to be.
Because the best sake comes from pure water, perfect rice and expert koji. Nothing more, nothing less, no added elements to muddy the outcome. I remember that as I stroll the aisles of my stores. Nothing more, nothing less, no added elements to muddy the outcome. Simply the perfection of time and thought, of attention to detail and processes put in place carefully, with concern and care and the notion that every step matters along with the purity of every ingredient.