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Throwing a Sake Tasting

#86

Jan. 2008

IN THIS ISSUE
Throwing a Sake Tasting
Taru Kaisen: Sake Shipping Sailors of Olde
Sake Events & Announcements

Throwing a Sake Tasting: Q & A 
With the current availability of an ever-increasing number of sake brands out there, it is becoming more and more feasible to do an in-home tasting with a small-to-medium group. What is great about this is that for a relatively reasonable cost you can expose yourself and your friends to a wide range of sake flavor profiles, as well as brands you might have heard of, seen recommended, or just want to try – and do it all at once. An event like this will surely save you tons of time, effort and money in your sake education efforts, and is highly recommendable in that light alone. They can also be tons of fun! But… where to start? How many sake should you all taste at once? From what glasses? In what order? How much of each type of sake should you order? What kind of set-up works best? What of food or nibbles? And how much should you spend to do it? Should you drink it or use a spittoon? Naturally, there are no simple or all-encompassing answers to any of these questions, but because tastings like these are relatively easy to do now, and so worth it in terms of fostering and furthering sake education, here is a simple set of guidelines presented to make it all easier, less daunting, and more appealing.

Q: How many sake should we taste?
Between six and ten is best. Six, if well chosen for diversity, seems to allow participants to concentrate and retain the most information and impressions, but this can be too few for some. More than ten, though, and it all starts to blur together.

Q: How much of each sake should you prepare?
Well, that depends on a lot of things, now doesn’t it. How formal is your tasting? Will you let it degenerate into a fun party afterwards, or will everyone remain more formal and restrained? (Hint: you need less for the latter, more for the former.) What is your threshold for having too much or some left over versus that for running out? But let us assume some boundary conditions. Let us say everyone will drink an average of two full glasses, each about the size of a wine glass, over the course of the tasting. Let us assume you have six sake, each 720 ml bottle of which holds four full servings. (A large, 1.8 liter bottle will hold ten.) If you have 12 people, that is 12 x 2 = 24 servings, at four per bottle that is exactly six bottles, i.e. one bottle per each of six types. Voila! If you have more people, want more types of sake, or expect a higher consumption per capita, tweak the formula above appropriately. Finally, factor in your willingness to have some left over (that can be raffled off, argued over, or given as prizes) or to run out early. Throw in a dollop of good ole’ intuition, and you’ll be set.

Q: What sake types should be used; what of budget?
A basic rule of thumb would be “stress to impress.” There is no reason to have a tasting of premium sake and then have people leave saying, “Ah, ‘tsawright. Nuttin’ that special. I’ll go back to m’wine now.” Having said that, having a lineup of only top grade sake, like all daiginjo, would defeat a different purpose: that of showing the diversity of sake styles that are out there. So one great way to do it is to include a rather full-flavored, reasonably priced sake like a junmai-shu or two, and then kind of insert sake at several price points on the way up, with a good healthy crescendo at the top. Definitely include one sake to blow everyone’s doors off. And, remembering the guideline that 90% of the time sake is fairly priced, with a reputable local dealer this should be painless.

Q: What of glassware?
Wine glasses work excellently, especially for ginjo. But in a pinch, simple tumblers work fine too. In Japan, for proper and official tastings, large tumbler-like glasses are almost always the glass of choice, although often smaller glasses are used as well in industry tasting events. Almost never does one see glasses with tapered sides like wine glasses used for sake in Japan. But the reasons for that are beyond the scope of this article (and don’t hold much water anyway, no pun intended). I reiterate that wine glasses work very well.

Q: In what order should the sake be tasted?
A simple approach, and perhaps the most conventional, is in order of increasing price. This would generally mean heavier and fuller to lighter and more refined. It allows the palate to warm up before getting into the subtler stuff. However, if you know the sake well (or taste it beforehand), a great way to line them up is so that each one is vastly different from the last. So, you might go from full to light to wildly fruity to subtle to earthy. This keeps everyone in a constant state of surprise and interest, instead of lulling them into a mentally complacent state in which their preconceived notions of what is next affects their true sensory input.

Q: How should sake be lined up? What of logistics?
The easiest way is to line them up on a long table that can be accessed from both sides. Preparing a written list of the sake in the same order is important, with room for those all-important tasting notes. This way, folks can go in a prescribed order, but can also dart in and out along the line, and after running through them once can go back to double-check and taste a bit more of their favorites. Access from both sides of the table prevents lines from unnecessarily forming.

Q: What kind of food / snacks should be served.
Hmm. Actually, it might be best to have no food, or perhaps a few mild-flavored or slightly salty snacks during the sake tasting part. After that, perhaps the sake can all be passed around during a larger meal, but keeping it minimal during the tasting fosters concentration.

Q: Should you drink the sake, or spit?
Nothing can replace the sensory input of tasting a sake and swallowing it too. But neither can anything replace the unique blend of confusion and apathy that sets in after a very short time when one does not spit. Should you have something into which to expectorate readily available, perhaps the optimum compromise is to spit at the beginning then just drink it later on when the tasting mellows out. Of course, each event and involved group will have their own conditions dictating adaptations to the above. But organizing a tasting along the general framework presented here should do you fairly well in terms of fostering a growing interest in sake amongst you and yours.

Taru Kaisen: Sake Shipping Sailors of Olde
Although sake distribution and the distribution of sakagura (sake breweries) around Japan is more or less even around the country, it was not always this way. Today, in any given prefecture and region there are reputable and outstanding sake to be found. And while surely some regions are more esteemed than others, consumers enjoy the sake of every region. But back in the 1700s and 1800s, when Edo (now known as Tokyo) was the defacto military capital, the countless samurai, aristocrats and politicians that made Edo a city of more than one million had just one sake on their minds: that of Nada.

Nada is a region of five villages along the seacoast in what is now Kobe city and neighboring Nishinomiya city, and had been making what was widely recognized as the best sake in Japan since the mid-1700s, a function of great rice in the region, natural factors, and technical prowess. And the thirsty masses of Edo could not get enough of it. So the enterprising brewers and distributors in Nada did their best to be accommodating: the created shipping routes and ships that did nothing else than to bring sake up to Edo.

The volume these puppies carried was enormous. Each one carried 2000 to 3000 taru, or wooden casks used to hold sake back then. Each taru had a capacity to hold 4 “tou,” with one “tou” being equal to 18 liters. As such, these ships were also known as “Sengoku-bune,” since “Sen-goku” means one thousand “koku,” with one “koku” being equal to ten tou. (Got all that?) Sengoku is the typical volume produced by many small kura in existence today – in one full brewing season! All math aside, one of these ships carried the equivalent of about 9,000 cases of wine, and rumor has it that there were several of these ships going to Tokyo each and every week, and hundreds per year.

A couple of (admittedly mediocre) pictures of taru kaisen can be found here: sake-world.com/html/taru_kaisen.html

Interestingly, though, while these taru had the capacity for 4 tou, or 4 x 18 = 72 liters, usually they were only filled 80 to 90 percent of the way. This is because it was shipped up to Edo as genshu, or full strength sake, as it traveled much better that way. One or more members of the distribution chain would then add a bit of water to lower the alcohol content of 20% or so down to a more enjoyable 15-16%. However, some less than scrupulous retailers would add a bit more water. Or a little bit more, or even a tad more, sometimes depending on how much the customer at hand had already imbibed. This led to the derogatory term “kingyo-sake.” Kingyo is goldfish, and the term referred to sake that had been thinned out so much that a goldfish could live inside the taru, unaffected by the now miniscule amount of alcohol.

There was another difference, too, between the sake drunk in Nada and that in Edo, since more time in the taru would put more of a woody scent and flavor into the sake sent up to Edo on the ships.

While most of this sake was coming from the five villages of Nada, the nearby, slightly more inland city of Itami, the former sake-brewing kingpin until dethroned by Nada, was still hanging on enough to get a piece of this action too. Most notably, the venerable Shirayuki was sending ships up weekly as well. More about how Itami lost its crown to Nada can be found here: www.sake-world.com/html/sw-2002_6.html

More about traditional measurements of the sake world, like tou and koku as well as shou and masu, can be found here: www.sake-world.com/html/sw-2004_8.html

These Taru Kaisen at first also carried things like miso, soy sauce, plums, tangerines and konbu (a type of seaweed) from the places where they grew or were produced the best, and sent them up to the demanding nobles in Edo, but by the second half of the 19th century, it was all sake. The ships landed in a place called Shinkawa (“New River”) in Tokyo, and not surprisingly even today most of the alcohol beverage distributors (at least those whose history spans several generations) in the Tokyo area are headquartered in Shinkawa. While the sake landscape has changed much since then, both for better and for worse, interesting remnants of the industry’s history still reverberate today.

Sake Events and Announcements
Sake and Pottery Seminar February 3, 2007. The next sake seminar at Takara is scheduled for Saturday, February 3, 2007. It will be the yearly seminar on sake basics. Also in attendance to provide a basic seminar on Japanese pottery will ceramics luminary Rob Yellin. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing John from his web site at www.sake-world.com .