Places

Sake’s Radical Awakening

February 13, 2020

Story: Tom Downey

Photo: Jérémie Souteyrat

Places

Sake’s Radical Awakening

February 13, 2020

Story: Tom Downey

Art: Jérémie Souteyrat

Drawing comparisons to the natural wine movement, sake’s avant-garde is reinvigorating the category by challenging everything we thought we knew about it.

Beyond the cobblestone pathways, the ancient temples and the storied inns of Old Kyoto, and past the modern city of 1.5 million people, with its desolate strip malls, lonely-looking family restaurants and stadium-sized supermarkets, the countryside materializes abruptly, as if plastered on a blue screen before us. Suddenly, the only sound is our old car’s engine, struggling to climb the hill. A narrow road gives way to dense green forest. I breathe in, expecting pine trees and morning breeze. Instead, I get a whiff of wet dog.

“Sorry, I drive my rescue dogs around in this car,” says Yoram Ofer, my host on this journey, and the owner of the single best sake bar in the world, Kyoto’s Sake Bar Yoramu.

Soon we reach an isolated stretch of rural road and spy a series of small buildings straddling the pavement. After miles of nothing and no one, there is suddenly a burst of activity: bottles going in and out, supply trucks noisily pulling into position, a door sliding open to reveal a storage shed stacked with bottles of Akishika sake. As we pull in to park, Akishika’s owner and master brewer, Hiroaki Oku, a thin, gray-haired, bespectacled man in his fifties bounds out to meet us. We walk past sacks of rice piled to the ceiling and a polishing machine frantically whirring as it preps rice grains for sake. “This is my family business,” says Oku. “But I didn’t grow up making or drinking sake. The first time I tried sake—not my family’s sake, but just a random sake—I tasted it and I thought, ‘Wow, this is awful. My family makes something as bad as this?’” Oku worked in a completely unrelated job selling sports equipment, but when he got married, he returned home and started working in the family’s sixth-generation sake business. “We used to grow cooking rice,” he says. “But not sake rice. Then I thought: This makes no sense. We should grow the rice for our sake, too.”

Akishika is one of the few sake producers who have cuvees made entirely from their own rice.

While personally growing the crop that will determine the quality of your beverage is now a given in wine production, it remains a rare practice in sake, even among the best makers. Over the past couple of decades, Oku has both increased his own rice production and moved to completely organic and biodynamic farming methods for the rice he grows and buys. This part of Japan is very wet, gets very warm and provides the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of pests, which means that yields from organic rice fields are typically less than half of those from conventionally farmed fields. But Oku believes that, like grapevines, rice needs to struggle to show its true character. “You need to … almost starve them,” he says. “If the rice gets too much nutrition it masks its true character.”

The simplest way to describe sakes like Akishika’s—which comprise a small, but growing avant-garde that includes Terada Honke, Yorokobi Gaijin and Kidoizumi, among others—is that they are strong and bold in flavor and texture, rather than focused on perfumed aromatics. These sakes are made only from rice, koji and water, as opposed to many other sakes that have alcohol, or a host of other ingredients, added to them. (This is junmai sake, which is useful to think of as a basic, initial qualification for good sake.) They are undiluted and not charcoal-filtered. Many of these producers make a sizable chunk of their sake unpasteurized (which is called namazake, meaning “raw sake”), and use more labor-intensive production methods from the past to produce richer, deeper flavors. A growing number of them are made using organically grown rice. A few use only indigenous yeast. All of them argue, implicitly, that conventional sake has radically overvalued aroma and undervalued taste, complexity and aliveness.

The kinds of sake that producers like Akishika make are the category’s corollary to natural wine.

The best of them, in the opinion of a small—but growing, and decidedly iconoclastic—group of enthusiasts, brewers and exporters, are long-aged namazake. To get an idea of how unusual this category is in the world of sake, look no further than sake textbooks or sake sommelier certification courses, all of which advise, authoritatively, that namazake should always be refrigerated, and goes bad a year after brewing or a few days after opening. As such, true believers in aged namazake aren’t just slightly deviating from these rules, they’re throwing them out the window, eschewing refrigeration, leaving them to mature for years—sometimes in bottles that are purposely opened to let air in and then resealed for aging. This is as if a dedicated group of wine lovers were to uncork wine bottles meant to be drunk within a few days, but hold onto them, after opening, for years, then declare them to be the highest form of wine known to man. The crazy thing is that, in my opinion, they’re right: These sakes range from tart and high in acid to earthy and gently sweet, and render even the best conventional sake completely forgettable.

Many of aged namazake’s acolytes can trace their interest back to Ofer, the sake exporter and owner of Kyoto’s eight-seat Sake Bar Yoramu. “I knew that my sake acquired complexity when it aged,” says Oku of Akishika. “But I never thought of that as something I could sell. Yoram [Ofer] convinced me it was.” Now, all of Oku’s top cuvée, Okushika, is aged at least three years before its release. “But I’d like people to only start drinking it after five years,” Oku insists.

Hiroaki Oku, owner and master brewer of Akishika (left). The empty bottles in the Akishika office show the brewery’s range of cuvees (right).

Fujio Honma is something of the Tokyo equivalent of Ofer. Honma started out in the sake business at his family’s shop in western Tokyo, which, at the time, stocked all of the usual big-name brands. One day, about 30 years ago, a sake maker friend shared an old bottle he’d discovered in his brewery’s cellar with Honma. “When I tasted that aged namazake, I finally found something that had a real and strong taste with a deep structure,” says Honma. Soon after that he began to dedicate himself to selling the kind of sake he had learned that he loved: junmai sake, mostly unpasteurized, much of it aged or age-worthy. “You don’t have to be neurotic about how to store it,” he says. “The sakes I sell to age have a fundamental structure that doesn’t break down over time.”

My first exposure to long-aged namazakes came through Nick Coldicott, a British-born drinks writer, and now sake expert and exporter. (Coldicott, Honma and Ofer form a kind of trifecta of this sake style, working in various ways to promote, sell, serve, export and distribute it in Japan and abroad.) Coldicott opened the formidable cellar, housed beneath a hatch in the kitchen floor of his Tokyo flat, and started pouring until I stood converted. Like many others, Coldicott’s view of sake was forever changed by Sake Bar Yoramu. He came to sake with extensive experience reporting and writing about wine, beer, whiskey and cocktails. Though he lived in Tokyo, he’d always thought sake was not worth consuming if there was other, better, stuff on offer. That changed several years ago, when he sat down at Ofer’s bar, and Ofer poured him an aged namazake. “This was a drink as complex and as interesting as anything I’d tasted in wine or whiskey,” says Coldicott. “But almost no one in the world knew about it.”

The Natural Wine Parallel

Sakes like the finest cuvées of Akishika are deliberately crafted to age and evolve, which means they are brewed with high acidity and high alcohol, lending structure and staying power. The range of intense, complex flavors that you can find in these kinds of sakes is stunning. Aged Akishika tends toward a deep, rounded cacao note, while aged namazake from Yorokobi Gaijin bears a racy citrus through-note that can make even a 12-year-old brew feel fresh and alive. The best of them, for me, avoid the identifiably sweeter, caramelly realm associated with aged, pasteurized sake.

A symbolic turning point for this style of bigger, bolder sakes, made from small producers, came when Noma popped up in Japan a few years ago. Chef René Redzepi’s 16-course meal was accompanied not by the famed and famously pricy sakes heavily promoted in Japan and abroad, but by those from obscure producers, like Terada Honke and Mukai Shuzo, at the time virtually unknown both inside and outside the country. They are now on the radar of natural wine enthusiasts from Australia and Europe, where Ofer exports the sakes. Soon, they’ll be available in New York via natural wine importer Zev Rovine, who doesn’t plan to target the usual sake outlets, like Japanese restaurants. He sees an opportunity elsewhere: “We’re looking to sell this sake to bars, restaurants and retailers who focus on natural wine,” he says.

It makes sense. The kinds of sake that producers like Akishika make are, to me, the category’s corollary to natural wine. But it isn’t as simple as saying, “This is natural sake,” because, in truth, there is nothing natural about the complex steps required to turn rice into drinkable alcohol. However, parallels can be drawn.These sakes are profoundly alive, changing dramatically over months or years. As Oku demonstrates, they place a new emphasis on the quality and cultivation of the rice itself. And rather than using extensive polishing and brewing techniques that obscure a particular batch of rice’s unique characteristics, these sake makers really want you to taste their rice.

Sheets of sake lees are removed from the press.

Akishika’s truly startling Motoshibori bottling reminded me just how vast that range of rice flavors can be. It’s sweet, acidic and naturally sparkling, with the balance of a great Mosel riesling and a profile that channels fine pear cider. It too can age, even after opening, losing its sparkle but rounding out the acidity so that the rich, thick, creamy rice taste comes through. It is the single bottle that prompted Tokyo two-star Michelin restaurant Les Créations de Narisawa to radically reorient their sake menu. As I walked through Akishika’s brewery and we entered the room where the starter mash that forms the base for this kind of sake is prepared, I asked Oku how he came up with it. “I worked for years and years in the starter mash room,” he says. This is where, stripped to the waist, brewery workers mix koji, a kind of mold, with steamed rice to create the mash that will later help kick-start the fermentation process. “I loved the smell of this place, the intensity of the mash. I made this sake to capture that.”

The most persuasive anecdote I’ve heard about the ability of these kinds of sakes to resonate with devotees of natural wine came from Masahiro Takahashi, owner of his eponymous sake bar, one of Kyoto’s best. “When I tasted natural wines for the first time a few years ago, I decided to just shut down my sake bar,” he tells me. “Sake had nothing as complex or interesting as the natural wines I drank. So why should I sell it?” Takahashi’s story would have ended there. But just as he was making plans to shutter, he happened to try an organic sake fermented using only the wild yeast present in the brewery, and brewed using a method mostly abandoned long ago. “When I drank Terada Honke for the first time,” he says, of the experience, “I decided to stay open and dedicate myself to this kind of sake only.”

Takahashi’s experience points to a fundamental question that has nagged the sake industry for years: Why are beer and wine—and now even whiskey and cocktails—considered worthy of global recognition, investment and curation, while sake, both inside and outside Japan, lags so far behind? The proponents of sake’s new avant-garde offer a provocative answer: Because we simply have not encountered sake worth serious contemplation or investment—until now.

Where To Find and Drink Namazake

USA

  • Ofer’s sakes are imported by Zev Rovine Selections and are expected to be available in New York this spring at natural wine bars, retailers and restaurants that Rovine supplies.
  • In Los Angeles, Courtney Kaplan and Charles Namba’s Tsubaki and OTOTO have the finest sake selection in the country, including some of Ofer’s exports, like Kidoizumi.

Japan

  • Yoram Ofer’s eight-seat Sake Bar Yoramu, in central Kyoto, is the single best sake bar in the world, and is only open Wednesday to Saturday evenings.
  • Fujio Honma’s Honma Saketen, in Western Tokyo near Shibuya and Shinjuku, is the city’s best sake retailer, with an impressive selection of both aged and age-worthy namazake. (2-43-7, Sasazuka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 151-0073, Japan 03-3377-8281)
  • Nick Coldicott periodically runs a pop-up sake bar in Tokyo, hosts events devoted to drinking rare, often very old brews, and conducts private sake tasting seminars. You can track his events and contact him via his Instagram account, @mr_coldicott.
  • Two excellent, small Tokyo bars where you can find a range of great sake, including aged namazake, often from Akishika, are Umebachee and KomeKome.

Asia

  • Coldicott and Ofer export to Asia under their KuroKura label. You can find their impressive range of sake in Singapore at places like No Sleep Club and Skai.

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