Sake Moment - Purposely Abusing Sake
Recalling past Newsletter issues it is obvious that I like to abuse sake. No not heavy drinking! No not sake bongs or sake body shots (not yet at least), rather putting sake under duress to see what happens. We continually create experiments to see how well sake stands up to the "elements" of transportation and storage and the keeping of brews once released from well-conditioned breweries.
Typically what I do is to take two bottles from the same batch - keep one in good condition (store in a dark and cool place or even in the fridge) and the other goes to sake hell in one way or another. For example four years ago I took two bottles of Kan Chiku Junmai Dai Ginjo - put one in my basement and the other in my store's window display. What? You put sake in direct sunlight? Yes-sir-ee! For two months that bottle had direct hot sunlight hitting it each and every day. This is a big No-No in the world of handling most alcohols. But I wanted to see what the ultimate effect would be on the brew.
During a big tasting (The Comfort Food and Sake Pairing) I pulled the two bottles out and let the tasters try two exact bottles of the same sake. Obviously the color of the window sake had turned more golden and the nose became muskier. But this didn't translate to bad tasting sake - in fact 75% of the tasters preferred the damaged sake to the well-kept bottle. Thus proving my point that if a sake is made well - it will drink well even under the harshest of mishandlings.
Fast forward to November 2007 to an experiment that Lynette Harui (from True Sake) did involving the same parameters of a well-kept bottle and a bottle of sake that got screwed! Lynette wanted to see the effects of florescent lights on sake and she picked Taisetsu from Hokkaido, which has a very light clear blue bottle - for easy light penetration. She put one bottle in a box and placed it in our storage rack in the back of the store. The other bottle she placed in the multi-colored light and bottle display in the store. (The display with the bottles on their sides with light coming through the bottom of the bottle.) For three months that sake took enough florescent light to light up the Time Square. Not to mention that it took considerable heat as well.
Light and heat all-day and everyday - basically enough to really destroy a sake (in theory). We watched as the color of the sake changed from a clear fluid to a light caramel color. Finally we could stand it no more - the daily screams coming from the light display - the moans of agony were too much so we decided to put the little guy of his misery. At one of our True Sake staff tastings we tried both sakes side by side (Please see the photo for this section - the damaged sake is standing on its cap upside down) chilled and out of wine shaped glasses. (I won't mention names but one of our tasters said "No way" to trying this experiment but capitulated when the bottles opened.)
It is often the case that I do not know which sake to try first. Do the damaged brew first and then compare it to the un-damaged version thus ensuring that you are tasting the damage with no preconceived notions of what it should taste like? Or do the un-damaged sake first to set a basis, which is better for defining how much the brew has changed? We chose the later.
The well-kept Taisetsu drank clean and mellow with slight fruit elements on a light texture. A very drinkable Junmai Ginjo with a soft fruity nose and traces of minerals. The nose on the florescent sake was pretty musky but still had some fruit amongst the dirty aromas. The damaged sake drank even softer than the undamaged brew and there was indeed a presence of Koshu-like qualities - the flavor went from fruity to more earthy but it still drank incredibly smooth. I was thinking the term "Koshu-Light" or "Semi-Koshu" as in partially aged sakes. Then I really started thinking (yes out of the box per usual) that maybe there could be a market for "light-aged sakes" for those who do not want the full and beefy flavors of pure Koshu (aged for more than two years), which tend to be rich and heavy. Yes sounds crazy - I know - taking a sake that was made to taste like something and changing it so it would taste like something else. Not very true to the brew! But the flavor and the feeling of the damaged sake was so drinkable that it confirmed what I said before. If it is built well then it will drink well.
"Why do this stuff?" you may ask. The answer is simple. Not everybody stores and conditions sake like we do at True Sake. We are fanatics because we care so much. But there are a lot of sake selling places that do not care and they do not condition their brews well. And it is reassuring to know that good sakes will still taste good to unsuspecting consumers who feel that they are getting the real deal, when it fact they are getting damaged product. I will pass on the results of Lynette's experiment to the brewery, so they know that even if their babies get smacked around that they still drink well. And hopefully this Sake Moment will inspire you to test the boundaries of your favorite brews, and if you are new to the Newsletter perhaps it will put you at ease if you have left a gift bottle of sake on your mantle for two or three years. If it is built well - it should drink well!