"Ask Beau" October 2004
I received several great questions on the web site but one stood out from the rest, and I would like to address Gordon H. who wrote "How can I read the sake bottle dates to ensure fresh sake?" Gordon, freshness is a factor, but it is not the end-all-be-all as many would make you believe. 10-15 years ago you were guaranteed dead or dying sake for sure when ordering at a sushi bar. Why do you think they heated it so much? So you wouldn't taste how lousy the sake had become. Over-heating became a masking device that stuck in American sake culture. Thus, who cared if the sake was fresh when you were just going to nuke it in anycase?
Today, however, with premium sakes that are being served chilled it is harder to mask stale or off-sake. As such there are several pointers that one can look for to make sure that you are getting sake that is fine for consumption. I like to tell my customers that sake does well for about 14 months after bottling. Truthfully, sake keeps much longer and it becomes a factor of how adventurous you want to be. Many perceive "fresher is better" but I have had many sakes that were bottled a month or two before I tasted them and they tasted young, as if they had not fully grown up. Personally, I feel the flavor develops in the bottle in most cases, and as such it is not necessary to rush to the youngest bottling date. (Nama sakes are best consumed as fresh as possible!)
In one instance a gentleman came to the store wanting badly to buy an ultra premium dai ginjo that is polished to a remarkable 28% with 72% of each grain being removed. This particular sake is only brewed once per year, and the date happened to be exactly a year old. The gentleman did not want the sake. I know for a fact that that sake was fine, and tasted like it did when it was only 6 months old, because I had consumed it three nights earlier. But he said that he was told not to buy anything over a year old. His loss!
There is a movement in Japan to get bottling dates on more and more labels. Basically brewers didn't date bottles so that consumers wouldn't do what the gentleman mentioned above did. If you draw attention to the date then people will focus on it. There is no set place or type of date used in this process. Sometimes the date is on the main label, and sometimes it is on the back label. It is hard to see, as they use black typewritten letters usually in the traditional 04-07, which is 2004-July. We flip these number positions around in the US thus it would read 07-04. There is also another dating process, which uses the "Emperor's Calendar." This dating system begins each time a new emperor takes power. The last time this happened was 16 years ago in 1988. Thus the first year was 01 and this year of 2004 is 16. So if a label reads 16-03 then you can surmise that the sake was bottled in March of 2004. Likewise, if a date reads 15-02 then you would realize that this sake was bottled in February 2003. I would steer clear of sakes that were bottled in the year 14 as in 2002.
Please send your sake specific questions to askbeau2 @ truesake.com. (This address is not for general questions and I only review the questions once per month. All correspondence should use info @ truesake.com.)