The Find – A 50 Year-Old Bottle of Sake
Last Month I flew back to the Midwest to attend a 40th Birthday celebration for a cousin of mine. He was my best friend growing up and was my roommate freshmen year in college. Of course I came loaded with some excellent sake for the party. I brought an "ishobin" (1.8L bottle) of Koshino Kanbai "Muku" Junmai from Niigata and another ishobin of Wakatake Junmai Dai Ginjo from Shizouka. That was for the masses, but for my cousin I brought a bottle of Kakunko (from the makers of Sato no Homare in Ibaraki Prefecture – established in 1147), which is a Junmai Dai Ginjo that has been milled to 27%. These are all excellent sakes, but would pale in comparison (from a sake savant's perspective) to a bottle that presented itself in the most unusual of ways.
The party was held in the house that my cousin had grown up in – filled with so many memories – that had recently been sold and was standing empty. Well almost empty! As the party rang out upstairs, I decided to venture through the basement to remember some of those great moments of being a young dumb kid. Four empty compressions in the carpet where a pool table had once stood, a hole in the wood paneling where an errant dart had made its mark, and other beautiful reminders filled my thoughts. On a whim I decided to open a door that led to a room that always freaked me out. It was a puny little room, where a gym set-up has once lived. One of those great 70's-style all in one units that looked more like a maze than a piece of fitness equipment. When the light went on the gym was gone. Nothing was in the room except for some boxes, the kind that look on first impression like the kind of boxes filled with junk that didn't make the move. The "Island of Misfit Boxes."
As I turned to leave the room, my hand swiping down on the light switch, I thought that I noticed a bottle with a cap bearing kanji sticking up out of the pile of misfit boxes. "Not a chance!" I thought to myself as I let the door close behind me. But something drew me back. I had had several glasses of sake, but I was not yet close to hallucinating, or was I? The scant image of a sake bottle got the best of me and I went back into the room and waded through the swamp of boxes left for dead. And there it was. A brown bottle with a gold sided-cap with a black top. And yes it was kanji and yes it was a bottle of sake.
I pulled the bottle out of the box and noticed immediately that it was a bottle of Ozeki sake, which is of course one of the major brewers of sake from Hyogo Prefecture. "Drat" I thought to myself hoping that it would be some exotic small brewery's efforts that I was holding. But my "drat" quickly turned into a low and pronounced "DAMN!" Once in my hands I started going over inch of the label and that's when I spotted it. The date, which was typed on the label as if it had been done so by using an old fashioned typewriter, read 56.8.4. And thank god the bottle was full!
Not many people have ever held a fifty-year-old bottle of sake in their hands, and I darn near dropped it upon closer inspection. The Ozeki label itself looks almost identical to today's labels except for a long drawn single horizontal line at the bottom. What is unusual is the fact that everything is in English and French. "Refined Japanese Sake" "Sake Japonais Raffine" "Since – Dupuis 1711" "Produit Du Japon" The funny thing were the words "Dry Sec."
The bottle is clear light brown in color and the cap does not have the twist off metal ring that separates from the cap when opening one of today's bottles. Also there is an uncommon thickening of the neck right under the cap, which almost resembles a Belgian beer bottle. The alcohol percentage is 16.5%, which is arguably a little more pronounced than the similarly made sake of today.
I am certain that you must be asking, "What in the hell does the sake look like?" Well the answer is that there is some serious "snot in the pool" lumps of "stuff" on the bottom and suspended chunks in the middle. Could these be piles of floating amino acids that have "come together" over the years? Is it the impurities such as the remaining fats, minerals, and proteins that have gone south? In all likelihood it is a combination of both. The alcohol content was not high enough for the fluid to remain "fixed." Essentially the sake has rotted in certain parts of its make-up. It has not all gone to pot, just certain elements, and that leaves the door wide open to taste this baby!
Sake is indeed perishable. It should be consumed within 12-18 months to get the brewers exact feeling and flavor. What happens next is both a consequence of nature and luck. Some sakes die harder and faster. They say Dai Ginjos live longer on account of the fact that more of the impurities have been removed and are less likely to rot than a Junmai for example. That said I was staring a 50 year-old Junmai in the face and it didn't look like it had gone that bad. (Spoken with rose-colored glasses)
People have asked me, what's a bottle of sake like that worth? The answer is about as much as the change in your pocket. This is no exotic French Bordeaux with sulfites for preservation. This is rice and watered pasteurized fifty years ago. The value comes in the form of a glimmer of history in the sake world. And I will try to hunt down more info about the how and what's to expect if and when this sucker ever gets opened. (I'll keep you posted or I'll see ya in the emergency room!)