July 2006

The Name Shell Game -- How Sakes are Named

Posted by Beau Timken in 2006, July, Newsletter

sake clubWhat do you think is the #1 question or statement that is uttered at True Sake on a daily basis by customers walking through the door? If you said, "May I have change for the parking meter" you'd be close. Actually the most used sentence each and every day is "I know nothing about sake," which in most cases is not true at all. People have some sense, they just feel compelled to get it out there that their knowledge is not the great. But in fact, more often then not they do know a good deal about sake, and their obliviousness is just a front.

Nevertheless the #1 sentence once uttered is usually followed by the #2 most stated exclamation by customers as they walk through the store. This sentence is always more forthright and said with much more harrumph, and goes something like this, "The only problem is that I can never remember the names." Some customers swear at this point, others frown, and still others throw their hands up in surrender. I could make a video of these reactions that would make good money on the Internet.

But the point is not lost on us. The names of sakes are indeed a confusing and frustrating experience that is troublesome on so many levels. First off there is the obvious language barrier in naming a sake. The name simply does not translate well. There are not too many mystical flying horse-like dragons in the West that have a meaning of power and good fortune, so that name cannot really be used. Unless you like a Junmai Ginjo to be called "The Mystical Horse-Like Dragon Of Good Fortune," a far better name than many of the made up names, which is yet another level of frustration.

Most exporter/importers will change a name of a sake to give it a more marketable name, plain and simple. Thus you get a lot of what Japanese guys think American's would like in a name for a sake. They feel as if they have done their research and can predict how well a sake will sell if the name is "street friendly." This gets taken to yet another level of confusion when restaurants and particularly bars change the name again to make it more hip or potent! I could give specific examples of all of these types of "manipulations," but I would catch some serious guff. (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!)

Then there is another layer of confusion on the Japan side of things. Breweries will name their sake after the brewery. Thus you get one name for several different sakes. Huh? Basically the brewery will call it's brews the kura's name and then attach the "category." But even more confusing is that this same brewery will also specifically name certain sakes. Huh? Wait! It gets more jumbled. Roughly 9 out of 10 times the brewery's name is not the family's names, which is how the brewery is referred to. Gulp? For example there is a brewery in Nagano that we all know and True Sake sells 6 of their creations. Masumi is the "brand name" of this brewery that is owned by the Miyasaka family. But it is referred to as Miyasaka-Shuzo, which means the brewery owned by the Miyasaka family. So do you call it Miyasaka's sake or Masumi's sake? In this case, the brand name takes over as they push pretty hard to get that name out there.

Now in terms of those six brews that we sell, each and every one of them has a name that is given to that specific product. For example Masumi "Arabashiri," which is a style of sake called Nama Junmai Ginjo Genshu. Or try Masumi "Okuden Kantsukuri", which is not a style or category name, but rather a marketing name that means the brew was made in the wintertime, which historically is the best time to make sake, thus it is a perception name.

Now here is where it gets interesting. The importers of these sakes do their best to translate for effectiveness. In the case if Masumi "Arabashiri" they call this sake "First Run," which is a literal translation. This style of sake is the result of being the first juice that trickles out before serious pressing has occurred. They are almost a free run form of sake that gets bottled just as is (well there are several cosmetic stages that occur, but it is supposed to be perceived as raw). Thus the name "First Run" is quite literal and quite accurate. Now in the case of the "Okuden Kantsukuri" the literal translation would get lost on Westerners, because most folks do not know about the perceived notion that sake brewed in the winter is better. Therefore the importers with the consent of the brewers selected a name that they felt best represented that sake in a global capacity and bequeathed the name "Mirror of Truth," which so happens to be the nickname for Masumi. Huh?

So on the far end of the world -- the world of retail -- we get customers who come in asking for sakes by several different names. It is as confusing to us as it is to you in this regard, because we could get three different people asking for the same sake using three different names. They try to remember the Japanese name or the translated name (I call this the "Street" name) and in the process they forget the name all together. There is nothing cooler than people walking in with scraps of paper with the names of the brews written on them with wet drunken scrawl. That is the surest way of getting back into the sake that spoke to you. So don't be afraid to have your server write the name down, or do the more modern equivalent and use your damn cell phone as a camera!

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