Sake Bummer - Bad Nama in Osaka!
Okay, so here "abroad" or "in the West" or even "overseas" many of my Japanese peers in the sake selling business call us "unprofessional" or even the dreaded "not good" when it comes to storing and conditioning our sake inventories. I continually champion the fact that we are on a huge and very steep learning curve and the result is that we are handling and controlling our product much better than in year's past.
Although we are not all "there" yet, most importers and distributors keep their products in refrigerated conditions that are superb. Also many keep their products in cool and dark storage rooms. The bottom-line is that nobody keeps their brews in abusively hot or UV rich environments. In this regard the retail stores are doing far better as well. Even some wine shops that sell sake have put their offerings in the fridge or they do a better job of turning inventory over. (Remember a majority of sake need not be refrigerated for storage, but getting the product into customer's hands in a timely manner is the main priority for freshness and drinkability issues.) So in a word I am both proud and encouraged that we are doing far better across the board in treating our babies. (And things will only continue to improve.)
That said on my last trip to Japan in October, I was walking around a market in Osaka and stumbled upon a liquor store. (Most sake is sold with all of the other usual suspects as in wine, beer, whiskey and the dreaded shochu - rarely will you ever find a dedicated sake store! In fact the only ones that exist usually just sell one line of sake from one brewery, as in it's a brewery store. Nine out of ten "sake stores" sell shochu as well! As the owners tell me "Shochu pays the bills"! Yes that hurts!)
When I walked into the shop I saw a rather large selection of shochu and a bevy of whiskey/bourbon selections and then found my little sake offering. I noticed several Kobe sakes - Kenbishi etc - and a few from Kyoto. I then turned and looked in the refrigerator and saw several nama offerings plus several Niigata well-named brews such as Hakkaisan etc. My eye was drawn to a cool 300ml green bottle of Nama Junmai from one of my favorite breweries called Fukunishiki. The bottle looked very much like the Junmai that we sell at the store (See JH04 at our website) and my hand instinctively grabbed at the bottle - it was mine! I like drinking as much Nama as possible in Japan - just because of the availability or unavailability issues here in the US. As I was reading (well just looking at the pictures really!) I noticed that the date on the bottles was 17.04! Huh? That is waaaaaay old I said to myself. That basically means the brew was made in April '05. For one brief moment I felt let down- how could a Japanese liquor store have such an old bottle of nama, which typically should be consumed with 3- 5 months after bottling. As I was there in October '07 this bottle was over 2-1/2 years old! I then looked at the date of the other two bottles that were on the shelf - all the same date.
I took the bottle up to the "owner" who was a rather seasoned individual and said that I believe his nama-zake was a little bit long in the tooth. I sounded something like this "Ummmmm your nama is old - heh?" He put on his glasses and tried to figure out what I was mumbling about in English with a Japanese accent. "Oh" he got it really quickly! He bowed and said that he was sorry. I said no problem, and went back to the fridge and took out the remaining two bottles and brought them to the counter. He was a bit perplexed. I said, "Okay I will buy all three!" Basically I wanted all three for two reasons. The first is I love tasting and making aged nama sake. Secondly I was doing a mercy mission by protecting my brewery Fukunishiki - they and I don't want this product on a commercial shelf for sale to the public.
Still very confused he rang me up for the 3 bottles and gave me a 10% discount. There is no question the guy thought that I was mad, or just goofy, or at the very least didn't know anything about sake and was just buying the three bottles because of the cool label. (Which of course I was!)
As one could have guessed the sakes were indeed "off" and did not taste good at all. The mercy purchase paid off, as those aged brews did not constitute somebody's first sip of premium sake. My job was done!