March 2009

Sake Spotlight - Alex Vanderburgh and 23 Opened Bottles of Sake

Posted by admin in 2009, March, Newsletter, Sake Spotlight

sake spotlight march 2009So did you here the one about a guy who goes into a sake store every Monday and ........ sort of sounds like the beginning of a joke doesn't it? Never mind that he doesn't have a limp, monkey on his shoulder, eye-patch, no pants on or is with a rabbi - priest - or a monk. No this "non-joke" is a beautiful story about the evolution of one of our favorite True Sake customers who has dedicated himself to understanding sake in the only way that speaks to him - by trying them all! And yes he has made a brilliant go of it so far! (He actually drank the 50 brews mentioned in my book as his starting goal - then blew past that and has now tried to drink the store - you go boy!) Alex Vanderburgh is a man on a mission - he reeks of dedication and discipline, so it is a lot of fun to speak with him whenever he comes to True Sake. Besides trying to taste as much as possible - to broaden that drinking comprehension - he has discovered a new way of profiling sake that amazed us.

Alex once brought a bottle of sake up to the counter on a Monday not long ago. He pulled out his "hit list" and crossed it off - per usual. Then he said something that made me apply the "what the hell did you say?" breaks! Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Alex said that he would compare the Ginjo that he bought to 8 that he had opened in the fridge. Huh? Actually is was a big HUH? That is when Alex told us about the 40 brews that he usually keeps open in his fridge to compare against. And they are a week old? No! A month old? Some! Two months old? More! And so on and so on. He basically described his theory about keeping brews open to benchmark the flavors so that he could actually compare sakes side by side - no mater how long they were in his fridge. Buy a Junmai - take it home and try it against 9 others! Damn! He's nuts - and of course we love that! So herewith is Alex Vanderburgh who I asked to write a quick intro about himself followed by his truly impressive technique of understanding sake the "Alex Way."

Here goes:

About me: I have been studying Japanese martial arts for 30 years and Sake for about 2, and therefore have no good excuse for being illiterate in the japanese language, and really can't blame the Sake either! My goal is to taste every brew that I can find imported into the US, and find some way to get back to Japan to drink sake and study Aikido, (but wiser to reverse the order- go to Aikido dojo first, then drink sake after class.) Unfortunately I spend way too much time teaching martial arts and emotional intelligence to children in after school programs through a concept I have developed called Martial Play- which readers can find out all about at This little obsession will most likely put off the Japan trip until my next life.


It used to be 40, but I drank them. Against the usual advice, I keep many open bottles of Sake in my fridge, and enjoy tasting them over time as the flavors change. I do not find that they go stale or flat, even the isshobins (1800 ml) - I find that they change, deepen, and even mellow out. Conventional wisdom has told me that open bottles of Sake should be consumed within a few days, did I mention that nothing about my life is particularly conventional? Alrighty then- here is my experience. After a bottle sits in my fridge for a few days I find that the character of the flavor widens and deepens, some of the subtle and distinct note come forward and other attributes, like dryness, fruitiness fade a slight bit. Even over months in the fridge I have not found a Sake that I liked when I opened it that I wanted to pour out as bad. Only a few have ever seems to lose their flavor and became flat or lifeless. In general as a sake oxidizes I find that it gets more interesting. I do make an exception on Namazake- Sake that is completely unpasteurized. I have found that I have to be careful with Nama sake- sometimes my digestive system can't take it- so when I find one I can drink I usually don't let too much time pass for "interesting microbiology" to take place. But Namachozo or Namazume, Sake's pasteurized one time, rather than the usual 2, I don't have a problem with. Now I am getting over my head with technical details I am probably unqualified to answer, so ask the experts for more info on that! Back to the fridge- and the 23 bottles- although I am originally from Boston, a town known for hard drinking and brawling, I find I am a lightweight drinker. Therefore, I can only taste a few sakes at one time. With my goal of tasting and comparing every sake I could find in the Bay area, I realized it would take forever to get through the inventory at True Sake- although finally, almost two years later I have purchased at least one bottle of all the Sake there I could afford.

To compare I have several tasting options, the usual flight tasting, a Junmai, a Junmai Gingo, and Junmai Dai Ginjo. I also like to compare like grades, say, three different Junmai, or three Tokubetsu Junmai. If I can, I occasionally like to put together the full crazy grade experience, a Honjozo, a Junmai, a Junmai Ginjo and a Ginjo (not Junmai) and a Junmai Dai ginjo along with a Dai Ginjo. Not to mention throwing in a Yamahai and/or a Kimoto. So, you see, all these bottles have to be opened at the same time. I know, it is a tough life researching Sake, but someone has got to do it. We can't just make Beau, Miwa and Lynette do all the hard work! There are a few more bottles always open in the fridge- those are my favorites for each grade. Since I have already taken the Sake Specialist level one class, I have one more taste that I attempt each week in preparation for someday getting back to Tokyo for Level two- blind tasting. With all the open bottles I simply pour a bunch in identical glasses, mix up the glasses until I can't remember who is who, and then try to figure it out. And that is the story of the 23 open bottles in my fridge. Okay- I have to run off to teach classes now- if I can remember the proper order- teach class, then go to the Aikido dojo and train, then come home and taste Sake- not the other way round.



I thought that given our little experiment for the temperature swings above that Alex's story would make a good Spotlight for this issue. Thank you Alex. Again - we at True Sake love sake so much so that we torture it - beat it up - smack it down - and call it names all in the realm of trying to gain further comprehension. I am proud to call Alex - one of our own! His efforts cut right to the heart of our often spoke rule that well-made sake lasts well! And he is right about keeping sake in the fridge or even out and tasting the fact that it never goes putrid - in most cases. I love how he looks for compliments and themes within categories - themes that can really only be pulled by comparison. I too keep bottles of sake for looooooong durations in the fridge - but the opened ones only get left un-consumed because they are usually hiding behind the mayo and take-out.

Really cool stuff Alex - thank you!

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