April 2013

Bad Sake - It's So Bad For The Sake Business

Posted by Beau Timken in 2013, April, Newsletter
True Sake I'm currently in London preparing to judge sake for the International Wine Challenge. I flew with the flu. (No I am not usually "that guy" I don't like being a Typhoid Larry, but I had to get to London as people are counting on me.) In a word I feel terrible, and have been sleeping for the past 18 hours. But when I awoke yesterday afternoon I was pretty hungry. So I thought hmmmm time for food. When I was here two years ago I went to a Yakitori restaurant in SOHO, and decided on a repeat performance. I'm not going to name names but I had a terrible sake experience there.

The thing about sake is that we all know that it is superb. But not all sake is superb and it usually has to do with conditioning and not the sake itself. After I looked at the sake menu I picked two brews to "start with." Yes, when you are in the biz you have license to order your sakes in two or threes. The last time I was there the sake presentation and quality of sake was decent. But my sake senses were tingling and rather than ordering two 150ml pours of high end sakes such as the Daiginjo and Ginjo I settled on two Honjozos. The first Honjozo was from Fushimi and I had literally tasted it a week before, so my sake memory was strong with that brew. The other brew is not available in the US and I have only tasted it in Europe.

As I was drinking with flu my palate was horrible, but even in that state I could tell both of the sakes had been oxidizing in their 1.8L bottles for who knows how long. A young gentleman came out and showed me the two bottles before he poured them into two glasses nestled within two wooden masu. He said one was light and fruity and the other was rich and full-bodied. Then he bolted. My first sip was of the Honjozo that I had a week before - the fruity one. FAIL! Nope. Not even close. The sake tasted anything but light and fruity and actually drank sicker than I felt. The other brew did not do much better which sucked because he said it was their house sake and they sell a lot of it! Bummer.

I was actually bummed out walking back from the restaurant. Those two sakes could have been the first sip of sake for some people and they were not even in the ballpark of being okay. You don't get many chances in the booze business to make an impression, because folks have their libation comfort zones and are not very willing to stray. Of course people feel compelled to order sake when they are at Japanese restaurants, as one would order a huge stein of beer if one was eating in a German beer garden. So these "potential" sake customers don't get that many looks at sake, and when they do it should count right? Well after what I tasted I'd have run from sake and run far perhaps all the way to Chinese rice wine.

What is my point? I felt embarrassed for the place. Here they are in a position to educate and perhaps get more drinkers into the sake movement but on account of their conditioning and handling of the sakes the final product was an embarrassment. Now this begs the question. Did they receive old and outdated sake from their distributor? Is that why it tasted so off? Or do they not move a lot of it and it sits in the bottle for months on end? (I wanted to ask if I could see the dates on the bottles but then I would have been questioned and I like being anonymous when I am out on my own - plus I was flu boy) The bottom line is that a place that is supposed to get it didn't - why?

True Sake I joked to myself after that I am going to form an international organization called the "Sake Police." After two sips I was going to stand up and yell, "That's it - everybody down on the floor - no not you customers! The employees - I am with the Sake Police and this is a bust!" I of course would flip out my International Sake Police badge and ask for the manager. "Sir, do you know why I am pursuing action against this establishment?" "What do you mean you have no idea?" "No idea really? No idea of how two of two sakes that I ordered were outright bad?" "I'm going to need to ask you some questions. How old are those bottles? Did they get to you outdated? Will you testify against the distributors if indeed they were at fault?" And then I would backhand him across the face and say "Shame on you!"

Let me know if you know of any establishments that need a visit from the Sake Police?

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