Sake Frontiers – The Riedel “Junmai” Sake Glass
Okay! I’m a big boy and I know when I’ve crossed “that” line! What line? The “I think I’m the coolest sake dude in the sake world” line. Yup! I blew right past it! And man did it make me feel like a jerk later on! Oh do tell?
There is a certain “pressure” - nah I wouldn’t call it that - a certain “feeling” that some of us older sake industry folk feel to be “relevant” in this fast paced social media driven sake scene today. Like being the first person to taste this sake, visit that brewery, or comment on some special angle in the sake world. I feel it, and I sometimes succumb to that siren’s call!
Take for example my recent trip to Japan. I was enjoying visiting some breweries, meeting great people, and learning a great deal while drinking some fabulous sakes. And then I had to go and be a douche! (For said reason mentioned above)
While visiting Watanabe Shuzo in Niigata, really vibing on the Nechi brand and Nechi way, Watanabe-san brought out an enormous glass that he called the “new Junmai Glass” from Riedel, and poured me a glass of his Junmai sake. The world paused! Not joking! As I looked at the glass I forgot I was at a really cool brewery sitting 50 yards from their famous rice paddies and got lost in the insanity that was staring right back at me.
A Junmai Glass! Are you freaking kidding me! A Junmai glass? Really? What’s next the Nigori Goblet? The Ginjo Shooter? My brain immediately went negative! (or let’s say it went bitter! Inside joke for my new friend and amazing sake soul who would inform me the reason and purpose of the Junmai Glass, Mr. Wolfgang Angyal, President and Sake Guru of Riedel Japan in Tokyo - but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.)
I tasted the sake. But I couldn’t focus on it or even remember it because my mind was solely on the vessel. Apologies first and foremost to Watanabe-san. I’m certain that your Junmai is awesome, and look forward to the day when I can revisit it. Secondly, back to the glass – that glass – oh my god! I was at a loss. It’s rare that I don’t understand something in the sake world, but this was baffling. All I really remember, as it happened quickly, was the large amount of fluid that was so close to my face, and the fact that the sake literally avalanches into my mouth and palate. What the heck is this? I do remember asking myself this question. Then came the response - this thing is a joke! And like the little man that I am, and because I tried to stay relevant with all the cool people on Social Media, I took a swipe at the Junmai Glass on Instagram later with a post that read:
truesake – Behold! While visiting Nechi (Watanabe Shuzo) in Niigata the owner/toji showed me the first ever “Edition” of the “Junmai” glass from Riedel… If you want my true impression ping me personally … and yes … I was there when Riedel launched their first “Sake Glass” … Ha ha ha! (At least the sake segment is getting explored) (by wine dildos) (emoji with hand over mouth)
I just smacked my forehead as I read that again. What a weenie! Well, let’s keep chalking this up to a teachable moment. It’s true however that I was there and did partake when the Riedel Glass company launched their “Sake Glass” to the world. I had one of the original glasses sent to me by a brewery owner in Miyagi Prefecture. And yes I was impressed that sake got a glass, but was also unimpressed that it looked exactly like a Chardonnay glass!
That said, I would use that glass for many of my teaching classes back in the day! I would talk about the distribution of alcohol and acidity etc in different bowl shapes and how sake was very much wine like in this capacity! I even hammed it up! Me? Noooooo! Yes. I’d talk about acidity distribution and surface area and then would ask my classes, “Who wants to see the most amazing ‘Sake Glass’ specifically designed for Sake?” Then more hamming! “It’s incredibly odd” - wait for it - then I’d pull the glass out of the black can it was nested in and scream “Voila!” Everybody would laugh because it really did look just like a Chardonnay glass! I would later learn it was a few millimeters different in structure. Point being and back to the story I was there when Riedel jumped into the sake scene. And for the record I was quite proud that they did! It was truly one of the best things that could ever happen to the modern sake movement.
So back to my snarky Instagram post. As it is so inclined to do the immediacy of social media became immediately apparent when my team back in San Francisco at True Sake emailed me that the head of Riedel Glass in Japan replied to our Facebook account and wanted to have my personal email address. Oh shit! Oh my god. What did I do? Was I buzzed posting again? Damage control! Damage control - this is an emergency - calling all damage control people to please come kick Beau Timken in the butt!
First off and please know that I don’t do Facebook! I’m just an Instagram guy and I push everything from there to the other mediums. Secondly, I had one hell of an email to send to a certain guy in Ginza Tokyo. He already called me out - and I mean very politely called me out because he is pure class - via his Facebook reply, which was copied and sent to me! My True Sake team was loving it! They were, one part “Oh Beau’s in trouble” and one part “Oh Beau is a big deal” but mostly they were impressed that I got called out by the big cheese at Riedel.
So I fired off an email that was 60% apologetic and 40% I’m an idiot! I explained how I had certain optics on the history of the glass, well actually both glasses, and if he had time then I’d love to pop in to their tasting office after finishing the IWC in Yamagata to hear the real scoop! I thanked him for not falling for the snide tongue and cheek bs comment in the post!
Wolfgang replied to my email with an open armed invitation to meet with him. I liked him immediately from his email, and we made a plan for me to visit. And because I saw that this was a teachable moment I also invited with me a writer for Dancyu Magazine who interviewed me at the IWC tasting in Yamagata. I felt maybe more people needed to hear the story of the Junmai Glass, and a journalist would help convey the story to the sake market better.
So I ventured to Riedel’s very attractive storefront and tasting chamber - with journalist in tow - and shook hands with a very cool person, who has had a similar journey through the sake ages only from a different perspective. Ironically, Wolfgang had ordered my book that I wrote about sake and it arrived the day that I visited. But for me this learning environment was cooler than anything in my book!
So we sat at a long table and he had laid out various glasses including the “Daiginjo Glass” and the new “Junmai Glass.” It was quite funny, because we are both fountains of sake experience and knowledge but we looked at each other like “Where do we start?” He looked at me and could just see my brain clicking away and so he suggested we push the glasses away and talk first! And like a broken damn, we just started speaking in our own language about everything rice and water and it was awesome!
Wolfgang knew of me and had watched over the years how I communicated sake. And I had known about him, but didn’t know it was him until all the pieces fell together. I was sitting across the table from a very passionate sake man and that resonated with me greatly.
Then we went to the tasting glasses. It was time to learn what he and a host of very educated sake souls had crafted. I had just heard the history and “story” about this amazing glass, but like all things the proof is in the pudding and not the story so I was very keen to “use” the Junmai Glass to determine if the function echoed the story. In a word, the glass needed to be “market” ready and I felt that I had a pretty good understanding of how far this vessel would go.
Before going to Ginza to meet with Wolfgang and being the goof ball that I am, I went briefly looking for some Junmai sakes that I knew would be interesting to test in the glass. I found a Kikuhime Junmai and thought maybe I should bring a “cleaner” Junmai like Masumi Okuden, which is milled to almost Ginjo levels, to test new style Junmais. But I couldn’t find a big funky Yamahai to bring, and I was so pleased to see that Wolfgang had Tengumai Yamahai Junmai as his “Junmai” for the glass.
It might take too long to write about the actual tasting and comparisons and the functioning actions of the other glasses and the Junmai Glass so I will specifically paraphrase the very important parts! The glass needs directions because it is a very accurate instrument. Very accurate in the sense that if you like golf, and found out that there is a One Wood or “Driver” that could make your Tee Shots go 75-100 yards further and straighter you’d buy it in a second. The Junmai Glass was constructed for individual precision. It’s an implement. It’s a tool. It provides the best “sweet spot” for the enjoyment of Junmai sake based on the principal of bringing forth umami in each sip. It is the combination of science and passion to offer a vessel that allows the aroma and flavor of Junmai sake taste to its fullest and most excellent ability.
For years, I’ve used the adage that a Toji makes a sake to taste like something specifically. They bottle it and release it and want you to taste it within a time period that maximizes that feeling and flavor. The Junmai Glass enhances the Toji’s expression by allowing you to taste exactly what the brewer has in mind when he wonders what’s in your mind, “What are you tasting?”
The Junmai Glass is scientific personified. It uses what the technology of the senses has taught us. It is a guide to walk you through the five flavor senses, which includes the very famous and quite nebulous umami flavor component. This is where Wolfgang has gone “all in.” He stated that there is no umami in wine! He said it. And that is Sake’s leg up on the market. Rice and water produces umami and that is the difference and the blessing! The Junmai Glass was scientifically produced to get past the initial bitter, acidic, sweet, sour flavor components to allow your palate the easiest path to tasting the umami in the sake.
You might be scratching your head and saying, “what the front porch!” But it is true. The bowl shape - the side shape - the lip shape - the entire shape was specifically designed for you to get disarmed by the acidity (bitter components noticeable or unnoticeable) and get “mainlined” the umami component. Just like a tennis racquet or golf club has a sweet spot the “Glass” is that sweet spot! It’s amazing! And as you guessed it’s very very specific. Its only purpose is to make a better aroma and flavor for Junmai sakes that are not of the Ginjo-like capacity. And it looks and feels like it does for the very simple but scientific reason that the size and shape and action create a tool for you to better your enjoyment of Junmai sakes.
Oh my gosh! That was very long winded. I know. But we looked at and discussed this glass for two solid hours without once taking a break to breath! I used Wolfgang to get at the “Why?” And he used me to get at the “How?” He said that I was the best communicator of sake that he had seen on the Internet etc, and I sat there unknowingly helping him with the “How” do I sell this glass! In fact he thought of a few new slides for his presentation about the glass. You see it has been released to the public, but the direction manual has yet to be conveyed. And this baby needs directions for sure. For example the glass that was poured for me at the Nechi brewery was filled way too much. That’s why it felt bulky and felt like the fluid was too close to my face.
I am not doing my tutorial any justice, but I hope that you see the purpose in this glass. I will actually call it a need! And as I was being blown away time and time again about head positioning for a sip to the “bitter” elements preceding acidity, which I have had wrong for almost two decades, I was laughing to myself and saying out loud that I was such a “weenie” for my stupid Instagram post! I literally called myself a Richard about ten times throughout the two-hour demonstration.
The net net of this article is to let you know that the Riedel Junmai glass is out there! It is coming. And if I am able, we will sell this glass at True Sake. In future Newsletters, I will write about my adventures with the glass. Wolfgang gave me one to play with, and play I will. I was considering doing a “loan” program at the store where interested customers could borrow the glass for some home learning tastings using the glass then they would return it! Sounds both weird and cool.
The bottom line is that I am now a fan of the Junmai Glass and I look forward to advancing this amazing component further into the sake world. And yes I am still a weenie for my ignorant Instagram post.