Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Our Sake Journey

Almost exactly one year later, we returned to Japan. This time, our primary reason was to take John Gauntner's Professional Sake Course, an intensive 3-day affair of lectures, tasting, and eating dinners accompanied by a number of different sake.

Sake is very much a reflection of Japanese culture, where "aimai" or ambiguity is deeply woven into lives and personalities. Vagary rules. When it comes to gastronomy, anything goes as long as it sounds and tastes good. That's what we deal with in the world of Sake when it comes to both tasting and understanding the industry.
Junmai-shu (sake) has its own specific general aromatics and flavor profile characteristics, but there are always exceptions to the definition, which we all seek to make it easier for us to grasp and understand. To understand Sake is to understand Japanese culture. John taught us not only the technical side of sake brewing, classification, and tasting, but also the cultural aspect of sake drinking in Japan.

Tasting sake requires an immense amount of focus and concentration. There are aromatics, flavor profile, and texture to consider. With acidity, sweetness, bitterness, umami, aimami, and koku to ferret out with each experience, we had to focus on our tongues and mouths to isolate each quality and identify the flavor. Light and "feminine" or sturdy and "masculine?" Intensely fragrant or delicate? Viscous or etherial? Notes of mushroom, rose petal, banana, strawberry, apple, or pear? Simple, dry, or complex? As with wine, there is no end to the subtleties, nuances and the the adjectives to describe each uniquely created sake!

We tasted by yeast type, rice type, brewery, by classification (i.e. yamahai, honjozo, junmai, ginjo, daiginjo, etc.), age, serving temperature, and geographic region of origin. What we found fascinating was how variation in serving temperature can produce a transformation in aroma and flavor. A perfect illustration of this was a particular kura's Yamahai (a sake made by an ancient labor intensive method), which seemed to be everyone's favorite. Chilled, this sake was very strong with a nose of dried mushrooms. (Hiroko who hates dried shiitake mushrooms could not truely enjoy it). Remarkably, after warming, its flavor was transformed from the shiitake mushroom to that of a less intense (and for Hiroko, preferable) enoki mushroom. Although we'd read about the enjoyment of heating premium sake to various temperatures, this was our first actual tasting experience and it was definitely an eye opener!

Sake styles and types are as diverse as Japan's 47 prefectures, multiplied by the approximately 1,400 brewers, and compounded by the specific water of the brewery locale, yeast and rice types used, and proprietary brewing methods, just to name a few of the get the idea. If you're interested in learning more please either write us or check John's website for the most comprehensive resource on sake!

Sake World by John Gauntner

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