When it comes to sake, I consider myself something of a traditionalist. If anything, my tastes veer toward the masculine: I tend to favor ricey, muscular styles like kimoto and yamahai over a delicate daiginjō. Funny, then, that I should find myself enjoying a girly new sake at March’s FoodEx exhibition in Tokyo. The sake, called Hime Kokochi Shuwarin, was slightly cloudy, fizzy and sweet, with a puckering tartness in the finish. At only 3 percent alcohol — as opposed to the 15 to 16 percent found in regular brews — it was about as strong as a beer.
It came as no surprise that the product was “made for women,” as the promotional materials suggested. The attractively curved 240-ml bottles, baby blue and imprinted with a kitschy-cute motif of a mermaid swimming amid a sea of pastel-hued bubbles, look as though they have been lifted directly from Barbie’s Dreamhouse. Sure, it isn’t “serious” sake, but I could imagine having a glass as an apertif on a Sunday afternoon — maybe before brunch.
Ironically, the Hime Kokochi series, which also includes a milky-white amakuchi (very sweet) sake, is produced by Suehiro Shuzo in Fukushima Prefecture, a brewery renowned for its line of bold, full-bodied sake.
Suehiro Shuzo is among a growing number of producers developing new, nontraditional styles of sake — namely sparkling, low-alcohol and even yogurt-enriched varieties — in hopes of appealing to new audiences. Brewers are trying especially hard to target young Japanese women, whose disposable income has a significant impact on domestic food and drink trends. It’s still early days, but the styles may be catching on in Japan.
“I personally buy these kinds of nontraditional sake to serve at home parties as a first drink, and for those who can’t drink much alcohol,” says industry professional Shizuka Wakashita. “My friends tend to like them a lot.”
Taking advantage of the recent boom for makkoli (cloudy, fermented Korean liquor), Akita Seishu Co., Ltd., which produces the sake brands Dewatsuru, Kariho and Yamatoshizuku in Akita Prefecture, released a nigori-style junmai called Star Makkoli last autumn. The main (rice) mash is allowed to ferment for only one week before undergoing secondary fermentation in the bottle, and the result is a sweet brew with a tangy lactic-acid kick.
The reaction from consumers has so far been positive, and the brewery plans to increase production next year. Part of the appeal is its ricey sweetness and a low alcohol content of around 7 percent.
Encouraged by the popularity of nigori-zake in North America, Japanese sake producers are also marketing these new styles abroad. But some experts are skeptical.
“Sparkling sake sells well in theory but is a bit expensive for a novelty item — so some chefs are carbonating sake in-house,” observes Monica Samuels, the sake ambassador at U.S. distributor Southern Wine and Spirits. “Low-alcohol sakes are not doing as well as expected.”
Sake sommelier Marcus Pakiser also doubts the sticking power of the nontraditional styles, but notes that they may be useful in attracting drinkers whose preference is normally for cocktails or wine. “Those types of items serve a purpose, and if it leads to a sake fan, then I’m all for it,” he says.
Most brewers would agree. The important thing is to get consumers to see sake as a drink option in the first place — even if it comes in a Barbie bottle.
Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com.
Kosher sake — it’s easier to brew than you’d think
Move over, Manischewitz. Those wishing to keep kosher in Japan have another alternative to the sticky, sweet tipple often served at Jewish holidays: Premium sake can be kosher, too. In December 2010, Asahi Shuzo in Yamaguchi Prefecture became the first sake maker in Japan to receive kosher certification for its entire line of Dassai sake.
Asahi Shuzo President Hiroshi Sakurai decided to apply for certification after members of the Jewish community approached the brewery about developing a kosher sake. The certification was administered by the Central Vaad Hakashrus (Chabad) of Japan, a kosher authority based in Tokyo. The process involved strict evaluation in more than 250 categories to ensure that the sake was free of all traces of nonkosher foods and animal products such as gelatin. Chemical analysis was performed on all of the ingredients — the rice, water, yeast and enzymes — as well as the machinery and cleaning agents used on the premises. Over the course of a year and a half, a rabbi made frequent trips to observe the production process and also visited the wholesalers that provide the brewery with its raw materials.
Although it sounds complicated, Sakurai says that meeting kosher standards was easier than expected. It turns out that his brewery, which produces junmai daiginjō (made without the addition of distilled alcohol) sake exclusively, had been making kosher sake without even realizing it. “We didn’t have to change anything to get the certification,” he laughs. “I was so surprised to find that the traditional methods of sake making that we use are in line with the Jewish faith.”
For a lot of breweries, however, obtaining kosher certification can be tough. The main problem lies in the distilled alcohol added to some styles of sake. According to Jewish law, distilled alcohol derived from fermented grains such as wheat, barley and rye is forbidden. While some of the distilled alcohol used in sake making is made from rice, much of it contains a variety of base ingredients.
Two other Japanese brewers with facilities abroad, Kikusui Sake USA and Takara Sake USA, make kosher sake, but kosher certification only applies to their sake produced in the United States.