Updated: Apr 5
The sake industry has been undergoing radical change over the last few decades. Few would argue that this was necessary to stimulate an industry that had been in steady decline. Japan's aging population, combined with a tendency amongst the younger generation to consume less alcohol, led to almost three decades of stagnation. Of upmost importance was eliminating the poor reputation that blighted sake domestically and alienated almost an entire generation who passed it off as something from a bygone era.
One noticeable change has been the development of overseas markets. The need to enter and nurture new demographics outside of Japan prompted many within the industry to come up with new and innovative marketing and promotion. Thanks to an increasingly diverse array of products, clever branding, and a general improvement in how to approach sales, sake is finally regaining some of its cool factor. This is crucial if it is to stake any lasting claim in what is a highly competitive and continuingly evolving international drinks market.
Thankfully, this modern approach has seen a surge in the popularity of sake overseas. Exports are steadily rising each year, and greater investment is being made to increase awareness of sake outside of Japan. Crucially, the industry now actively supports the numerous individuals and organisations engaged in educating a new generation of overseas professionals who work on the front-line of promotion and distribution. There is also a general recognition of the huge potential of exports, and an appreciation that different strategies are needed from those historically adopted within the domestic market.
Unquestionably, the most common approach so far has been to try and align sake with the wine world. To woo this vast demographic, great lengths have been taken to make sake more suitable to their consumption habits. This includes promoting the wine glass as the vessel of choice, a strong tendency towards drinking sake chilled, and labelling that borrows from the often-confusing lexicon of the wine industry. This new cosmopolitan approach has certainly eased sake's integration into western markets and provided a more practical proposition for wine drinkers. Regardless of whether you are a traditionalist, or if you welcome these new changes, based on overseas success alone, it is difficult to argue with this strategy's effectiveness in the short-term.
Sake of Rice Wine?
The close relationship that sake now has with wine is therefore intertwined with a need to continue developing new demographics outside of Japan, and the emergence of a more modern ginjo-style that has proved particularly appealing to wine consumers. As more and more is borrowed from this behemoth industry, however, the line between the two beverages has blurred considerably. As a result, the constant comparisons are now proving detrimental to sake’s long-term growth.
Many sake professionals have stated that they don’t see significant issues in this close alignment with wine as long as sales continue to increase. But by focusing on trying to claim a seat at wine’s table, we run the risk of losing sight of what makes sake so appealing in the first place. By neglecting the unique selling points, we are thwarting its true potential and relegating it to a mere sub-category of wine. It is telling that an increase in use of the incorrect term ‘’rice-wine’’ runs counter to the great strides made in increasing sake education outside of Japan.
The scale of this problem was evident during a recent episode of the Sake on Air podcast that attempted to tackle the thorny topic of terroir in sake. Already a divisive subject, trying to establish a tangible definition for this loosely defined French concept in the context of sake has in the past proven inconclusive at best. At worst, it has revealed a belligerent determination from some within the industry to establish more common ground between these two very different beverages.
This latest discussion also proved inconclusive, although the panellists did make it clear from the outset that their objective was merely debate. As numerous theories of what constitutes terroir were presented during the show, each were quickly dismissed when flaws inevitably emerged. Then, during what had been a balanced and thorough debate up to that point, came the surprising statement from one of the panellists that sake had now reached a point whereby it "needed" terroir to take the next step in its development overseas. This felt at odds with the proceeding debate, and implied that, although not established during the discussion, the need for it was nevertheless beyond any doubt. It set the tone for the remainder of the discussion and felt definitive in its conclusion that sake was dependent on this aspect of the wine world for future growth.
If we were to give the panellists the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they were merely confusing terroir with regionality, something that has great historical significance for sake. If that was the case, it is evident that these two very different discussions are often wrongly entwined, and an entire show dedicated to the topic - without first clearly defining its meaning - is indicative of the level of misunderstanding surrounding it.
I am an avid listener of Sake of Air, and I am sure the panellist in question had only the best of intentions. If, however, the meaning of his statement was as he worded it then I must respectfully disagree. Surely sake hasn't reached the point whereby it needs a vague French concept applicable to wine to attract a wider audience. Doesn't sake have more to offer than something that, in all honesty, probably isn't even that high on the agenda of the average wine consumer? In other industries that have attempted to adopt terroir, for example the whisky industry, it has failed to gain traction, with just a few producers tirelessly persisting with it in their marketing. But the most important question of all is why so many within the industry seem determined to establish its existence?
By raising the question, I am not criticising the panellists on Sake on Air, nor any of the other professionals who choose to relate sake to wine. I wholeheartedly agree that there is a need for a back-story of sorts to try and make sake more appealing, particularly to the younger generation and overseas consumers. That story, however, doesn’t have to be terroir, and it's evident incompatibly with sake only exasperates misunderstandings amongst consumers. I would like, therefore, to highlight that the ongoing discourse on terroir is indicative of the influence the wine world now has on sake and represents a growing gentrification of the industry.
Before I am accused of being anti-terroir, I would like to clarify that if it does exist, and a concise explanation of what form it takes in sake can be agreed upon, then I don’t see it as a bad thing. The more tools sake has in its locker the better, and I agree that it is interesting to learn about the various regions and the vital ingredients they produce. We shouldn't, however, confuse all discussions about regionality with the convoluted concept of terroir. Nor should we continue to exert the effort, energy, and resources that are currently committed to promoting the ideal sake as one that expresses terroir, especially when it comes at the expense of promoting its real merits.
There comes a point when we must except that trying to establish terroir within the current industry is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Sake is still in its infancy overseas, and now is a pivotal moment in its development. Therefore, we should instead be trying to determine solid and realistic foundations that will ensure its place in the drinking habits of overseas consumers. As hard as it may be for die-hard fans like myself to acknowledge, there is a strong possibility that sake could still become a novelty beverage to be enjoyed occasionally as an alternate to wine. We must, therefore, ignore the strenuous elements and instead focus on the more obtainable ones that make sake the magical beverage that it is. There are certainly plenty to choose from!
When I first became interested in sake it wasn't because of the similarities it had with wine, rather it was specifically the differences that piqued my interest. Not only are they powerful selling tools, but they are also things that even the mighty wine can’t compete with. If these rare qualities that sake possess can be better communicated to the growing audience of sake-curious consumers, perhaps it might even finally bring it out wine’s shadow and be recognised on its own merits. Therefore, the following is a list of areas that I personally feel should be leading the charge in elevating sake towards global superstardom.
Versatility of Occasion
No discussion on the merits of sake is complete without first mentioning its incredible versatility of occasion. I am constantly asked what my favourite type of sake is and I rarely have a definitive answer. This is simply because there is genuinely something for all occasions, and living in a country like Japan the distinctive change of season is often the determining factor in how I choose what to drink. Sake is sophisticated, but it is not pretentious, and blends in with all manner of occasion. Super-chilled exorbitantly priced premium dai-ginjo will certainly do a good job of amusing a few socialites in expensive bars around the world, but this one niche category is hardly the ideal solution to increasing sales of more humble varieties, like junmai or honjozo. Sake has more to offer than just this very small demographic, and it is its abundance of variety that should be communicated at every possible opportunity.
For example, late winter and early spring in Japan tends to consist of a wonderful barrage of shibore-tate (freshly pressed). This is the first release of the season for most breweries and the sake tends to be slightly less refined than what will follow later in the year. This style often suits a nice guinomi, often slightly warmed to soften the rougher edges. At the very least, these seasonal brews are a taste of things to come and provide a well-priced introduction to the season of new sake that lies ahead.
Next comes late spring and early summer when most new releases come in the form of big, fat, juicy nama-zake (unpasteurized) . Personally, this is when the wine glass suits best, with a large glass of chilled, feisty nama making the perfect refreshment to fight off the fatigue of the summer heat. Purists may baulk at this next bit, but recently I have found that adding ice to high-alcohol / undiluted genshu (Tamagawa, Ice Breaker is a personal favourite) makes for a fantastic summer combination.
Roll on Autumn and the gloriously rich and umami laden hiya-oroshi (autumn sake) is upon us. These mature and mellow brews form a truly sensational partnership with the seasonal cuisine of what, for many, is the most appealing season in Japan. I personally prefer a large guinomi for this type of sake, as the main attraction is the umami, not the fragrance. Furthermore, I have come to associate autumn as the best time to try the idiosyncratic duo of yamahai and kimoto. With their higher acidity, they are natural candidates for ageing, and there is always a wealth of good examples to choose from. One final redeemable feature is their suitability for warming, which coincides nicely with the drop in temperature that occurs as winter approaches. That leads nicely to one of sake’s most distinguishable and unique features: the ability to be enjoyed warm.
Warm sake, and the transformation that it undergoes as it starts to cool down in the cup, is one of the most rewarding aspects of this fascinating beverage. Although some extra effort is required, experimenting with the subtle shifts in flavour and aroma that occur at different temperatures unlocks a new world of enjoyment. Furthermore, for someone who was born and raised in a part of the world with long, bitterly cold winters, a beverage with this incredible ability makes for the perfect winter companion. Japan also has cold winters, and the feeling you get when you take that first sip of nicely warmed sake at the end of a hard day’s work is simply sensational.
Unfortunately, this incredible ability to be enjoyed warm is often overlooked when being promoted overseas. This likely stems from the bad perception many consumers have after trying cheap imitations that were served to them extremely hot. As mentioned previously, the industry has made great efforts to improve its educational infrastructure overseas, and many of the world's leading sake professionals often promote the merits of kan-zake and the added dimension that it offers over wine. Regardless, the unfortunate result of these bad past experiences is a lasting negative impression on consumers that seems hard to shake off.
Furthermore, the battle to dispel this is unfortunately being lost. More effort is needed by the wider sake industry to promote the huge potential that kan-zake has in attracting new consumers and differentiating it from wine. Let me start by urging anyone who is sceptical to go out and buy a nice earthy junmai, preferably either kimoto or yamahai, heat it up as high as tobikiri-kan (about 55 degrees Celsius) and observe the transformation as it cools down in the cup. This cooled sake is known as kanzamashi and the taste when you find the sweet spot will change your relationship with sake forever.
Establishing a Back Story
The argument presented during the episode of Sake on Air was largely the role that terroir could play in providing sake with an interesting back-story. Presumably what was meant was something that consumers can visualise in their mind's eye that gives a sense of the place from where it was made. This ultimately adds value to the product and allows consumers to relate to the quality and effort that has gone into its production. As mentioned previously, in this respect, I am in complete agreement. Two things, however, come to mind when I think about the effort that has gone into making terroir that all-important back-story. Firstly, terroir and the discussion of ingredients are not mutually exclusive. Secondly, there is already an arguably more potent back-story that is both easy to establish and doesn't come with any ambiguous connotations.
The Brewing Process
Unlike in wine making, whereby the quality, or lack of, is largely determined by the raw ingredients, sake brewing is more dependent on production technique. Quality ingredients will go a long way in helping make good sake, but the underlying factor is a team of brewers who have mastered a tight production process. Personally, this is the one aspect of sake that is more important than any other in legitimising its credentials as a craft beverage.
The complex and unique process by which craft sake is made is surely one of the most intriguing of all the alcoholic beverages made today. You don't necessarily need to have a detailed understanding to appreciate the effort that goes into each batch, but the more you learn about it, the more fascinating it becomes. It is also no slight to the wine industry to say that if you compare the two brewing processes, sake is by some margin the more intricate of the two. Surprisingly, modern discourse around sake often focuses on things like terroir and Domaine when it has perhaps the most complex and compelling brewing processes of any alcoholic beverage in the world. This is what first attracted me to the wonders of sake, and it's what keeps me fixated today. It represents the most untapped resource that promoters have at their disposal and offers the perfect back story to take that all-important next step forward.
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