On a recent trip to the beautiful region of Kaga in Ishikawa prefecture I had but one souvenir on my wish list: sake brewed by the legendary toji Naohiko Noguchi. At 88 years of age and still going strong, his list of accolades and achievements are as long as his illustrious career, and many consider him the best toji to have ever set foot inside a sake brewery. That is, of course, subjective, but after a truly remarkable seven decades committed to his craft, few would grudge him the praise and attention he receives.
As a result of his fame, Noguchi's sake are highly prized, some might even say expensive. All too aware of this, on the day of my trip I was already waxing lyrical to my better half in order to justify the expense, despite already having enough sake at home to rival a well stocked Japanese restaurant. In the end, I chose the path of least resistance and ignored the lure of the high-end daiginjos (these can fetch hundreds of dollars) and opted for the cheapest sake he makes, a humble honjozo 本醸造.
Much maligned, honjozo sits at the bottom of sake's increasingly problematic classification pyramid on the side that includes added alcohol. Brewer's alcohol is relatively cheap, meaning that it's addition, even in small quantities, boosts the yields enough to lower the cost. The resulting sake is often great value for money with a reputation, wrongly in my opinion, as cheap, workaday brews, just a slight notch up from futsu-shu. Despite this, Noguchi's honjozo will still set you back around twice the price of a typical bottle from within this category, making even this entry-level seem a touch on the pricey side to those unaware of his highly reputable name.
Buying sake at an inflated price simply because of its brand name is something that I actively avoid. I have always felt that there is enough good sake out there to be found from lesser known brands, and being able to seek them out is just one of the many advantages of living in Japan. However, this was not a hindrance to my buying decision this time as it is my firm belief that Noguchi's sake are actually fairly priced, perhaps even a little too cheap. The fact that some consider them expensive only highlights one of the perennial issues facing the sake industry: perception of value.
Above all else, the price of sake in Japan is currently determined by its level of rice polishing. This, along with a few other rules relating to ingredients, is what determines where a sake sits in the aforementioned pyramid of classifications. In turn, it's designated classification will determine whether it's considered one of sake's elite "high-end" products or just the humdrum "regular" stuff.
The obvious flaw with this way of thinking is that, within the premium categories at least, the level of rice polishing only affects the style of the sake, not the quality. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that everyone's preferences will conveniently align with a chart that inadvertently places sake with highly polished rice, typically lighter in style, at the top of the pedestal, and those with less polished rice at the bottom. Granted, the greater the rate of polishing, the more rice you need to use to produce the same quantity of sake, raising the cost for brewers and consumers alike. However, preference is about what you like, not how much something costs, unless, of course, cost is all you are interested in.
Other factors, such as how the yeast starter was made, the type of rice used and, in recent years, how long the sake was aged also contribute to price, as they should. Yet, when you consider the single biggest influence on the quality of a particular sake is not what it was made from, but how it was made, it seems bizarre that the experience of the toji is rarely factored into the equation.
The world famous potter Shoji Hamada was once asked why his sake cups, which only took about 3 minutes to throw on a wheel, were so expensive. He wisely retorted that, actually "each one takes 3 minutes and 60 years".
Like the incredible craft that went into Hamada's pottery, sake, too, is a product of skill and technique. The influence of the toji trumps everything else, including the quality of the ingredients. This is evident from the abundance of great sake in existence made from table rice; it's why a junmai-shu took the 1st prize at the 2018 Kura Master competition; it's also why I enjoyed this "mere" honjozo more than any other premium sake I've had in a very long time.
Mastery to a level such as the incredible brews coming out of the Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute can only be achieved when the maker possesses great skill and an intimate understanding of the brewing process. This sake, therefore, may only have taken around 30 - 40 days to produce, but it's creation was an additional 70+ years in the making. It was brewed by the hands of one of the most legendary toji in history, perhaps currently the only person on the planet with such a wealth of experience. That experience is infused into each and every drop. On that basis, it may well represent the best value sake I have ever tried.
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