Another multi-part post this week, because I found another article with lots of interesting information. Writing in the Nikkei Business Online, Takashi Mitachi has a look at the past and present of aged sake - koshu.
Mitachi first looks back a few months to the International Wine Challenge (IWC) sake division, which took place in Yamagata. (The overall winner of the sake division will be announced at the IWC awards dinner on 10 July 2018.)
The IWC was originally organised by a magazine called Wine & Spirits, and introduced a sake division in 2007 using judges from all over the world to select (what they see as) the best sake.
His attention was drawn to one category in particular - koshu. Although sake was originally something drunk young, it’s now recognised as something that can be matured and enjoyed like wine. Sake has always had a little maturation, as it’s brewed over winter, pressed in spring, then often allowed to rest over the summer and released in autumn as hiya-oroshi. It loses its freshness in the process, but gains a balance between its different flavour components.
In one of several interesting detours, he looks at some sake-related Japanese terminology. In the Edo period, most sake was produced in the Itami and Nada areas of Hyogo Prefecture and shipped by sea to the capital, “coming down” from the north. This transport time allowed the sake to mature and gain a better balance of flavour [not to mention leaching flavour from the cedar casks in was stored in]. The verb “to come down” is kudaru, and the word for something of poor quality is kudaranai, the negative form of the verb.
He also comments that (apart from a small group who know more about sake) most people in Japan today seem convinced that fresh sake is best, and also that it’s normal to drink it chilled instead of hot.
Another detour: The Japanese tax agency historically frowned upon stored sake as it didn’t bring any tax revenue, which was one barrier to long-term ageing.
Back to the point. As sake goes out into the big world and tries to find success, concentrating only on fresh, chilled sake just creates a bottleneck. In Mitachi's opinion, it won’t help to increase demand or market value, mainly because it will restrict sake to being a before-dinner drink and therefore limit the volume that can be sold. He claims that there are many examples of very fragrant young ginjō sake being drunk as a before-dinner overseas, which has in turn influenced Japanese drinkers. He also says that as a result, many overseas restaurants only list sake as a before-dinner or start-of-dinner drink, even though it has always been something to drink during a meal. [He doesn't cite any sources for this, and I'm not sure I agree, although my experience of sake on non-Japanese restaurant drinks lists is limited.]