They held a special exhibition last year in Tokyo called Wagashi de Yō (和菓子で酔う, Drunk on Wagashi), which was extremely popular. The combination of sake and traditional Japanese sweets is also becoming more well-known.
The equally long-standing Umenoyado brewery in Nara Prefecture held a pairing event in June 2018 in Nara city at the Nakanishi Yosaburō wagashi shop, called – wait for it – Otono no Josei ga Nihonshu no Dentōbunka wo Tanoshimu Tsudoi – Nihonshu to Wagashi ga Au ndesu (「オトナの女性が日本の伝統文化を楽しむ集い～日本酒と和菓子が合うんです。」, A Gathering of Adult Women Enjoying the Traditional Culture of Sake – Sake and Wagashi Go Well Together). [As a side note, I usually translate the term “adult” in this context as “sophisticated”, otherwise, you know, “adult tastes” and all that.]
50 ladies in their 20s to 60s took part, enjoying the sophisticated pairing. Sakaya Suzuki, a wagashi meister at Nakanishi Yosaburō, was in charge of the sweets. Her Tsukigase sweet looks at first glance just like a plum, but has secret ingredients including white miso and white soy sauce. After admiring its shape and colour, when finally eaten it releases a hint of sweetness and also saltiness.
Followed immediately by Umenoyado’s junmai ginjō Kobai, the sake fills the mouth with its gentle acidity and rich, mellow flavour. The wagashi and sake practically insist on being had together. Suzuki comments that they extend each others’ flavours, just like wine and cheese. The women who took part were happy to have discovered another way to enjoy sake, and ready to try it with some wagashi as a nightcap.
The pairing also features in Haikei 500 m, a free paper for “the Kyoto woman who knows what’s real”, which has had an article on Kyo no Nihonshu to Wagashi (京の日本酒と和菓子, Kyoto Sake and Wagashi) in every issue since May 2018. Shinko Enjō, head of the editorial department, points out that Kyoto has an abundance of both sake breweries and traditional sweet shops. They both use the local water, so she started from that point of compatibility. She teamed up with local mega-brewery Gekkeikan and tried to find wagashi that paired well with their products. Exhaustive testing was carried out with Gekkeikan tōji [what a job…] to determine the suitability of different matches.
The article in the March 2018 issue looked at nigori, and paired it with kimi-shigure, a type of steamed bread filled with an (sweetened azuki bean paste) mixed with egg yolk. The squishy pieces of an combined with the nigori produce a pleasant smooth sensation on the tongue. Her conclusion? Sake and wagashi just make each other taste better.
Another mega-brewery in another sake stronghold, Hakutsuru in Nada, are looking for their own Kobe-style combination. They targeted winter with its abundance of special days to eat sweet things in pairs or groups (Christmas, New Year, Valentine’s Day, etc.) and ran a “Sweets and Sake” photo competition from 22 December 2017 to 22 February 2018, calling for people to post photos of themselves enjoying sweets and sake. They also awarded them puntastic “awards” such as Oishisō de Shō (美味しそうで賞, “looks tasty, doesn’t it?” but with the verb ending replaced by the character for “award” which has the same reading, making it “Award for being tasty-looking”) and Igai de Shō (意外で賞, “surprising, isn’t it?”/”Award for being surprising”). (See also Something fishy: a sake just for mackerel.) It also allowed the company to publicise scenes of people enjoying sake in ways that broke away from its traditional, staid image. They received 135 photos overall.
Kazuhiro Ōoka, who works in advertising at Hakutsuru, comments that although sake is made from nothing but rice and kōji its taste changes according to brewing method and drinking temperature. It balances food, creates harmony with it, and washes away aftertaste. And if these three compatibilities come into play, flavour is amplified.
The company has been researching sake food pairings for many years, and also suggests ways of enjoying sake with sweets. They held a sweets promotion in 2016, and tried out lots of combinations. They discovered that traditional sweets with rich flavour, like kurikinton (sweets formed from paste made of chestnut and sweet potato) were a good match. They also rated sweets made with Western liqueurs, chocolate, and baked treats like madeleines and shortbread. [Have to admit I would not have thought of the last two.] They plan to do more research into this topic.
Again, I seem to notice the strangest things. The photos of Umenoyado staff at work had me thinking “Ooh, proper hair nets!” Some of the shots you see with guys stripped to the waist preparing steamed rice makes me wonder if the human skin microbiome is involved in brewing…
UPDATE: Found the Gekkeikan page listing all of the sake x wagashi pairings!
- Gekkeikan sake x Kyoto wagashi page (Japanese)