Sports news site Sports Hochi has a report on drinking under the cherry trees that caught my eye for a slightly different reason – someone who has been into sake for over 20 years commenting that as soon as he says he likes sake, he gets the same questions. 20 years ago, and now.
After enthusing about spring finally arriving for real in the shape of the fully-blooming cherry trees, and remarking that although you could drink anything but he always ends up having sake, columnist Shunsuke Takahashi contemplates the joy of lying under the trees with a drink and basically celebrating being Japanese.
And that as soon he mentions it, he gets the same questions about sake. “Do you prefer sweet or dry? Is sake from Niigata good?”
Outside of a small group of enthusiasts Japanese people still have a set image of their national drink, accompanied by plenty of preconceptions. He wishes they could enjoy sake without such thoughtless preconceptions, but is convinced that global perception of sake and branding are influencing ordinary Japanese drinkers.
Takahashi also refers to some interesting data – a survey by Rakuten Research that reveals that “prior information” before tasting tends to influence evaluation of flavour. In a comparison of blind tasting (with no information about brand or style) and a normal tasting where information about the sake was known beforehand, over 60% of people gave a higher evaluation when they knew about what they were drinking.
Commenting that the flavour of sake is complex, with many different components, and incapable of being summed up as merely “sweet” or “dry”, Takahashi also remarks that the flavour will be different to different people. It’s also difficult for drinkers to express what it is that they like, making it a not-so-simple task to find a favourite sake.
Out of this difficulty a new project has been started, one with the aim of helping people to find the sake they really enjoy without being led astray by information. PROJECT YUMMY is a new effort by Mirai Sake, a specialist sake bar in the trendy Tokyo neighbourhood of Daikanyama, and digital production company I Studio. They have opened a pop-up sake bar and art gallery in the Gallery X by Parco space in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, which runs from 30 May to 3 June 2018 (open weekdays 17:00 – 23:00, weekend 13:00 – 23:00).
The main aim of the project is to use a combination of blind tasting and AI to uncover the drinker’s real preferences and find a sake that suits them perfectly. After blind tasting 10 sake selected by a kikizake-shi (some class of expert, either self-styled or possibly a graduate of an SSI or other course) the drinker rates the sake on their smartphone and answers a few questions, and the kikizake-shi-taught AI decides which of 12 categories of sake they will like.
Takahashi also remarks that the 12 types themselves are interesting. Whereas traditional descriptions were along the lines of “fresh aroma and understated dryness” or “mellow aroma with rich umami“, this system uses onomatopoeic descriptors like byun-byun (ビュンビュン, ping/zing/zoom/whoosh), kyun-kyun (キュンキュン, moving/heart throbs) and suru-suru (スルスル, smooth). At first he thought it was ridiculous, but then realised that it added an element of fun to the whole endeavour as drinkers pair up these new words with more familiar ones, coming up with “byun-byun dryness” or “suru-suru dryness”. Above and beyond helping them to distinguish between different forms of dryness, it also helps them to better define what they like.
Recapping on some familiar (albeit depressing) statistics, Takahashi mentions that the number of active breweries has fallen from over 2,000 at the beginning of the Heisei era (1989 – current) to around 1,400 today. Other factors included a falling population with an increasing proportion of younger people turning away from drinking alcohol. Sake producers allowed their production volumes to fall as shōchū approached the height of its popularity in 2003, showing how dispirited they have become. Not all – ambitious young owners, tōji (master brewers) and their supporters have been desperately trying to brew delicious sake and putting their hearts and souls into getting the word out about its charms, resulting in year-on-year increases in exports. Not only that, but non-Japanese brewers are starting to produce sake outside of Japan, showing how much sake culture has penetrated other countries.
One brewery can make many styles of sake, multiplying the possibilities into the tens of thousands, and an infinity of tastes. Takahashi finishes by hoping his fellow Japanese can rid themselves of preconceptions and taste the sake that is becoming the pride of their nation abroad, and finally find that one bottle that they love.