Hedonism Wines

A Summer of Hedonism

This summer, like many British summers, fizzled out with all the ceremony of a wet party popper.

It left me with a bereft sort of feeling…akin to that when you perform an iOS update for your iPhone and all you get is a free U2 album. Bereft and perplexed.

Weather aside, the summer months were actually incredibly fun. There was that visit from Philip Harper and the various dinners, the International Wine Challenge Public Sake Tasting with an unbelievable amount of trophy winning sake…and then there was that evening where I learnt all about Hedonism.

Behold, London’s Temple to the humble Grape.

Hedonism Wines

I should confess upfront that my understanding of wine is unapologetically linear. Linear to the degree that I can merrily divide the wine world into four kingdoms: Good Red, Bad Red; Good White, Bad White. A fair number of you are falling over in horror at this stage, spilling your glasses of Chateau Lafite across the floor like a murder scene. But I assure you that wine is on my list of things to get to know. (Although if I’m being honest, primarily for the purpose of being better able to benchmark sake).

Fortunately, Hedonism is the kind of place that even non-oenophiles can appreciate, with its tasteful and cavernous interior de luxe. True oenophiles however, will be brought to their knees with euphoria.

Hedonism Wines

A sweeping staircase is the first thing you see as you enter, and the downwards descent is taken directly from the ball scene in Disney’s Cinderella. The temperature has dropped a few degrees cooler. Amber, ruby, deep sapphire and rose…jewel coloured bottles stretch into the horizon, each resting snugly in its designated shelf space. It’s quiet. The silence is only broken by the deliberate footsteps of suited customers, intently searching for the one.

Hedonism Wines

Hedonism Wines

In short, Hedonism is the home of fine wine in London. But it also purveys plenty of the other fine and wicked things in life, including spirits, glassware thin as soap bubbles, and of course, sake.

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Sake Shelf at Hedonism

Pairing events often take place here, usually in the downstairs ‘cellar’. Tonight, we have gathered for six Mediterranean style mini-bites, paired with six special types of sake. The theme: Seasonal Sake, chosen to showcase the best of summer’s ingredients.

Each pairing was carefully curated by Honami Matsumoto, who in her previous incarnations worked as Head Sommelier at Nopi (with a wine list that was shortlisted for Imbibe’s Wine List of the Year), as a Wine and Sake Specialist at Hedonism and is a Certified Sake Level III Sake Educator by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET). (She continues to offer event organising services under House of Sake). By putting Japanese sake to work in unfamiliar contexts, such as non-Japanese cuisines, this masterclass demonstrated sake’s underrated versatility and  turned old conventions on their head with grace and finesse.

Summer Sake at Hedonism

Five of the six Sake we tried, from left: Masumi Arabashiri; Shirakabegura Muroka Daiginjo Genshu; Katsuyama Lei Sapphire Label; Ikekame Turtle Black; Ume no Yado Yuzu. Missing: Mio Sparkling

First came the palate opener of prosciutto wrapped melon and mint, paired with sparkling sake by Mio (see Hedonism). This was a unanimous hit, a mix of sweet bubbles from the sake, wafer thin saltiness and yielding melon flesh. The champagne like fizz of the poured sake heralded the start of a fine evening ahead.

Mio sake

Second came bruschetta two ways: Cherry tomato on the one, and caramelised red onion and Gorgonzola Dolce on the other. Both tomato and cheese are sake friends, being rich in “savoury deliciousness”, or umami. I rather enjoyed Honami’s description of the sake and cheese friendship also stemming from their shared “moldiness”. This course was paired with a Nama Genshu (meaning raw and undiluted), named Masumi Arabashiri Junmai Ginjo. This particular sake was chosen for its higher levels of sweetness and acidity, with the aim of bringing out the flavours of caramelised onion.

Hedonism Wines Sake Class

Tomato was to play a dominant role in this evening’s theatre of food and drink, featuring twice more in close succession. First, a petit bowl of gazpacho was paired with a genshu (meaning undiluted) named Shirakabegura Muroka Daiginjo Genshu. The Sake’s smell was highly distinctive, akin to that of exotic white flowers. I took this as an opportunity to test whether I could indeed detect the difference between Nama Genshu and Genshu. An experiment which left me feeling slightly despondent, but which can only be interpreted as a call for more Sake drinking.

Gazpacho at Hedonism Wines

Next the Burrata, peach, tomato and basil salad with aged balsamic vinegar, which came paired with Katsuyama Lei Junmai Ginjo Sake. Let us just pause here and give both elements the appreciation that they both individually warrant.

Burrata at Hedonism

First the burrata. There are many grades of burrata, ranging from that which resembles a white rubber puck, to that which is gorgeously white and soft, and bleeds when you cut it. Tonight’s burrata were decidedly of the bleeding sort, requiring consumption with a spoon. Each majestically pale celestial body came enshrined on its own little constellation – meaty chunks of tomato, delicate peach and vividly fragrant basil.  Because the body is a temple, n’est-ce que pas?

As I sat back and observed, I felt rather moved by the way the delicate cheeses disgorged their inner creaminess, and the greedy slurping this invoked. All things considered, this course was a hit.

Fun fact: burrata is apparently a mozzarella pouch that has been stuffed with cream and other leftover scraps of mozzarella. A pure dose of heart attack, delivered straight from a water buffalo’s milk pail straight to you.

And then the Sake. Katsuyama Lei is in fact one of my favourite Sake to drink, both for the story behind its production, and its flavour and aroma. Just imagine the taste of the best peach in the world, and what it would smell like…and this brings you something close to Katsuyama Lei. Supposedly, this is achieved through the assiduous polishing of the sake rice into diamond shapes, which also explains the premium price tag (c. £56 at Hedonism).

Katsuyama Lei

The fifth course demontrated the ability of certain sakes to hold up well with meatier fare, with its extremely welcome ability to cut through grease without astrigency. The chosen sake, Ikekame Turtle Red Junmai Daiginjo (see sake lineup photo above), also possessed a red berry kind of smell, playing upon the sherry and vinegar dressing in course five’s “Oven-roasted chicken wings with garlic”.

And finally we were in the home stretch.

If our final pairing had a name it would be

Amalfi.

Hedonism

Waxy lemons and a pastel hued sake liqueur, richly evocative of Mediterranean summer nights. Another familiar Sake friend too – Yuzu by Ume no Yado brewery – which you can read more about here.

Not much more for me to say here, save that Sicillian lemon cheesecake paired with a sweet liqueur tends to speak for itself. (Cheesecake courtesy of the English Cheesecake Company).

Sicillian lemon cheesecake

The rest of the evening is spent in a warm haze of satisfaction, strolling through the different chambers of luxury. Each alcove his its own little delight, not least the famous room of many hands, each cradling a bottle of something priceless:

Hedonism

Hedonism

 

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Hedonism

Outside it’s raining. I navigate towards the tube station, side stepping puddles filled with the sheen of gasoline rainbows. I’m smiling though, as I remember the line written at the bottom of my tasting sheet:

“I can resist everything except temptation.”

Oscar Wilde

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Honami holds frequent tasting classes at Hedonism. Her next class is already sold out, but you can read more about it in my next post, and be notified of future tastings here.

All Sakes mentioned in this article are available to purchase at Hedonism Wines:

Mio, by Shochikubai

Arabashiri, by Masumi

Shirakabegura Muroka, by Shochikubai

Lei Sapphire, by Katsuyama

Turtle Red, by Ikekame

Yuzu, by Ume no Yado

Baijiu Masterclass

Baijiu 101: the Spirit of China

The most consumed spirit on planet earth is not the one in your glass.

Or even one that you have heard of. I can say this with a decent level of confidence, since although Baijiu (“Bye-Joe”) represents over 1/3 of global spirit sales each year, most sales are domestic to its native China.

In 2015 the narrative is finally beginning to change. 21st century consumers in pursuit of the new, unique and authentic are blowing new wind into the flagging sails of China’s national spirit. In 2015, we are witnessing Baijiu’s fiery star ascend.

As can be expected, London was the hub of much of the action, with a Baijiu Cocktail Week in February, a Baijiu Masterclass in July, and World Baijiu Day last Saturday, 8th August*.

Shui Jing Fang

Shui Jing Fang Baijiu, one of the brands used to mix cocktails for Baijiu Cocktail Week

The fact that Baijiu has found a following overseas still surprises me. I do not deny a tinge of pride when reflecting on how this token of Chinese culture has found itself out of the Sinosphere and into occidental drinking culture. Why shouldn’t China be known for something other than one party rule, censorship and stock market volatility? We are constantly reminded of the successes of cultural cross fertilisation when we find a greater variety of groceries in our supermarkets, our language enriched by foreign words and of course slivers of kimchee in our tacos. And yet, and yet…the idea of a Baijiu Masterclass rather made my lip curl.

London is receptive and daring in its acceptance of foreign food and drink culture, but two hours of Baijiu consumption felt to me like pushing the limits of the city’s friendly curiosity. Those of you who have tried Baijiu before will know that there are few who actually drink it for pleasure. Who in their right mind would sign up for this?

…Somebody like me obviously, doomed by a bad curiosity habit to volunteer for the irrational. Nevertheless, hands on research is my calling card, and I was curious to see what would unfold over the course of an amicable, alcoholic evening.

But before I go into further detail, some housekeeping is in order – in which I explain about China’s most loved, most hated, national drink.

*A particularly auspicious date in Chinese culture. In Mandarin, “eight” is pronounced “ba”, which sounds like “fa”, the verb “TO GET RICH”. So in a crude way, more eights is always better.

*

Baijiu 101

What is Baijiu?

Baijiu to China is what Sake is to Japan. Both are generally clear in colour and utilise molds in the brewing process…but the similarity stops there. The key differences being that Baijiu is distilled, and that the main ingredient is sorghum, which historically was a cheap grain considered too poor for human consumption. A happy medium between eating this appallingly fibrous grain and throwing it away was, of course, to turn it into alcohol. Herbs, berries, Chinese Medicine and beans are all sometimes used to enhance the final flavour. You could consider vodka as a Western equivalent, but whereas vodka smells neutral, the esters in Baijiu result in a spirit that is far more richly fragranced. Baijiu is categorised according to five major ‘fragrance’ categories, but many brands share the unmistakable aroma of peardrop sweets.

Peardrops

How alcoholic is Baijiu?

You know those Chinese restaurant menus where the original meaning has been crippled in the process of being translated into English? The translation of Baijiu is a classic example of “Lost in Translation”.

Baijiu literally translates to “white wine”, but those who mistakenly try it with this expectation are likely in for a shock. Baijiu contains alcohol just like wine, but “Alcoholic” doesn’t quite capture the liquid fire sensation of drinking it.

It weighs in at an average ABV of 50-55%…and people are also about 50-55% less sensible in consuming it. Apparently the thought of taming its fiery hot strength never occurred to anyone in the first couple thousand years of Chinese history.

How do you drink Baijiu?

To toast in Chinese is to “Gan Bei (干杯)”, or “Bottoms Up”!

This command is always taken literally, and in the spirit of true equality it is applied to every drinker at the table, no matter what they are drinking. No deviation, no hesitation and certainly no dilution. If you think that allowances might be made for something as strong as Baijiu, you’d be rational but perfectly wrong. Shot after shot after shot after shot is the rhythm of a typical evening of drinking.

This is why when you ask people what Baijiu tastes like, their eyes might glaze over and they may begin to shake.

“It tastes like being punched down the throat by a comet…”

Part of the Baijiu Revival has involved introducing new ways to drink it, like actually drinking it for example. The logic is that by sipping slowly, drinkers are allowed time to appreciate the flavour imparted by the raw ingredients, rather than be immediately KO’ed by the ethanol. And once you get past the initial alcohol shock, it is undeniable that there’s something very unique about this spirit. The taste depends on which of the five fragrance categories the drink belongs to, but each mouthful always contains multiple layers of taste.

More popular in the West is the practice of taming Baijiu’s essence into a cocktail, giving a lick of sugar with the spice.

Baijiu Cocktail

Baijiu Cocktail, courtesy of Paul Mathew at The Hide Bar, London. Baijiu of choice: Wu Liang Ye

When do you drink Baijiu?

Baijiu is the fuel of Chinese social occasions – so the answer is all of the time.

We drink it in times of happiness – weddings, corporate profit announcements, battle victories, but also in times of sadness. Classical Chinese poets have written about it, wars won, loves lost over it. History has been made over it – The most famous brand of Baijiu, Guizhou Mao Tai*, was immortalised when Mao and Nixon toasted to a new era of Sino-American relations in 1972. When Deng Xiaoping visited the US in 1979, Henry Kissinger is said to have remarked, “if we drink enough Mao Tai we can solve anything”. I think the Baijiu had got to him by then.

Suffice it to say that Baijiu is more than just a spirit, but rather a part of the national psyche.

*Romanisation = Kweichow Moutai. What the hell.

Why is the world taking an interest?

Baijiu makers are setting their sights abroad.

The reason being that Baijiu, like Sake, is suffering in its home country. In 2014, sales for certain brands declined by 80%. But why?

  • Competition: Baijiu used to have a pseudo-monopoly on the Chinese alcohol market. With the arrival of foreign beverages, consumers were suddenly confronted with greater choice. The average Chinese youth is too preoccupied with aspirational substitutes like beer, grape wine and whiskey to have time for Baijiu. For younger drinkers, these Western substitutes are also a lot easier on the palate
  • Crackdown: following the anti-extravagance measures imposed by President Xi, Baijiu sales have collapsed. Once the largest customer of the Baijiu industry, government officials have dramatically cut down on Baijiu gift giving and curbed the frequency of state banquets, rich enough to kill a Roman, which would always be awash with the spirit. With sales no longer guaranteed, the premium prices at which high end brands retailed were no longer supportable.
  • Overseas demand: Chinese expats create a demand for Baijiu overseas, a result of the inextinguishable human craving for the food and drink of home

Is there a solution?

The confluence of factors described above has catalysed Baijiu’s old guard to rethink their strategy. To cater to domestic tastes, producers are creating mid-range offerings which confer the prestige of a heritage brand for mass market affordability.  Secondly, to capture new pockets of demand, Baijiu makers are bringing their drinks to foreign markets. Still, trying to locate a retail bottle of Baijiu in the UK is tougher than finding a needle in a haystack, and as long as this remains the case it’s fair to say that there is still more to be done.

In this context, Baijiu Masterclasses can only be a positive force. Despite what I said earlier, I do believe that a proper introduction and education is essential for Baijiu. Done properly, Masterclasses will teach us to ignore some of the preconceptions about how it should be consumed (lots, fast), and allow us to look deeper into the flavour, history and culture – ensuring that a new drinker’s first kiss with Baijiu will be that much more meaningful and sweet.

Led by Paul Mathew, this tasting was the first of its kind. Paul has an impressive portfolio, being co-owner of The Hide Bar in Bermondsey, The Arbitrager and also Demon and Wise & Partners. His brush in with Baijiu happened during his four years in China, where he consulted with Diageo on its baijiu brand, Shuijingfang.

Shuijingfang

Shui Jing Fang comes in its own museum worthy casing.

Shuijingfang

And an equally museum-worthy bottle…

Baijiu Masterclass

Within the safe walls of the Wine, Spirits and Education Trust, sixteen brave and curious guests came face to face with China’s national spirit.

We covered the history and production, before putting theory to practice by tasting different fragrance categories under careful supervision.

Baijiu Masterclass

Paul had managed to find representation from almost each of the five main categories of Baijiu, which made for scientifically rigorous degustation. I always like to know there’s a bit of method to the madness in which I engage.

The five fragrance categories are as follows:

Light Fragrance

Strong Fragrance

Sauce Fragrance

Rice Fragrance

Compound Fragrance

Four Baijiu

Clockwise from top left: Guizhou Mao Tai, Red Star Er Guo Tou, Wen Jun, Lu Zhou Lao Jiao

Most interesting of all was the way Western spirits were thrown in for comparison and contrast. We tried things like unaged Agricole Rhum, unaged Scottish grain spirit and white armignac. I’m not a connoisseur of spirits, but it was immediately evident that not one was as fragrant as Baijiu.

But let’s be honest, it was the reactions that I enjoyed the most. These brave souls, who – except for the Wu Liang Ye Baijiu sales rep present – could only be applauded for their bravery and pitied for their innocence. It was clear that the taste of Baijiu was not palatable to everyone, eliciting some acerbic remarks and tortured groans during tasting. But as with all things, your fondness for something is often tied up in the experiences you associate with it, the time and place it occupies in your memory. This is something that all drinkers will understand, and which is certainly true of my feelings for Baijiu.

Quote of the evening came from one of the more seasoned drinkers, a Chinese gentlemen working in London. When asked if the Baijiu brought back memories of China, he stoically admitted, “If you over consume, you have no memories.”

Finale

For the grand finale, we trooped next door to Paul’s Hide Bar to see what some deft cocktail mixing would do to Baijiu’s ferocious bite. I was sadly called away before the fun began, but I managed to obtain photos of the confective cocktails that were shaken and stirred (below, and earlier in the article):

Baijiu Cocktail

As I travelled home on the DLR that night, exuding a cloud of peardroppy ester perfume, I felt glad.

I felt thankful for all the brave spirits out there, like Paul, who are willing to try new things and to socialise their discoveries. There are many for whom drinks like Baijiu will never wash, but also a fair few for whom the very process of discovery will be pleasure enough.

*

To get your dose of firewater, head on down to Bermondsey for some Baijiu cocktails at The Hide Bar, or venture down to Chinatown if you dare.

And if you do just one thing, then add this to your calendar: Baijiu Cocktail Week 2016!

Not My Sushi Role

Sushi and Sake Masterclass, at M Restaurant

Towards the end of last year, a new and fancy looking establishment popped up a stone’s throw from the office.

Clever, I thought. The phrase ‘captive audience’ springs to mind.

Yet in the few intervening months between then and now, I had never managed to do anything about my curiosity. Except for that one time I went for a quick drink (sake), nary a foot had I stepped into M Restaurant and not a morsel of M Restaurant food had I tasted.

It was obviously fate then that the second Philip Harper dinner was to take place at M.

Philip Harper is the world’s first and only non-Japanese toji (master sake brewer) in Japan. Read here.

M Restaurant
Square Meal

 

The ‘M’ in ‘M Restaurant’, case you wonder, stands for Martin. Martin Williams in his previous incarnation built up the Gaucho Grill chain into a global brand, but has since stepped away to launch his own eponymous restaurant.

 

M Restaurant Lobby

 

As part of the Philip Harper roadshow organised by Asami of World Sake Imports, we were to spend an evening brushing up on our sushi making skills. Skills that were, in some cases, underdeveloped. After making our own, we would be allowed to relax and enjoy the rest of the carefully planned sake and caviar themed menu. I’d done a lot of eating in the past few days, so I didn’t mind putting in a bit of elbow grease for my supper that night.

We started off in the upstairs Tasting Bar, where fine wines are available to sample on tap.

 

Reserved

 

My attention was immediately drawn to the Japanese wine. Partly because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but partly because I had never clued into Japan’s wine producing capabilities.

The label read ‘Koshu‘ (甲州) – in a sake context, Koshu refers to ‘aged sake’ and is written differently, whereas in a wine context, it refers to the grape variety. The bottle below was filled with the last drops of ‘Grace Wine’, a white wine christened after the Three Graces. I’ll be back to try this very soon…

 

Wine from Japan

 

Our most fantastic and charming host for the evening was Zach, who serenaded us with humorous comments and plenty of drink. He made overtures with a Japan themed cocktail named ‘Umami’, after the fifth taste discovered by Japanese scientist Dr Ikeda in the 1900s.

Although Umami was originally extracted from kelp, M have concluded that the same effect can be achieved through blending Hibiki 12yo Japanese whisky, Haig Club whisky, plum juice and soya milk. Let’s also not forget to set sail that pansy petal on top.

 

Umami Cocktail

Sake in a teacup

 

Next, Chef Jarrad (ex Chiltern Firehouse) was introduced to us, bearing a slate of swordfish and quinoa sushi and some richly thick soy sauce to pair. Oh quinoa, you trendy super grain.

 

Swordfish Quinoa Sushi

 

In high spirits and high anticipation, we descended a rather grand staircase for the sushi masterclass to begin.

 

Sushi Masterclass

Sushi Counter

 

Chef Jarrad demo-ed the sushi technique…

 

Sushi Rolling Technique

 

…Before letting us loose on the pre-prepared ingredients.

 

Sushi making

 

Upon dipping my hand into the sushi rice, I found that the grains clung desperately to my fingers. No matter how I tried, they refused to adhere to the nori where they belonged.

My resulting roll looked pretty handsome – if you were to apply the standards of a paleo-chef.

 

Sushi Roll by Each Sip Sweet

Not My Sushi Role

 

As many things in life do, the sushi making quickly escalated into a cut throat competition. After some intense rolling and sesame sprinkling (and rice eating), the very deserving winner was selected and walked away with a fine bottle of Philip Harper’s Gold Medal winning “Kinsho“. I reckon there was some side arrangement where the winner had pre-agreed to splitting winnings with the judge.

 

Sake and Caviar

There are many things that you may not immediately think to pair with sake, and not many occasions where you will have the opportunity to do so. For example, how many European restaurants do you know that provide sake pairings as an option?

It is through events like this therefore, that people will have the opportunity to broaden their horizons a little, to access new pairings under the guidance of someone with experience.

Although the menu at M was safe and sushi based, but there were one or two dishes where the sake and caviar were allowed to shine together. In particular, the caviar garnished parmesan tuile, where the little luxury pockets of saltiness presented a buttery foil to Philip’s full bodied and strong tasting sake.

An evening dedicated to the wonderful trifecta of sushi, caviar and sake is a glorious evening indeed…

…and things got even better when I found the golden instamatic photo booth downstairs.

Sushi and Caviar

 

Last Thoughts: It is deeply exciting to see more and more of sake pairing events springing up across the city. Gradually, a new and open minded crowd is being introduced to the national drink of Japan in fun and modern contexts.

And come their next restaurant meal, perhaps they will be asking for a glass of sake instead.

***

The caviar came from Volzhenka, who source their black pearls from the “City of Caviar”, Astrakan. It remains a family owned business, and has done so for its half a century of operation.

Volzhenka Caviar

 

Many thanks to Asami Lewis and World Sake Imports for their efforts to promote sake abroad, and to M Restaurants for their hospitality. Last but not least thank you to Philip, who sacrificed many hours to drinking with us when he could have been spending time at home with his nephew and niece.

Philip’s “Insider’s Guide to Sake” remains the best introduction to sake available. Read more here.

 

M Restaurant