International Sake Day

How to Celebrate International Sake Day

With just 10 days left to go, read on for everything you need to know about International Sake Day, and details of all the festivities taking place in London from 30th September – 1st October 2015.

The 1st October is one of the most significant days in the Sake calendar, and indeed, the Japanese calendar. Otherwise known as Sake Day, or “Nihonshu no hi”, it marks the first day of the sake-making season, as Sake is brewed in autumn and winter.

The 1st October, in other words, is Sake’s ‘New Year’s Day’. The date is also of important for symbolic reasons, because the tenth year, hour and month are represented in the Chinese zodiac system by an ancient character that is also the old symbol for sake*:

Sake Symbol

So what have our UK importers and restaurants got in store for this year’s “New Year” celebrations?

*The modern symbol has an added three strokes on the left side, identical to the Chinese character for “alcohol”:

sake

 

Events on Wednesday, 30th September:

vagabond wines logo

Junmai, Honjuzu, Daiginjo – it’s not easy to get to grips with Sake without a guide so we’re happy to welcome Takeshi Nakamura from importer [email protected] and Sake Sommelier Jono Beagle to guide you through some of the many flavours and styles of Japan’s finest beverage. Both Takeshi and Jono are convinced Sake can match with European food and are importing previously unavailable breweries to the UK for the first time. This is sure to be and palate-expanding, fascinating tasting.
See here for event details and booking.
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hedonism logo

SOLD OUT

The Terroir of Yamagata Prefecture & Dewazakura Brewery
Hosted by Honami Matsumoto
Wednesday, 30th Sept 6.30 – 8.30pm

Following the success of Hedonism’s recent Sake Summer Showcase, Hedonism have welcomed back Honami Matusmoto to host another fantastic masterclass.

Honami will be joined by 5th generation brewers Akari & Shotaro Nakano of  Dewazakura to present a number of their very fine Sake & talk about the terroir of Yamagata Prefecture.

The evening will also feature cuisine provided by one of London’s finest Japanese restaurants, Kikuchi. Each dish has been hand-selected to match a specific Sake.

Guests will sample Tobiroku Sparkling Sake, Oka Ginjo, Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo, Izumi Judan Ginjo Genshu, Omachi Junmai Ginjo, Ichiro Junmai Daiginjo & Yuki ManMan Daiginjo 5 Years Matured.

International Sake Day

Copyright Jimmy Gleeson

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Events on Thursday, 1st October:

japan centre logo

Japan Centre in Piccadilly will be offering 20% off all Gekkeikan sake bought in store on the day. Sake sampling at Japan Centre will be held on the day between 3-6pm, with Naoyuki Torisawa, Japan Centre’s sake sommelier.

The 1st October will also see the launch of renowned sake brewers, Gekkeikan’s new Master Cooking Competition in collaboration with Japan Centre. For more information see here.

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shoryu logo
Shoryu Ramen, who specialise in authentic Kyushu cuisine, are celebrating International Sake Day 1st October 2015 by offering a complimentary sake for every diner that visits one of their four restaurants from 6pm on the day. They have also created a special flight of three different Sakes, which will be available for £6.50 – a perfect opportunity to try different Sakes.

For the complimentary sake, Shoryu Ramen will offer Gekkeikan Namasake, which is unlike other types of Sake as it is unpasterurised for a stronger taste and aroma.

Gekkeikan Namasake

The flight of Sakes, will include three Gekkeikan Sakes – Junmai Kome to Mizu, a dry, mellow Sake, Namazake, with the name literally meaning ‘natural Sake’ and Nigori, a sweeter, creamier Sake.  All of these choices have been especially chosen by Vicky Vittoria Vecchione, bar manager and mixologist for Shoryu Ramen.

Shoryu Sake Flight

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sushisamba

sushi samba ISDCelebrate World Sake Day on October 1st. From 5:30 PM until close, SUSHISAMBA will . . .

Craft a creative range of sake-infused cocktails, including:

ICHIJIKU CLOUD £14 – Enoki Shuzo sake, fig, fino sherry and a blend of chocolate and soy bitters. Stirred with ice until icy cold and served ‘up.’
SAKE SPRITZ £14 – Takashimizu Sake, dry cacao liqueur, lemon juice and a cherry and cacao bitters blend. Served over ice and spritzed with prosecco.

Feature a Kimono performance,

where dressed in traditional garb, Geisha will be serving sake to guests throughout the celebration during the night’s festivities.

Serve sake-inspired dishes created by our chefs,

who have seized inspiration from International Sake Day to breathe some sake spirit to their culinary craft.

SEA BASS SEVICHE £14 – sea bass, yuzu sake, orange, yuzu pearls, maize morado, nasturtium
SAKE SORBET £9 – quince sake sorbet, hazelnut, fig purée ​

To book: +44 (0)203 640 7330 or email: [email protected]

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tengu sake logo

Tengu Sake is kicking off World Sake Day 2015 at 6:30pm with a Sake Masterclass hosted by experts Tengu Sake.  There’ll be a variety of Sakes to try: different types, styles and regionalities.  They’ll also be talking about temperature and food pairings, with nibbles for people to try with the Sake.

Then, at 8pm, the party starts in true PimpShuei style.  The collaboration with Tengu Sake means Sake both by the glass, straight from the barrel as well as some superb Sake cocktails.  All this mixed in with PimpShuei’s signature cocktails, retro arcade machines and killer Kung Fu theme.  Also present will be Double Dragon Sound Systems on the decks to provide some chilled tunes.

A night to remember so come on down for your sake fix!

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World Sake Imports

World Sake Imports is organizing a seven-course food and sake-pairing menu at renowned Matsuri, on the first October. For a peek ahead at the magnificent menu, see below. To book your seat, call 020 7839 1101 – last few places remaining!

Matsuri

Matsuri menu

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 But most of all don’t forget to…
International Sake Day

Copyright Jimmy Gleeson http://www.jimmygleeson.com/INTERNATIONAL-SAKE-DAY

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.

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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.

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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!

Sake: from the front line

I don’t know how I feel about Wednesdays.

Usually what happens by the third weekday is that one half of my brain gives up, whilst the other half starts to attempt forward time travel to Friday.

Wednesday sits pathetically between the bookends of a week's beginning and end, apologetically impeding one’s swift exit to Saturday. Once I cross this mysterious threshold however, my heart begins to feel immediately lighter. Friday practically is the weekend. And Thursday is the day before Friday.

Suffice it to say, I am unaccustomed to the practice of "looking forward to Wednesday".

However, following this Wednesday’s events, I am launching a wholesale review of this attitude. April 29th had been ring-fenced in my diaries - iCal, Gmail, outlook, hardcopy - for a while, for the British Sake Association had sent news of a very interesting talk on sake.

 

The Talk

Sake: from the front line

Oliver Hilton-Johnson, owner of sake importing company Tengu Sake, had brought back goodies from Japan. He was also going to give a talk on his experiences. There would be sake.

It is in my nature to be suspicious of group lecture/ study events, but also in my nature to never refuse a sake tasting. So on Wednesday, I made my way to The Royal Asiatic Society -  a hop, skip and a jump from Euston Square Station - curious and intellectually thirsty.

The evening began with a presentation from Ollie, accompanied by some sake to enhance our audio-visual processing capabilities, followed by lovingly made yakitori, sushi and more sake. In 1.5hrs we covered a lot of material, so I present some highlights to share with you.

 

Hayashi Honten Brewery

Ollie had just returned from a 2 week sake internship at Hayashi Honten brewery, one of the breweries from which he imports. Founded 1920, the brewery is based in Gifu prefecture in what appeared to be fairly urban surrounds from Google Satellite images. There's a great map on Tengu Sake's website which shows the locations of all the breweries from which Ollie imports. Here's a close up of Gifu Prefecture:

 

Gifu map

 

Hayashi Honten

 

The urbanisation of the brewery's location surprised me, as I always imagined that something as romantic as a sake brewery would be most suitably located at the top of a fat, fluffy cumulonimbus, surrounded by mountains and sage men practicing calligraphy. What urban areas do have that clouds don’t, however, is secure access to good water. Breweries need good water in vast quantities, hence the co-location.

My favourite thing about Hayashi Honten is that it is run by one very capable Hayashi-san, who happens to be a woman.

How rare - in this industry as in any other industry. You’ve heard a lot by now of how female presence at the top of the food chain has quantifiable benefits for a company’s success, but hear this word of corroboration: one of the first things that Hayashi-san did was to institute a more humane work/life balance at the brewery. Some breweries ask workers nothing less than to work, live, eat, sleep onsite.

Hayashi-san instead preferred to implement a 07:00 – 18:00 schedule, with an hour for lunch in the middle!! I’ll say no more.

Ollie and Hayashi Honten brewers

The brewers of Hayashi Honten. Hayashi-san, centre right. Ollie, centre.

 

Brewery Tour

We were shown a virtual tour of the brewery. Again, in my wildest imaginings of what a Japanese brewery would look like, I never imagined that it would be possible for everything to be conducted in only 2 to 3 main rooms.

Hayashi Honten seemed to contain its operations to one main colder room (7 C), one hotter room upstairs (35 C) and one ante room (where bottling and labelling was conducted). The staff travelled between these rooms like worker bees, diligently back and forth, their rhythms only punctuated by the frequent changing of slippers between rooms.

(When I first came to the UK, I was appalled at the way outdoor shoes would be worn straight into the house – and even the bedroom! I still cannot comprehend why people here don’t understand my angst. Where is the hygiene? Where is the respect?)

Upstairs, Downstairs at Hayashi Honten

Upstairs, Downstairs at Hayashi Honten

 

Sake Brewing – the (figurative) sweat that goes into the sake

The meat of the lecture was devoted to describing a day in the life of a sake brewer. A sake brewer's day is busy, involves a lot of washing, rice handling and temperature changes. But if there's one thing you need to know, it is that sake brewing is hard. 

The hypothetical schedule ran something like this:

07:00                   Arrive ready to work

10:00 - 10:30     Break

13:00 -14:00       Lunch hour

16:00 – 16:30     Break

18:00                    End of working day.

According to Ollie, mornings tended to be very structured, with all activities pre-planned and delegated using the "Master Plan" (an arcane grid filled with neat Kanji).

Then depending on whether it was peak brewing season, afternoons could be more flexible. Ollie had arrived quite late in the brewing season, when production was winding down and most of the sake was already in the maturation tanks; this allowed for more flexibility.  Afternoon activities involved tasks that had to be executed everyday (koji checking, refrigeration of koji, washing, pasteurising, bottle labelling, chemical analysis) and activities that only needed occasional tending to. At peak time on the other hand, everything would be highly regimented.

Ollie spreads out the rice to cool

Ollie spreads out the rice to cool

 

 

Koji

One last word on Koji.

Aspergillus oryzae. It is the little mold God that determines a sake's major qualities, its depth and amino acidity. A petulant little baby God, which needed to be sauna-ed, massaged, swaddled in muslin and carried around, several times a day. It also carries out the crucial role of breaking down the rice starch into sugars (saccharification), in order that the yeast can ferment it into alcohol.

From Ollie’s account, it is clear that the brewers devoted a large part of their day to tending to it. Looking back through my notes, about 70% of what I jotted down related to the tending of koji!

Koji wrapped in muslin

Koji wrapped in muslin

 

Sake

I’m sure this is what you really wanted to read about. Ever heard of the saying, "stay for a drink, stay for two"?

Or eleven, since eleven is the number of  different sakes that were on display. Here are two that deserve a special mention:

Sky Warrior

Otherwise known as "Seku Honjozo Karakuchi". A Honjozo sake from Hayashi Honten brewery. Official notes:

15% ABV. A fragrant, peppery and zesty sake, clean fresh and yeasty with a lively dry finish. A good match with strong-tasting foods that have one or two dominant flavours and are not too greasy or creamy. It also pairs well with salty, peppery or even spicy dishes. Examples could include grilled (peppered) steak, salted calamari, grilled chicken with a simple sauce, peppered crab or spicy squid.
Honjozo Karakuchi
 

Akazake

The name “Akazake (red sake)” refers to its colour. This was a first for me, not knowing that sake could come in such a hue.

Akazake red is not the strong red that we apply to our beloved London buses, but a sister shade to brandy perhaps. (No decent images sadly, but a Google search gives you the right idea).

Where does the red come from?

Most sakes are pasteurised for sterilization, but Akazake uses wood ash. Wood ash is added to the sake before pressing, neutralising the acidity of the sake.  This particular Akazake speciment came from "kumamoto-ken Shuzo Kenkyujo" or "Kumamoto Research Centre".  Akazake is particular to Kumamoto and was the original style made there until 1909.

 

After a merry evening spent learning about sake and the process, I can only recommend the course. If you wish to learn a bit more about the subject, give it a try! The level is accessible and the speaker well-informed. Now that I know how much human labour goes into creating each drop of sake, I cannot help but be sympathetic to the price, and appreciate every sip more.