Thursday, 8 September 2011

[Event - Sake Tasting] Enlightenment, through the Sake-os: IWC Sake Tasting at the Embassy of Japan, Piccadilly

Location - Piccadilly, London [UK]

After my life-altering introduction to Sake that occurred on the eve of my Quarter Century of "living" [ugh], the structure of my entire universe was irrevocably changed. Such was the crystallising clarity of realisation brought on by the interest in Sake and its diverse, profound and characterful culture, that it has gone so far to restructuring my daily routine. For now, the hours spent on a daily basis on my laptop, were predominantly spent attempting to demystify and broaden the spectrum of sake. I also purchased books. With my own money. BOOKS! Sake has achieved, officially, the unthinkable.

Such was my thirst for knowledge - and within reason Sake, but not too much, too many calories - that I had immediately sought to learn more, constantly, striving to create a path out of the bedlam of novicehood to attempt to give direction in this journey of Basmati Water Enlightenment. After the first sampling at the Sake Tasting event, I needed more, a notion only further bolstered by the bottle of sake ordered the following day on my birthday. Plans were hatched, a rough direction was set, with the internet providing my initial outlet for research, but it was not enough. Intentions were set to join the British Sake Association, as knowingly such an officially recognised outlet could bring with it its insight. I held off joining just for a while so that at least I could bring a friend to join in on the return from his holiday. He however, sneakily decided to join without letting me know, the fiend, pushing for the immediate signing up a day later - in his dastardly move though, a series of kerfuffles that have culminated in him not officially being signed up as of yet, serves him. The day of the signing up also brought along with it a visit to Hyper Japan, wherein I entrapped an employee of Hasegawa Saketen for a seeming eternity, attempting to draw out his life-force ever more knowledge. A pivotal moment.

More was sought - receiving the Membership documentation, I devoured all media in an instant, and yet I was not satisfied. eBooks were puchased and read, some rued as they contained basic information I had already grasped, some depicting quirks, intricacies and history that further drew me in. The defining book however was one by a Philip Harper, "The Book of Sake: A Connoisseur's Guide". A book written by the only foreign Master Brewer in any Japanese Sake Brewery. Suffice it to say, there was insight provided, but out of all this research, I was left curiously wanting. I suddenly became enthralled, feeling that a career in the industry was a sure-fire way to garner indepth knowledge and retribution in this desire for understanding, but surely there must be an easier, interim way. Despite the purchases, despite contacting key figures like the aural torture I submitted an employee at Hyper Japan to, and the infamous John Gauntner, the only foreign Sake Tasting Official in Japan, and despite the reams of information gleaned, one thing was lacking. Which was substantiated by the words depicted in every source. How can I further progress in my understanding of sake, with its simply oceanic possibilities, variances, possibilities? Practical experience. Yes, thank you. This obviously was a notion I had not considered, and whilst initially disappointed in such an obvious response, I figured there was method to this madness. Reading an article of John Gauntner's, he made a statement the created some clarity:
Accessibility is key when it comes to learning about sake. You can read about it until you're blue in the face, but if you can't access it and sample various types, there's not much point.
Despite my initial frustration, in creating research notes on factors affecting tastes of sakes, and approaches to take, trying a variety of extreme permutations was not going to achieve anything if I did not form a solid foundation of sake. This is why I got frustratingly little solace in the responses from the aforementioned when asking for specific directions and brews. Discovering sake is a path that is based, on preferences - certainly there are guidelines and common opinions on what can constitute to a superior example from a lesser one, but in the end, you have to base off of your own conceptions. And the very slight experiences of Umeshu sampled at the friends' house would be far too slow. So. To learn more, I had to drink more. Great. There's only 1700 or so brewers in Japan at the moment, and as much as I would like to play "Eenie Meanie Minie Mo" until time cedes to exist, I need a solution. Not event a conceited notion to try exclusively Sake's from the Japan Prestige Sake Association found much ground in my clueless quest, as primarily I could not find a list of the brewers. The Hasegawa employee also discredited them. As well as my clueless notion. Solace was found in the British Sake Association - £25 well spent. A Sake tasting event was to be held, and armed with my substantially greater understanding/still relatively null repertoire of sake, this would be a perfect opportunity to start in my quest to learn more. I also had around  8 Brewers to select from, and whilst I did not know it at the time, they would be from several diverse locations around Japan. Regionality, score.

So the date was set, the place booked, and the journey made. I should have gone prepared. I didn't. No particular reasoning, though perhaps the best way to affront a first occasion like this is completely blindly to afford my own opinions, rather than getting entrenched in the mellifluous Aramaic quips of an individual in the know. I largely confronted this event as well with a stark inability to distinguish nuances and subtleties in flavours. Obvious I can do, I can describe the obvious quite well. Which would not serve me well. I arrived a bit early but was pleasantly allowed in several minutes before the General Disarray Public would follow suit, and from there I was immediately thrust forth to a quiet stand, shortly after picking up the Breweries Spreadsheet and desperately trying to implement some sort of structure of method to the proceeding. Therein I met with a quietly spoken Japanese man, who spoke relatively fluent English - one of the only I would find. Little did I know at the time as well, but the man also happened to be the actual Owner of the Brewery. The namesake.

Saura Co. Ltd [Miyagi]
Commencing with the tasting, he duly supplied me with a measure of the first bottle, which I duly swirled, sniffed and sampled. Delightful aromas, and a very soft feeling in the mouth. That was about as much as I could infer from the sampling. Try as I might, I could not distinguish just what the aromas were, or what the taste was reminiscent of. This even after my tepid attempt at employing some of the rather particular sounding tasting techniques some of the more "serious" attendees were using, slurping and swishing. Nada. Trying the next glass I was met with a similar concoction, with slight differences in the strength of the aroma and flavour, but generally following a trend. What trend, I could not say. It was not obvious enough to me, despite asking rather precariously what I was supposed to be experiencing in the taste. The third of the samples was quite different in its nature, proving to be less aromatic and slightly more savoury, with a funkier earthiness. Other than that I was stumped as to what any of it meant. After discussing the status of his company after the Earthquake, having been located in vicinity of one of the affected areas, and expressing rather emphatically my passion for sake, I bid adieu and continued on. Though I will return, as I need to further my quest for understanding of sake, and I need to seek further solace through education and possible career opportunities. Maybe my complete lack of Japanese, money, and degrees will help.

I approached the table next door, which contained a collection of four sakes from the Tohoku region, in proximity of the Tsunami devastation zone, and surprisingly, like the company beforehand, there were names I recognised, including one of a brewery I was researching in the morning. 

Daishichi [Fukushima], Suehiro [Fukushima], Niizawa [Miyagi] & Tsukinowa [Iwate]
Much like previously, any noting of distinguishing flavours were null and void, and this despite the variety of display, which span through Ginjo, Honjozo, and even a Yamahai sake, which are known to be particularly distinctive. It was, this one being the Suehiro, but all I could infer was a "Caramel nose, slight umami". Great. Much was the same for the others, noting either a clean, short finish with not much aroma [Daishichi] to much the same but with a fuller body [Niizawa]. The Tsukinowa sake did offer a little differentiation - this is a brewery headed by a female Toji, and before blurting "the hell they know", it was rather clear the influence was in the sake. Not that my note revealed much, detecting a little spice and some rice and floral notes and not too much aroma. Essentially, useless blitherings. Whilst expressing the blankness of my mind on my face, I was also rather at a discomfort with the proliferation of the spittoons everywhere, and the gratuitous use of them. Despite my being on an empty stomach, I did not similarly indulge, I figure I should enjoy the sake as well. Which did not take long to have its effect. It was a bit unnerving, the nonchalant spitting, swishing and slurping, it felt more like being in a souk in Saudi than in a Japanese Embassy, but I suppose its a method, and to them, it may not be the madness it appears to me. I migrated my way, aimlessly, as the crowds steadily grew with the influx of the public at large. It soon became a chaos, which made the act of jotting down my rudimentary, usually one worded demented scribblings a rather more precarious act.

A stand then caught my eye, as it displayed a familiar name. Approaching, I was presented by the first of the "Koshu's" or aged sakes, and I was slightly eased - what minute semblance of experience I have, is with koshu, having bought the bottle of Katsuyama Genroku 5 year old Sake at Hyper Japan, and that was as bold as a bold thing, surely this would help drawing out some conclusions. Except it did not.

Fujii Shuzo Co. Ltd [Tottori]
Quite unlike my bottle of funky, bold Katsuyama, these koshus were rather delicate and subtle - damning in the face of a critic who claimed that ageing did nothing for sake, in this case not being able to counter him, and the rapidly jovial warmth of the sake slightly obfuscating my ability to make coherent thoughts possible. I could sense a slight caramel note on both - whether this was true, or insinuated from my own koshu, I am a bit uncertain. These were far more delicate, despite having been aged for 8-10 years longer than my one. The 1996 I quipped I could sense a slight yoghurt flavour, very little aroma, and a bit of mushrooms and cocoa on the tail? Obviously the sake was doing my writing, though it was as such still legible. Their non-koshu I noted as having a strawberry hint to the aroma. As well as being very soft. Something which I wrote for a large majority of my notes. As opposed to it being hard. Raff raff. Another familiarity at the stand was the woman pictured - Satomi Okubo, sommelier of Zuma - who gave an introductory Sake speech to the most inept crowd at Hyper Japan. Complete with Pokemon costumes. Shortly after the samplings, the proceedings were halted for the Ambassador's speech, whereby I found out the identity of the man I talked to at the beginning of the event. Once the barrel of sake was broken up, cordial wishes expressed, the chaos was resumed.

Trawling through my notes, I continued through the procession of stands, largely noting nothing of much relevance and persevering with my clueless parade. A face was recognised, some sakes were sampled, and I continued along, with the presence of the sake clouds of judgement slowly filling my empty cranium. In the midst of the sporadic chaos, I started to notice the presence of a few serves walking around with trays of assorted food items. I promptly lunged myself at them and gathered what I could, just to give something the sake to dissolve, other than my internals. I then continued. The chaos was in full effect now, with movement becoming rather laboured, and Brewery stands all but mobbed. Another face was recognised, and this time with it came hope. It was the director of the British Sake Association and Shirley surely she'd be of assistance. She was not though as she had other much more important junctures, and I was deposited at the foot of another stand after a quick talk, again left at the whims of my inability to, well at this point, remember my name.  

Dewazakura Sake Brewery Co. Ltd [Yamagata]
No surprises here - one sake had been finished, and the two I did manage to sample only gathered a note of middling acidity and a ricey note. I merely put an asterisk for the second one, not being able even to generate a single word to articulate what was going on in my mouth. Is sake really this subtle and a matter of minute nuances, or am I this incapable of comparison? No matter, all the more reason to entertain the training courses that had so enamoured me, the power they would instil me with once I actually knew how to define this elixir that had captivated me so. I did return however in an attempt to quantify the asterisk, as no amount of convincing made me believe it was a reasonable descriptive. So I noted a hint of strawberry to the nose, and of it being rather mellow. Profound observations. With time also being of the essence, I chased up the round of the remaining promoters, managing once again to be economical with my words. Not by choice. 

Shata Shuzo Co. Ltd [Ishikawa]
This stand had one of the familiar faces, a man whom had provided me with sake in the past and who I would hope would provide me with insight in this rather daunting event. However, he was struggling just to pour to the hoards of the invading general public, so I chose not to submit him to such a monumental task. What I could notice was the first of the samples of being savoury and full of body, with a tailing acidity. At least, what I believed was acidity. The second merely got a "soft" from me, every other character far too complicated for me to categorise, and the final one managing to squeeze in notes of a savoury note and of being well bodied from me. As well as being soft.

Kikuisami Co. Ltd [Yamagata]
Moving onwards, I crested another table, after embattling with the surrounding crowd for a prime spot. The words soft crept up in my note a further couple of times. The first sake however did draw up a few more words, a whole seven of them! I believe I noted a hint of strawberry to the nose, though, it is the only fruit I could pick to the nose out of all the sakes I had samples. I could also state the obvious and note the presence of alcohol, as well as what I interpreted as notes of watermelon on the palate, with an extended finish. The other two sakes merely garnered a soft impact and a soft nose, both followed by commas, in a vain attempt to expand with further scribbled sweet nothings. More food was spotted, I skedaddled. 

Ichishima Sake Brewery Inc [Niigata]
Continuing round to the last few tables, I came across the above table, with a foreign man distracting a couple of customers and allowing me to evaluate the selection. A term I use only in false hope. Not much was noted, a shame as the way I had read about it, the sake's of Niigata, when following the regional notions of defining characteristics, I believe broadly follow the "Karakuchi" school, which is to say being a very dry drink. All I could note were a mild sake with little aroma, another that took two tries to conclude it was slightly sweet, and the third receiving the definition of being middling in aroma.

Fukuchiyo Shuzo Co. Ltd [Saga]
This was one of the final Brewery tables I visited before Godzilla crashed the party I had culminated my round of all the available sakes. This one also garnered the laziest, or rather, most irrelevant of notes, comprising of two words in total. As well as an asterisk. I noted the first sake as being fruity, for which I congratulated myself, as it is a typical nature of Daiginjo sakes [or can be], and a sweetness for the final Honjozo. I could only define the Tokubetsu Junmai with an asterisk. With that however, the self-created pressure of taking notes and attempting to comprehend how to taste apparently, were now over and I could reflect on what transpired. Up until now, such were the subtleties, though much more importantly, the numbers of sakes sampled that I had no recollection as such of any that had really enamoured me. Thus almost defeating the purpose of this "trial by fire" exploration experiment. However, one such sake did just that. It earned an asterisk, by its number this time, and not as a description.

Tsuchiya Brewery Co. Ltd [Nagano]
Mind you, I cannot say why it was my favourite, but it remained distinctly such in my mind. Perhaps it was eminently drinkable [as opposed to being an impenetrable block], perhaps there was a defining note. I don't know, all I wrote was that with subtle aroma, a medium impact, and a short finish, it somehow captivated me. This was the Tsuchiya Akanesasu Tokubetsu Junmai. The new object of my immediate desire. I did manage to exclaim a "Subarashii" to the jovial lady, which I hope means "Splendid" - I did not get a katana to the gut so hopefully the message was delivered. I was however disappointed at the denial of their other examples, having finished before I arrived; not that it is a definitive factor, but who knows what those two higher grades of sake held in their regards, if only the Junmai had managed to slightly invigorate me in this haze. With the rather persistent announcer now making plenty clear that our presence was no longer appreciated, the event started to close down. Making the most of the limited time, I returned to Saura-san to thank him for his words and in an effort to get some last minute further progress and "career" advice, after waiting for a couple of free-loaders to gulp down their generous closing out servings. Now that I had the contact details of an actual Brewery owner at my whim, I had found yet another outlet for my obsessive quest. As well as a hopeful means for further enterprising, once I can find scope and reasoning for extortion. Bidding my adieus to the Director of the British Sake Association, I then departed, calling end to this most chaotic of tastings.

I left, just as confused as ever. It was not an entirely lost cause however - in all, I sampled 24 sakes, ranging in variety from all sorts of gradings, to a varying brewing techniques, and even to a couple of aged examples. Despite this veritable cornucopia of distinctive of characteristics abound, I was none the clearer on interpreting just what I was experiencing. Nada. Zilch. My vacant mind certainly partakes the majority of this occurrence, but yet again, the words of the people whose helped I had sought, and the research had done were ringing ever true. From the first tasting I had experienced, already four substantially different variants of sake were sampled, one of which even included a Kimoto brew, though at the point it was just another deliriously awesome sounding Japanese word with no meaning. Ever since, I had strived on achieving enlightenment through the experiencing of the diverse and bespoke drinks, seeking to buy an Genmaishu "unpolished rice" Sake, purchasing an aged sake, and predominantly subsisting on delicious umeshus. In doing so however, I was not building a grounding of the staple drinks. I was not building a standard from which to compare with - this point became especially clear in reading another of John Gauntners' pieces where he states something along the lines of aged, nama- and other sakes as being nice on occasions, but distractions from the core drink, or something to that effect.

And despite my compulsive need to explore, heading in random directions with no real sense of continuity, perhaps they are right. Well. Of course they are right, the preceding sentence more than amply clarifies my lack of a clue. So whilst my heroically abysmal efforts at articulating the nuances and characteristics of the 24  served to achieve little beyond some gratuitous doodling, I did come away from the event, encouraged. And slightly tipsy. This experience, however informal and unstructured as it was, has taught me that sake, is particularly a drink of subtleties, and from these subtleties the true joy of drinking them is drawn. Such subtleties take dexterity to note, yet alone describe, yet that is perhaps one of the pleasures. Whilst the niche and eclectic variations abound may appeal in their respects, at this stage of being a fledgling appreciator, they can only serve to be as distractions. Distractions which only serve to add to the plethora of subtleties and characteristics of the core drink, and hence obscuring a means of comparison. So I intend to keep tasting, though with altered prioritisation towards the original drinks. Build myself up a repertoire and an understanding. Which I intend to do so in just twelve days, on the attendance of a second Tasting, again at the Embassy of Japan. It is a tough life.

In a bid to not remain utterly dumbstruck by a lack of any worthwhile cerebral activity when sampling the drinks, I will also aim to use some flavour charts from the likes of John Gauntner and co, which should at least breakdown the myriad hints and intricacies into more manageable categories. That is all I have so far, though with the presence of the Hasegawa Saketen employee that I imprisoned at this event, I may also resort to a second assaulting. A pleasant event by all accounts, opening my eyes to an ever grander range of sakes and its constitution, and whilst not completely enlightened, at least ever more driven. I was also rather surprised with the variety of people in attendance, from the connoisseurs to the beginners, and even to those that had nary a clue, to the ones that just enjoy alcohol, a truly eclectic range. Much like the sake. The evening had yet to cease though - despite the assorted miniscule shrimp cocktail, Chicken Kara-age, Sushi Roll and other miscellanea I had devoured, striking fear in the eyes of the serves, I still had to provide something to the bounty of sake to devour. Onto dinnar!

No comments:

Post a Comment