One of the highlights of the past week was spending a few hours with sake apprentice Jorge Navarette. I will do a fuller write up on his awesome story when I compile a guide to Japan based on our trip but I will just say that Jorge is probably the most knowledgable American citizen on the subject of sake. Meeting him was pretty much an accident as we just took a tour where the hotel concierge sent us but he had only been there since July.
But here’s some knowledge you can use today if you like sake or want to get into it.
- Premium sake is defined by how much the rice is polished down. So a 60% sake has had 40% of its rice polished down before fermentation. Sake must be below 70% to be considered premium.
- Jumai: “pure rice” typically 60-70% remaining after polish. Large variation in taste.
- Ginjo: “fragrant” 50-60%
- Daiginjo: “super fragrant”. Less than 50%. Very smooth, but less variation in taste
- To give sake shelf life it is pasteurized. In Japan, unpasteurized or “draft” sake is bottled and kept cold. It is known as “nama” sake. While technically you can drink it within 6 months we learned you really want to drink it in less than 30 days. You can find it in the states but it won’t be the same as fresh namasake.
- Sake is expensive in the US mostly because of taxes and tariffs. A good bottle of sake in Japan need not set you back more than $7.
- A word on Japanese whiskey. Jorge could trace the boom in popularity and price spike back to a single month in time. November 2014. There were 2 reasons at the same time which created a perfect storm:
- The rise of international demand for Japanese whiskey in the wake of The Whiskey Bible ranking Yamazaki as number one in the world and ahead of Scottish brands.
- A surge in local demand when a documentary about Nikka Distillery’s founder aired in Japan. It told his incredible story full of passion and suffering as he traveled to Scotland to learn the craft during the WW1 era.
Yamazaki 12 went up 6x in price but this was like table whiskey before that! Jorge had been drinking it for over 20 years when it was 25 a bottle.