After trying a number of crisp, sweet, elegant, rich, sour and bitter sakes at the Embassy of Japan, Chahak Mittal discovers why Indian markets are a challenge for Japanese brewers
Hold the cup close to your face. Let the aroma sink in. Take a small sip, and let it linger in your mouth, touch your senses and exhilarate your tastebuds before you swallow it. That’s what one of the Japanese Sake connoisseurs explained to me when I held my first cup of the quintessential Japanese drink, also known as Nihonshu (literally, Japanese liquor) at the Embassy of Japan. Going into the historical background, the visitors were told that sake production was a government monopoly until the 10th century when temples and shrines began to brew their own, which is how, by the 1300s, it became an important ceremonial drink in the country. Coming back to the present, the huge party hall had eight counters, four on each side, that served different flavours of sake and retold the history and the method of creating them.
I first sipped Fujuku Gold Label from the Nada region of Kobe in Japan, which featured an elegant taste with a refreshing bouquet aroma that would remind one of white peach and pear. The biggest factor that’s common to all sakes is that their ingredients are only limited to three things — rice, fermented yeast and water with no added flavours. The next, Fujuku Blue Label, which featured a smooth, rice umami flavour, was reminiscent of ripe apricot. Featuring rich flavours and quite the strongest aroma till now, the Fujuku Green Label made its way to my cup. “It’s made at the Rokko Mountain, which has extreme temperature swings in the north which are ideal for growing the sake rice. Cold winds moving towards the south are perfect for the slow fermentation process. It does make space for richer and smoother taste. And the local mountain streams supply the naturally pure water or Miyamizu, which has the right mineral content. The process of producing sake has been the same for as long as 266 years now with these basic, natural ingredients,” said the Fujuku brewer.
The Gokujo Miyanoyuki from the Miyazaki Honten was the next. This sake was sweet as sugar and smooth as a vibe, blending a fruity aroma with bitterness that appeared to be pleasant and had a rich taste. Its Daiginjo Miyanoyuki, undiluted sake, had a mellowed taste and made one enjoy the refined aroma of ginjoshu. Mika Eoka, brewer and server at the counter, said, these sakes are good for the skin as they consist of local, clear and soft natural mineral water. “Its minerals produce sweetness as well as a mellow texture and a refreshing taste. Regardless of how you drink it, you will be satisfied with its taste due to the delicious fine-blended materials,” added she. It could be an accompaniment with not just smoked salmon or sushi, but “perfectly with “paneer and chicken tikka as well (laughs).” The Miyanoyuki Junmaishu was yet another sake which was a perfect alcoholic drink that can accompany any meal due to its soft texture and good vibe.
Next up was the Ninki-Ichi, the ‘handmade’ sake. My favourite in the lot. At this counter, the first thing I heard from the people around was that “It’s known for its fragrances.” The first, Ninki-Ichi Yuzu-shu (citron liqueur), commonly known as a ‘winter delicacy’, amazes you with its special lime-like citrus aroma. With its hazy, lemon-y colour, the yuzu juice takes over your tastebuds and everything else, making your jaws tingle and crave for more at the same time. Not once would you feel like it was indeed a variety of alcohol. When have we ever tasted that sour a wine?
Its Ninki-Ichi Umeshu (plum liqueur) is yet another surprise for your tastebuds. Rich, sweet and elegant, this plum and red chilli-infused sake gives both a tangy and a sweet taste. “Umeshu is known to be the star in the Japan’s lexicon of well-made booze as plums are a staple of the Japanese culture,” said the brewer and pointed towards the statistics by Japan’s National Tax Agency (NTA), which highlight that liqueur exports, primarily umeshu, more than doubled from 1.84 billion yen ($18 million) to 4.21 billion ($38 million) between 2011 and 2016.
While there are 300 versions of Umeshu in the Japanese market, a sake connoisseur enlightened us about this one. He said, “Its flavour balance is created by aging the whole fruit, with the stone still inside it and by soaking it in various types of alcohol. The citric acid in the fruit gives it a pleasant tanginess and a taste that is sweet and tart with notes of almonds. Some brands also mix in sugar, cane spirit or brandy to create a more refined taste. The premium brands are also aged for several years.”
The Ninki-Ichi Bottle Feremed Sparkling Junmai Ginjo, the next one, is a sparkling sake which is fermented only in rice and koji (or ice mold) in a bottle. It’s this second bottle fermentation and not carbonation, which gives it its bubbles and sparkle. Crisp, dried and bright, the sake made me experience a blend of flavours of grape, cherry and pear with a pinch of lime.
However, the award of ‘tasty sake at a reasonable price’ goes to the Ninki-Ichi Goldninki Junmai Daiginjo. Aromatic and crisp, pleasantly dry and slightly sweet, the sake was well-balanced and had a fresh finish. The taste was more distinct than any of the other that I had tried till now. It’s usually preferred chilled and can accompany best with white fish sashimi, steamed chicken and salad.
The last ones — quirky and fresh — from the OZEKI Corporation were the best. ‘Shake it well before you drink it,’ was the instruction I received from the servers. The IKEZO Peach was an amazing sparkling jelly sake with an exquisite refreshing acidity, which had a mellow texture and surprised me with its flavour of sweet peach.
The IKEZO Mix-Berry was certainly the best — absolutely berrylicious. Its transparent strawberry, blueberry and cranberry jelly made the sake fruity and gently sweet. “It can also be enjoyed like a dessert, you know?” said Noriko Nasukawa, president of Nihongo Centre in India for Japanese Language Professional Services.
After some mind-blowing tasting of some of Japan’s best sakes, knowing about how the drink is so important for Japanese and their culture that they even have a Miss Sake every year, there were questions hovering in my mind — Has India caught up with the global sake trend? Why are these not widely available in India yet?
Noriko, who has been living in India for the past 20 years now, emphasised on their unavailability. “Sashimi quality fishes are no longer an exotic dish for Indians for which they need to travel abroad. However, sake does need some more space. The Indian market no doubt presents a huge challenge for sake brewers, but that’s also the reason why venturing to break into the market is so exciting. Isn’t it?” said she.
Ambassador Hiramitsu looks at sake as a medium of reaching the “ultimate objective” of strengthening of India-Japan relations and its people-to-people connect. He said, “Sake complements the spicy Indian food very well. And we are trying to make it widely available in the country.”
Photo: Pankaj Kumar
Writer: Ajoy Kumar
Courtesy: The Pioneer