Sake makes comeback as gentler rice liquorIn the land where Korean soju rules, anything but the lethal liquor becomes a sidekick. Yet for years, those who prefer the gentle taste of Asian rice wine, served hot or cold, over conversation have opted for sake in izakaya ― ubiquitous Japanese taverns.
For centuries, drinking sake was part of Korean culture. Its origin in Korea dates back to the Baekje Dynasty (16 B.C.― 660). Sake drinking gradually faded in Korea, but the Korean brewing technique became widespread in Japan in the late 19th century. Since then, sake has been an integral part of Japanese culture and religion. It is served during Shinto rituals, weddings and used for the christening of land, buildings and homes.
Ironically, the modern culture around sake didn’t come alive in Korea until a Japanese man named Fukuda built a sake brewery in Busan in 1883. The brand was called Masamune (called “jeongjong” in Korean). To this day, Koreans use the term to refer to sake produced in Korea.
Both Korea and Japan saw sake reach a peak of popularity in the ’60s and ’70s, according to Eisuke Iida, president of Nihon Meimonshukai (roughly translated as the Association of Prestigious Japanese Sake), who visited Seoul last month for sake tasting events.
“People then didn’t have many choices in [alcoholic] beverages,” Mr. Iida told the JoongAng Daily. “But when beer and wine were introduced to the dining scene, the Japanese sake industry gradually declined.”
Sake saw a brief resurgence last year when Japanese-style oden bars suddenly proliferated in the capital, but the drink’s rich local history didn’t necessarily help the younger generation appreciate sake.
While sake remained mostly regional and old-fashioned, other types of beverages, such as soju, whiskey, beer and wine, became the preferred choices of modern drinkers who are influenced by vigorous advertising and promotions.
In 1975, Mr. Iida’s father, Hiroshi, established the association in an attempt to jump-start the Japanese sake industry. The senior Iida, a descendant of sake brewers, currently serves as the chairman of Nihon Meimonshukai.
Through marketing, the association was able to help introduce unknown sake or revive forgotten brands. For example, a sake named Ginjo Jozenmizu made at Shirataki Brewery in Echigo province in northern Japan, which debuted 15 years ago, became one of the top-selling ones in Japan.
“In the ’90s, Westerners who had discovered sake became fascinated with its taste and culture, and sake started to become popular abroad,” Mr. Iida said. “Sake is so much appreciated in America, conversely making it a ‘comeback’ in Japan now.”
Otokoyama Brewery’s Tokubetsu Junmai sake, with its 300-year history, is now one of the best-selling sakes in the United States. Mr. Iida says he has encouraged brewers to bring out sake’s regional character and use new brewing technology.
Like wine, sake comes with descriptive labels detailing the liquor’s origin, grade, alcohol content and taste. In sake, the more polished the rice ― meaning the degree to which the outer hull is whittled away ― the higher the grade. The more polished the rice, the more sweeter the taste. The degree of refinement is noted on the bottle as daiginjo (at least 50 percent of the hull is removed), junmai ginjo (about 40 percent), or junmai or honjozo (about 30 percent).
Sake’s alcohol content is also marked, ranging from 13 to 20 percent. Some sake varieties are labeled “karashi” for spicy flavor and “chokarashi” for very spicy. The subtle fragrant sake, like Suginoka Bojo from Oyama Brewery in eastern Japan, is aged in cedar. “Sugi” in Japanese means cedar.
At the sake tasting event held at Tani Next Door, a nouvelle cuisine restaurant in downtown Seoul, a new sake variety that tastes like champagne delighted the capital’s leading restaurateurs and sommeliers.
Kim Hong-ki, a restaurateur who owns the chain of Tani restaurants in Seoul, said he was impressed with a sake called Nene. “It will be an ideal aperitif,” he commented.
According to the representative of Gokyo Brewery in Yamaguchi region where Nene sake is produced, the light and sweet-tasting sake is not carbonated but made using a special brewing technique.
Another novel sake introduced at the tasting event was the award-winning Kijoshu sake, which has a syrupy texture and a rich, nutty caramel flavor.
Mariko Enoki, who represents the sake maker based in Hiroshima, recommended the sake be served with vanilla-flavored cream cheese after dinner. Deeply sweet yet salty, the amber liquor, which was aged for eight years in French oak, is delicious. More important, the experience shared by many tasters left behind a surprising afterthought ―sake redefined.
So far, Korean bars and restaurants have stocked up mostly on big-name sake brands, such as Kubota, Hakkaizan and Masumi. “Because Koreans are used to soju, sake brands sold in Korea tend to be stronger,” said Yang Byoung-suk, the president of Nihonshu Korea, who has been importing major sake brands to Korea since 2001.
Even at the capital’s trend-setting places like Tani, Korean customers rarely order sake, Mr. Kim says. “Most Koreans only think of sake as a drink to go with fish dishes in Japanese restaurants. But compared with the variety of dishes served in restaurants these days, sake has become a relatively lighter beverage, making it great for even grilled meat.”
He’s surprised that foreigners are informed about sake and order sake. “Young Koreans? Never,” he said.
But he predicts trend-savvy Koreans will soon catch up on the international dining trend. After the tasting event at Tani, those who got to try the new, easy-to-drink wine began to look for what they liked, such as Nene and Yowano Tsuki, or Midnight Moon in English. It is popularly known as “the blue” because of the bottle’s color.
The restaurateur believes “the blue” ― one of the most popular sakes on the New York dining scene ― is a good starter for novice sake drinkers in Korea. “Just as first-time wine drinkers find the taste of tannin hard to take in the beginning, first-time sake drinkers find the taste of malt strange. If the taste of malt is masked well the way ‘the blue’ is, then it will open up the door to the world of sake.”
by Ines Cho