Stuck on Sake

Stuck on Sake

Ahead of a Club dinner of Tohoku’s Daishichi sake next month, three Members discuss their passion for Japan’s national drink.

In 2017, Japan shipped a record 23 million liters of sake overseas. At home, however, nine prefectures consumed more sake separately than all the country’s exports combined. And while the beverage’s popularity may be waning among younger Japanese drinkers, each year Tokyo drinks three times as much sake as ever makes it out of Japan.

“It’s just such an essential part of Japanese culture,” says Member Norbert Gehrke. 

The German is just one of the many Members who have drunk deep from Japan’s sake scene. Gehrke can outline the dominant theories on rice milling and has visited his fair share of breweries. But even he is pleasantly surprised by how accessible top-flight sake is for the average Tokyo imbiber.

“Last year, the winning sake at the International Wine Challenge went for, like, ¥2,400,” he says. “Now imagine what a wine costs that wins that challenge.”

In 2017, Gehrke entered the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association’s sake-tasting tournament. After tasting seven different blends, from refined daiginjo to light and dry junmai, Gehrke had to identify the same seven in a blind tasting. 

“I think I got one [out of seven],” Gehrke says with a smile. “But it’s an old, traditional industry. You can never understand everything.”

If anyone could, though, it might be Member Harald deRopp.

A regular at the Club’s sake events, including last year’s Mizubasho tasting, deRopp crossed off a major item on his sake bucket list in the summer of 2018: a week at a brewery on Sado, an island off Niigata Prefecture.

“It was quite a lot of work,” deRopp says of the brewing process. “You’re using these burlap sheets and you lay the rice out on this long table and you apply the koji spores. It’s kind of a sacred moment.”

From sunrise to sunset, the American worked alongside the toji head brewer to complete the sandanjikomi, a three-step fermentation process. DeRopp returned to Sado a month later to help with the final stage of pressing the fermented rice to produce fresh, unfiltered sake.

“It was namagenshu,” deRopp says. “Unpasteurized, undiluted, so the alcohol level was quite high. But it was really good.”

Such sake ecstasy isn’t restricted to the hardcore, either.

“For me, sake is not a destination,” says Member Joseph Billi, another fixture at the Club’s sake events. “It’s more of a journey and I’m enjoying the trip.”

The American might not be able to read a bottle’s tasting notes at a restaurant or expound fermentation techniques, but he’s keen to explore Japan’s national drink in all its forms. 

“If the only beer you’d ever had is Budweiser, and then you go to a craft brewery, it’s not the same thing,” says Billi. “That’s what you’re doing here in Japan. You’ve come to the craft brewery, and you’ve only had Budweiser.”

Words: Owen Ziegler

Daishichi Sake Dinner
March 8 | 6:30–9pm