A lot of us tend to be fascinated by the medieval era, or other ancient civilizations. Thanks to various shows and movies, we often romanticize how life was lived back then. None of the modern technology we take for granted today. But these mediums are meant to entertain us and not show the nitty-gritty of those times. As a result, most of us lack the information regarding the hard facts about those times.
If there’s something we don’t really have a lot of concrete information on, is how alcohol was made back in the day? How did people really learn how to make mead, which is said to be the earliest alcohol made? Was it a calculated process or by accident? How did it taste? We may have lost to time how things were back then, but we are slowly re-learning how they were made.
An example of this is aging sake. According to Stephen Lyman’s The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks maturing sake is a long-neglected tradition. Luckily it has been rediscovered and is one of the most exciting developments in the current sake scene. Written evidence exists of aged sake, or koshu, as early as the 13th century. Although the pioneer makers of koshu who tried resurrecting it back in the 70s and 80s, were at times, met with hostility.
A food encyclopedia from 1697, called The Hocho Shokan. states the taste of sake is rich and the smell is wonderful after three to five years. The taste becomes thinner and yet richer from six to ten years. The color darkens and a strange aroma is produced as well.
According to an online WSET sake history class, sake was stored and transported in cedar wood barrels, 300 years ago. Toasting and/or charring barrels is something they didn’t do. I’ve heard of contemporary koshu being referred to as Edo-style sake. But after asking Sake On Air, via messaging their Instagram, they said this is not a defined title.
Modern koshu can be classified into two broad types. One is refrigerator-aged. This style of aging often produces a lighter colored sake. The flavors are said to be much closer to ginjo sake, along with biscuity and nutty flavors which come from maturation. I’ve heard of some breweries and bars holding bottles of these and maturing the sake themselves.
The other is air-temperature-aged. These are often dark in color which usually come from reactions between sugars and amino acids in the liquid. The color does not come from barrels or pots. I think these are the sake “aged” in stainless steel tanks. These koshu develop a wide variety of tastes which resemble sherry. I’m sure some will say this is more of resting than aging if this was seen from a Western alcohol perspective. But, hey, I’m no expert. I guess this is just semantics. Just like dunder is the term for backsets in Jamaican and sour mash is the term for bourbon.
Why did koshu almost disappear? For one, the government collects the taxes upon creation of the sake. So, aging sake ends up being a huge investment for the breweries. Let’s keep in mind that the sake industry isn’t really strong. A lot of breweries have closed over the years. So, it’s not like the breweries can afford to sit on a lot of inventory. Also, wooden barrels allowed much more air exposure, compared to pots, which increased the risk of spoiling. The wooden barrels also made the risk of woody flavors becoming overpowering a possibility.
This koshu is from the Shinkame brewery. Shinkame means holy turtle. They got their name through legend, which says there was a shrine behind the brewery that celebrated the god of wisdom. In that shrine, lived a turtle. According to their site, this was “aged” (in stainless steel tanks, I assume) for over two years at room temperature. Shinkame says they were the first brewery (1987) in Japan to change all of their sake to Junmai (pure rice).
Shinkame Junmai Seishu Karakuchi – review
Rice variety: Blend of Yamada Nishiki, Gohyakumangoku and Bizan Nishiki. Bottled at 15% ABV.
Color: very pale yellow.
On the nose: A forward and static greeting of something dry and woody but not bitter. I’m reminded of ginseng and ginger peel, but toned down. Another sniff conjures mental images of nutty Amontillado sherry and chikoo fruit.
In the mouth: Dry and static just like on the nose. I get tastes of nuts with skin, sherry, and chikoo fruit. There are bits and pieces of umeshu liqueur, coffee and toffee in this. That mix of it gives off a mental image of a caramel paste but is nutty and dry with the flavors above.
This really tasted different from the usual colorless sake, which gives off fruity and rice flavors. I think this will be more appreciated by whisky and obviously sherry drinkers. I say this for whisky drinkers, because there are more dark notes and dry notes which will remind them more of aged spirits. For sherry drinkers, well, because it tastes like Amontillado or Palo Cortado sherry.
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