Sad truth be told, and this will come as no surprise, but there is a lot of bad alcohol out there.
Who among us hasn’t fallen off a couch into the glare of an afternoon really regretting those litres of cheap sake at last night’s dodgy Japanese restaurant? How many of us have survived the hell and hazy aftermath of binging on tequila shots masked by old wedges of lime? Suffered too much sun and one too many Chardonnay straight from a cardboard box at a summer BBQ?
Sake that needs to be downed in a single gulp, followed quickly by some other beverage to clear the horrific repercussions of badly fermented and chemically manipulated rice. Tequila that doesn’t need citrus to make it palatable, rather demands, begs for a slice. Bulk-produced Chardonnay, pumped from massive tanks by nameless programmes where second rate oak-chips are taken and drowned.
I hope it’s not just me.
Anyway, how many of us have looked for the common denominator that links our beverage past discretions? Were we really giving the categories the chance they deserved?
Are you familiar with the ABC crowd? 'Anything But Chardonnay' wine drinkers? Maybe you’re a member, fully paid and card carrying. If so, I would respectfully suggest a reassessment, because I suspect you might find times, or the situation, have changed.
Don’t get me wrong, personal preference is paramount (PPiP all the way!) and I believe I’m a good advocate for this, because the title of this piece could easily have been Confessions of a reformed chardonnay hater.
And my hatred wasn’t irrational. It was based on personal experience. I knew I abhorred chardonnay because, when I was younger, I sampled at least ten and they were all detestable. 100% fail rate, scientific study completed, concrete conclusion certified.
The fact I hated Chardonnay became accepted canon, so I naturally moved to things more palatable. Why would anyone keep persisting to test a heat that has already scalded? “Wow, that wine is horrible. Totally without redeeming factors. I’m going to drop a couple of hundred bucks on an expensive one just to be sure,” said no one ever!
From experience gained during my years in hospitality, it usually takes a truly epic example of a beverage to challenge what one ‘knows’ from a previous bad experience. In my case, it wasn’t until I was fifteen years older and was guided to a glass of lightly oaked, elegant citrusy stone-fruity eyeopeningness that I realised I had wasted fifteen years of my life not drinking Chardonnay. Then it occurred to me that due to budget constraints and supply issues I’d been drinking probably the worst there was. It didn’t help that I came about wine-drinking age at the same time bulk ‘chardy’ was spilling by the tanker load from across the Tasman, made with the love and care you’d expect from an absentee parent with a meth-addiction.
It’s a bit crazy that an entire variety could have been demonised by myself and the ABC crowd when what are generally considered the greatest white wines in the world are made from the Chardonnay grape. In fact, a few weeks back James Suckling, famed American wine writer, tasted 22,000 bottles over the course of the year and selected Kumeu River Mate’s Single Vineyard 2020 vintage as the best in the world.
This is an honour rarely bestowed upon a white. (As a proud Kiwi let me also just point out that Mate’s is a New Zealand white!)
It is worth a try, without even mentioning it’s a key component of the vast majority of Champagne. Chablis is a wine many ABC’ers enjoy without realising it’s exclusively made from the Chardonnay grape.
Which brings me to my point. The question shouldn’t be “what it is?”: the question should be “how is it made?” and in tandem, “what is the motivation of the producer?”
Artists make art, and I would suggest that anything made by someone who cares about what they are doing, whether it’s tequila, chardonnay, or sake, is worth a go. As many cocktail bartenders have been attempting to explain, bad tequila is not indicative of the category as a whole. Sommeliers have been converting ABC’ers by the glass though stealth or blunt force.
The story of Japanese sake is a tale with the same literary structure.
There is a historical reason why sake has such a bad reputation, even in Japan. Though it helps to explain how such a noble beverage ended up with such an atrocious reputation, the backstory can be a different article from this. Having said that, the long-story-short version is that bureaucracy got between the artist in the brewery, and the end consumer’s glass.
One of the reasons sake has had trouble rehabilitating its image is that it’s perceived as being difficult to understand. I would argue the opposite. Compared to wine, sake is much easier to pry open. Basically, there are certain words you can look for that guarantee what is in the bottle has been made to exacting standards.1
Look for the following (or potentially a combination of) – Junmai, Honjōzo, and Ginjō. Finding any of these words on a label signifies the liquid contained was made to high standards and according to industry enforced rules. And if you associate sake with a strong alcoholic burn, I believe you will be pleasantly surprised.
Maybe that sounds like a lot of new terminology, but if the world can get its head around ‘sushi’, ‘sashimi’, and ‘miso’, there is no reason junmai, honjōzo, and ginjō can’t become equally as ubiquitous.
Those out there belonging to the NSA crowd (never sake again), please don’t get me wrong. Personal preference is paramount and, again, I believe I’m a good advocate for this because the title of this piece could also easily have been Confessions of a reformed sake hater.
The same familiar tale of woe and misspent youth. Bad sake had me writing-off an entire category for near on a decade, then playing catchup in subsequent years to see what I’d missed. To quote an old customer from my Sydney days, “everyone likes sake, it’s just that they don’t know it yet.” His confidence, and mine, partially stems from how diverse the sake category is. I honestly believe there is something for everyone. But where to start?
If it helps, think of it this way. To enjoy champagne you don’t need to know the details, only that you like it. Maximum crop levels, soil types, barrel regimes, cépáge, etc. If you’re a wine nerd you may get a thrill from such specifics, but preaching the glories of La Champagne humide, Kimmeridgian chalk, and a cool climate will bore the hell out of those waiting to toast the bride and groom.
For sake, just find something you like and build from there. With it ninjering its way on to more and more beverage lists around the world, it’s getting easier and easier to expand your sake tastes. Don’t worry about the details. They can come later.
Based on the observation of my guests, I would recommend something with the word ginjō embedded on the label, as it is generally smooth and accessible, and a far cry from the harsh adulterated super-heated product that burnt (often literally) the category for so many people. Ginjō translates loosely as ‘special brew’ but to be honest this information isn’t really relevant. You don’t need to know the full etymology of the word ‘lager’, but through experience and familiarity when you see the word on a beer list you have a fair idea of what you’re getting yourself into should you order one.
The exact same thing will happen with sake. Find a gateway offering that can be as the grit of sand around which the pearl of understanding forms.2 Honestly, don’t let the details and a bad history with a poorly made product keep you away. At its most base level, you just need to trust your mouth. Have a sense of moderation and curiosity. Sip and let the fun begin!
1 FYI the lack of these words doesn’t categorically mean there’s something wrong with the sake, as there are producers who chose not to follow the rules for artistic reasons. Having said that, using these words as a guide is an excellent place to start the journey.
2 Apparently, it’s a myth that pearls form around foreign objects ingested by the mollusc, but I like the (flawed) analogy!