Monday, July 25, 2011

Heavenly Spirits?

In the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice, there’s an essential exchange between our globetrotting British spy (Sean Connery) and his Japanese counterpart Tiger Tanaka (played by Tetsuro Tanba but voiced by Robert Rietti).

This moment comes just after Bond is offered the rice-based alcoholic beverage sake, instead of his usual dry vodka martini. He surprises all when he graciously accepts, saying that he enjoys the Japanese drop – especially when it’s served at the ‘correct temperature’, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The moment is something to drink in, and 98.4ºF would sound fair enough to most people since, in common Western perception, sake is doled up piping hot to wash down raw fish. But for those a tad more in the know about Japanese cuisine a rumour has circulated over the past 44 years that Bond got it wrong; that sake served at this temperature – 37ºC for those like me who are Fahrenheit inept – is invariably inferior in quality.

In truth that might have indeed been the case in the mid ‘60s, around the time of the making of You Only Live Twice, as many breweries fortified their product with distilled alcohol – a hangover from Second World War rice shortages. Serving it steaming helped mask any of the sharp or unbalanced flavours.

But in the intervening period brewers have been able to return to the prescribed method of naturally brewing pure rice sake, with no shoehorned artificial alcohol, to recreate mixes that are refined and pure enough to serve chilled.

Even so, we don’t need to take sides here.

Bond wasn’t wrong – and neither were the rumours. 98.4ºF isn’t exactly the ‘correct’ temperature for sake, but it’s perfect for Ozeki One Cup and some more expensive premium blends; the Japan Sake Brewers Association reports that this drink can be enjoyed anywhere within the range of 5ºC (41ºF) to 55ºC (131ºF), depending on the concoction.

Then there’s the Holy Grail of modern day nihonshu (which is what the Japanese tend to call sake).

Myouka Rangyoku (‘heavenly flower’) has been touted as the world’s best sake at and in the pages of The Japan Times newspaper – and like all chart-topping, divinely-inspired beverages this one comes with a healthy price tag: A 720 ml bottle retails upwards from ¥12,600 (about US$150).

“As a brewery, we do our utmost to create a truly great and perfect sake with Myouka Rangyoku – made according to a totally new concept, both as regards the flavour of the sake and the design of the bottle – and therefore we have been able to have a sizeable impact.”

So last year I was informed by Ad G. Blankestijn, the Director of Overseas Marketing and Sales at Daishichi Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., located in Fukushima, 230 km northeast of Tokyo.

Unfortunately this placed the brewery slap-bang in the middle of the massive March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and they're located 60 km from the ongoing nuclear reactor debacle at Fukushima Daiichi.

On their website they strive to be reassuring:

"The walls of the brewery consist of 25 cm thick concrete. In addition there are fire-resistant tiles and hollow concrete blocks, making a total of 32 cm of protection from the outside. The sake storage area has even thicker walls in order to keep the products cool. No radiation can penetrate these walls.

"When we heard about the nuclear problems on March 11, we have immediately stopped air conditioners and ventilators and covered the windows and air ducts in plastic sheets to keep the inside of the brewery and storage areas airtight.

"Sake brewing is almost finished and the accident has had no major influence on our activities. Products being shipped now are vintage 2008-2009 sakes, and 2010 for the plum sake. These products are completely free from any influence of the nuclear accident."

I haven't spoken to Blankestijn at the brewery since I interviewed him last year, but the nuclear crisis is in no way going to deter me from my aspiration to (one day) road-test this particular drop.

Even bottles matter to these people and theirs is a classic (see below); the brew itself has been dubbed ambrosial by critics far more canny than myself.

“Most exclusive sakes are made with a modern, simplified process, but ours has been made with the ‘Kimoto’ method, the most traditional, laborious and time-consuming way of brewing a handcrafted sake,” Blankestijn said.

“The result is that it tastes very pure while at the same time possessing much complexity and depth. In contrast to other exclusive sakes which have to be drunk relatively young, Myouka Rangyoku is very slowly matured, so that over the course of many years it ripens into a rich and beautiful sake that we do not sell every year; we only make it in good years when we can attain the highest level. And even then, we only make it in a limited quantity. Of course, we are happy with the very positive judgment of many sake specialists, as well as the fact that it is often selected by the Japanese government for important diplomatic events – such as at the G8 Summit in 2008 in Hokkaido.”

While it's kind of tricky to hope that the nuclear crisis gets nipped in the bud overnight when people like Prime Minister Naoto Kan mutter that it'll take somewhere in the vicinity of two decades to clean up, I have several fingers crossed that essential Japanese sake brewers like Daishichi can get back into the groove of their handicraft as soon as possible.

Only final final word needs to be uttered here. Kampai! 乾杯

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