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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2000

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May you all live long and prosper - kanpai



Happy Holidays to all Japan Times readers.

The joys of sake can be boundless indeed, but, naturally, moderation is the key. Sake can be fascinating for those who are interested in delving deep, and just plain fun for those who like to enjoy it on a simpler level.

In the end, though, it is an alcoholic beverage, and must be treated with respect and responsibility. Indeed, with sake and health, a little bit goes a long way, but too much of a good thing comes all too easy.

The salutary side to sake is well documented. Over a dozen medical studies worldwide have concluded what common sense has dictated in almost every culture on the planet: a moderate amount of alcohol consumption is beneficial to one's health.

Consuming a moderate amount of alcohol has been linked to lower death rates from all natural causes, especially cardiovascular ailments. Alcohol appears to slow down the accumulation of fat deposits in the arteries, mainly by increasing levels of "the good cholesterol," HDL. In other words, alcohol thins the blood, protecting against heart disease.

To a certain extent, alcohol seems to have beneficial qualities related to free radicals, exhibiting an apparent antioxidant effect, protecting the arteries from damage and reducing blood clotting, which lessens the risk of stroke.

An article in the Mainichi Shimbun, part of a series on sake, gave the results of a study conducted by no less an authority than the Health and Welfare Ministry. Conducted from 1990 to 1996 among about 20,000 people, the subjects were 40 to 59 years of age, both male and female, from all over Japan.

The study indicated that the group of participants consuming a small amount of alcohol has a lower rate of death from cancer than those consuming no alcohol, or those consuming much more. (However, those consuming more than four drinks a day had the highest rate of death from cancer.)

But what about sake, nihonshu that is, when compared with the other alcoholic beverages available? There are many reports of the superiority of sake over other beverages, but most in the end seem to be on shaky ground. Few come from proper research organizations.

However, a study in Aichi Prefecture by the Choju Iryo Kenkyu Center (Longevity Treatment Research Center) that appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun Nov. 22 yielded some interesting results. The study measured intelligence, ability to concentrate and instantaneous decision-making ability of people in the 40 to 79 year age range, combined into a 100-point index called the EIQ. A drop in this index indicates changes attributable to aging.

In the study, those that drank sake or wine rather than beer or distilled beverages had an average score two to three points higher than the other groups.

It is surmised that this may be due to the levels of the enzyme polyphenol in sake and wine, say the researchers. However, it was also surmised that wine and sake are usually enjoyed with meals, and that it was the vitamins and nutrients of proper meals that yielded the true benefits. Hence the aforementioned shaky ground.

The study covered its butt by saying "the study is as yet inconclusive," but did go on to point out that there was no such beneficial effect for those subjects that drank more than three servings a day.

More practical and provable is the fact that sake has no sulfites, and is therefore an excellent replacement for those who like white wine but have an allergic response to sulfites that causes asthma-like symptoms.

Beyond this is something well known by the average person: A drink or two is one good way to relax, blow off steam and relieve stress.

Then there is the little issue of calories. In most alcoholic beverages, the lion's share of calories comes from the alcohol in the beverage, with residual sugar being not as significant. Alcohol has about 7 calories per gram, and a 180-ml serving of sake has about 190 calories.

More significant is what we end up eating when we drink, as alcohol stimulates appetite. Typical sake nibbles seem less caloric than beer munchies. Sake and sashimi, therefore, might be construed as being better than beer and pretzels -- assuming, that is, you don't finish off with a (typical) bowl of ramen on the way home. So what is first put forth as medical science again ends up being common sense.

The pitfalls of overconsumption are well documented, and more significantly empirically obvious. Overconsumption, both short term and long term, is detrimental in countless ways to body, mind and spirit.

Much marketing noise goes to support the idea that good sake leaves one with no hangover. Whether or not this is true for some people, it is not true for all, and more significantly if we are talking hangovers, we have already pushed the envelope of what is too much.

All this leads to my toast to you for the New Year: Enjoy the best beverage on the planet responsibly, in moderation, and in good health. Happy New Year.

Miyozakura's "Ki-ippon" junmaishu from Gifu Prefecture
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Miyozakura (Gifu Prefecture)
"Ki-ippon" junmaishu
Nihonshu-do: +2
Acidity: 1.5
Seimai-buai: 55 percent

The Miyozakura brewery in Gifu brews a line of sake that covers a wide range of flavor profiles. There is, in their repertoire, a sake for everyone. Some are fragrant, others are rich, still others are light. This particular junmaishu, Ki-ippon, is settled and balanced, neither too flamboyant nor too conservative.

The fragrance is quiet, not bold enough to steal attention, and interesting in gummy-bear, rice-laced tones. The flavor has a good solid richness to it, with a light bitterness in the recesses. There is a suffusing acidity that widens the flavor with time. This is a great sake to enjoy with a meal, as it tends to blend with other flavors rather than assert its own presence.

The Japan Times: Dec. 28, 2000
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