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Warm Sake in the Days of Old
+ O-kan-ban; The Sake Index

# 80

July 2006

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #80
July 9, 2006

-- Warm Sake in the Days of Olde and the "O-kan-ban"
-- The Sake Index
-- Good Sake to Look For
-- Sake Events & Announcements

Warm Sake in the Days of Olde and the "O-kan-ban"
Today, we enjoy most of our premium sake slightly chilled. I hope that most readers are with me in the acceptance of that general concept. While certainly there are exceptions to this - many of them delicious - it is true that most ginjo sake especially sees its finest aspects highlighted when very slightly chilled down. The reasons for this are hardly rocket science: the delicate flavors and oftentimes fruity aromas that the brewers worked so hard to create are most prominent at these cooler temperatures.

But has it always been like this? Oh, heavens, no. Remember that ginjo sake, and sake made with very highly milled rice, has only been on the market about forty years or so. And the flavor profiles of sake before that were significantly different than they are today.

Does this mean that all sake sucked before the advent of ginjo? No; of course not. But it was different: fuller, richer, at some periods of time a lot sweeter, and often with a significantly higher acidity. And it was, in fact, overall much more suited to warming than modern ginjo types.

Actually, that is the real reason we see hot sake all around us in spite of the fact that so many are rightly intoning that premium sake should be served chilled. It is true that heating can and does cover blemishes in a cheap sake, but that is *not* why they started doing it. It is certainly not fair to say that all that hot sake we see served at any Japanese restaurant is heated for the sole purpose of masking its inadequacy! The truth is that sake has been enjoyed warm since long ago, and large producers (in particular) keep that tradition alive, in a sense. A longer treatise on the roots, rhyme and reason of warming sake stretching back about 1000 years can be found here, for those that are interested:

So in modern times, while we see inexpensive sake being heated all around us, we sit quietly enjoying our premium stuff gently chilled. And I reiterate that there are indeed exceptions: there are premium sake even in the ginjo range out there that have earthier, unique flavor profiles that benefit from a tad of warming.

Notice I did not say hot. Warming sake to lukewarm or slightly warmer temperature will benefit sake with the right flavor profiles. But overheating is another animal altogether. Obviously, nothing can be tasted or sensed when sake is overheated, so avoid extremes of heat.

If one were to wander in to a local pub sixty or more years ago, you would be given a choice of probably one sake: the local one, in but one or two manifestations. You might sit around a square charcoal pit with your companions that evening, and in a remote corner of the pub would be a man whose sole responsibility would be warming the sake for all the customers. Known as the o-kan-ban, he would take orders for sake, sometimes requested at warm, lukewarm, or hot temperatures, and sometimes for just "sake." And he knew his regulars, and how they liked their sake. He would likely have a kettle of hot water into which he would immerse numerous sake flagons called tokkuri, watching and timing them all carefully until each was ready in turn to go to their rightful owner at precisely the temperature requested or preferred.

But we don't see these journeymen any more. 

Although it is only peripherally related to the topic at hand, during World War II brewers found their rice understandably rationed, and were forced to cut their product with grain alcohol to further decrease the potential to squander rice. It was an unavoidable situation resulting from the chaos in the world at that time.

Mr. Hideharu Ota, president of the brewery making Daishichi sake in Fukushima, once explained to me, "During the war, naturally, sake consumption and production dropped tremendously. After the war, slowly but surely, sake production returned to its pre-war level. But there was a 20-year gap in sake culture, in the culture of sake enjoyment, and even though sake production and consumption were restored, sake culture never returned to its pre-war levels. That gap was too big to fill."

True, this permanent change in sake culture was aided and abetted by massive changes in society and lifestyle. But whatever the rationale, much was lost culturally. And not the least of these was the almost total disappearance of the o-kan-ban. While I do know of one place in Tokyo that has one, and I am sure there are others, they are for the most part gone.

Recently I read an interview of an elderly gent that had been an o-kan-ban so many years ago. He described the complexity of his work, and mentioned too a few tricks of the trade.

"If I see I guy come in from the cold," he began, "he might sit down, wipe his nose, and order an atsukan (hot sake). Well, I know his body is chilled, and whatever I send him will seem hotter than it is. So I would serve it a little less hot than usual for him. But I am watching everyone all night. And let's say I see someone glance at his watch and order what he thinks will be one last flagon of warmed sake. I would send it over that table just a tad less warm then he would like it. This would almost always entice him to order one last one to warm him for the road home."

Something tells me that where ever it was this gentleman worked did very well.

The Sake Index
Every once in a while, enough sake statistics cross my path that they reach critical mass, and I feel called upon to express them in the time honored format so well utilized by Harper's magazine. For those that find these as amusingly readable as I do, I have done this once before, in January of 2004. You can find that in the archives here:

And so, with all due credit and respect to that magazine, here is The Sake Index for July 2006.

-- Number of kiloliters of sake produced in Japan in 2005: 737676
-- Number of kiloliters of sake exported in 2005: 9537
-- Percent of sake brewed in Japan that was exported in 2005: 1.3
-- Percent of that 9537 kl that went to the US: 31.
-- Percent of monetary value of all sake exported that went to US: 48
-- Yen value of all sake exported in 2005:5,338,570,000
-- Yen value of sake exported to the US in 2005: 2,603,060,000

-- Traditional "supersize me" 1.8L bottles shipped in 2005: 133,390,000
-- Percent decrease from the previous year: 9
-- Percent of this decrease amongst sake bottles (as those bottles are
     used for other things like shochu and soy sauce as well): 14

-- Percent of those bottles shipped that had been recycled (cleaned)
     and were being reused: 85.4

-- Number of milliliters in the most commonly found bottle size,
       although not recycled much: 720

-- Approximate number of sake breweries currently left in Japan: 1400
-- Number that went under last year: 7
-- Year when sake production peaked in Japan: 1,973
-- Percent of the amount brewed that year that was brewed last year: 40
-- Number of prefectures in Japan: 47
-- Number of prefectures making sake: 46
-- Number of these whose sake production increased last year: 4
-- Number of these whose production decreased last year: 42
-- Increase in the number of prefectures whose production increased
     in 2005 over the number whose production increased in 2004: 4

-- Maximum alcohol percentage, under new laws, for something
     to qualify as "seishu" (sake) in Japan: 22

-- Highest previous percentage alcohol in sake (after a tricky
     process such as freezing it and using centrifugal force to
     spin away the ice): 38

-- Number of entries to the National New Sake Appraisal this year: 997
-- Number of these using Yamada Nishiki: 899
-- Number of gold medals awarded: 253
-- Number of silver medals awarded: 255

-- Number of yen per liter going to federal alcohol tax on sake
     at 15% alcohol under old tax laws: 140.5
-- Number of yen per liter going to federal alcohol tax on sake
     at 15% alcohol under new, just-in-effect tax laws: 120

-- Number of liters of pure, distilled alcohol that could be added
     to sake for purely economic purposes in making bottom-shelf
     sake under old tax laws, and still be permitted to call it
     "seishu" (legalese for sake) : 360

-- Number of liters of pure, distilled alcohol that can be added to
     sake for purely economic purposes in making bottom-shelf sake
     under new, just-in-effect tax laws, and still be permitted to call
     it "seishu": 280:

-- Number of sake breweries in Kochi Pref. actively brewing in 2005: 18
-- Number of sake breweries in Kochi Pref. actively brewing in 2006: 17
-- Number of sake breweries in Kochi Pref. that participated in the
   "Uchu-shu" (outer space sake) project, in which sake was brewed
   using yeast that spent time in the Soyuz space station: 16.

-- Number that will participate next year: 17
-- Number of yeasts sent up in Soyuz: 7
-- Number of years from idea inception to realization: 10
-- Amount, in yen, spent on this:
-- Percentage of that I think was well spent: 0
-- Number of the 17 brewers that care what I think: 0

Good Sake to Look For
Kudoki Jozu (Yamagata). Junmai Ginjo. One of the first brewery owners to also function as the toji (master brewer), Imai-san has created a wonderful lineup of sake with a clearly discernible thread of consistency running through it all. This is based upon, among other things, their use of Association Yeast Number 10, with its low acidity, clear flavor elements, and vibrant, apple-tinged aromas. This junmai ginjo is representative of all that, with fine-grained structures, mild rice-like flavors, and a fairly prominent but not over the top fruitiness to the aromas.

Umenishiki (Ehime). Junmai Ginjo, Daiginjo. A recent visit renewed my respect for this industry leader. Umenishiki was once a tiny little brewery amongst other tiny little breweries in the countryside. Their popularity rose, and they rose to that occasion and carefully ramped up production but strictly maintained quality. What amazed me was that they do all their brewing using old, traditional, manual ways. While Umenishiki is not a mass producer, they are not by any means small. The space within which the brewers work was amazing to me. It must call for total teamwork, impeccable timing, and perfect planning, not to mention tolerance and patience with each other. And, to top it off, they use only seasonal brewery workers, no local hires or full time brewing staff. So there are 30 guys living away from their country homes living inside the brewery together for six months of the year - just the way it was done in the old days. I thought *nobody* was doing it that way - on that scale - anymore. As for the sake itself, Umenishiki has a lot of diversity across its products, but the one thing they all share is clean, focused flavors that almost radiate quality. The toji is famous in the industry, and is remarkably quiet and humble to boot. The junmai ginjo is clean, bright and sharp, with a cleansing acidity melon
and citrus flavors and aromas. The daiginjo is light, dancing, a smidgeon sweet, with richer, livelier fruit like strawberries, raisins and apple in the aromas.   

The above sake are all exported to the US and other countries.

Sake Events and Announcements
Sake Seminar at Takara, September 9, 2006. The next sake seminar in the Takara series is scheduled for September 9, 2006. Details and topic have yet to be determined, but those interested can reserve a spot by sending me an email. Click below link to send me an email:


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