The pride of any self-respecting wine dude is the wine cellar. Even beer geeks are exploring the possibilities and potential of cellaring. Cellaring being the idea of putting aside a few bottles that will “reward with time”, ie. mature into a more complex and interesting beast. A practice most familiar to the wine world. So how does sake fare after a few years in the cellar?
Usually, not too well. Firstly, the compounds in wine that give it the ability to age are either not present at all or not present in a large enough capacity to enable effective ageing. Tannin is essential to the ageing process of red wine, coming from the grape skin, vine and the barrels used for maturation. In white wines that have the ability to age, a good acid level is required. Sake contains no tannin and has far less acidity than white wine leaving it at something of a disadvantage to start. So why do it? And does anybody drink it?
It seems the answer is “yes”. Ageing sake has been done for many years and there are quite a few breweries out there that make ko-shu 古酒 (old sake) or choki jukuseishu長期熟成酒 (long term matured sake). It is out there but it isn’t particularly common. However, a recent article on a popular Japanese news site hints at a possible renewed interest in aged sake. The article refers in particular to a bar in Osaka called Jukuseikoshu Bar Quon (try saying that after a few glasses of sake). A bar that has found its niche with a menu of around 10-20 aged sakes. Fans of the old brew refer to the soft rounded flavours and the reduced effects of hangovers(?). For now, I’ll hold off on my skepticism regarding reduced hangovers but round, smooth flavours I can understand. I should admit I haven’t had a lot of aged sake. At least not a lot of sake that was meant to be aged. Unfortunately, the sake you find on the bottleshop shelf is often koshu by default. Buying sake for consumption at home doesn’t seem to have quite taken off in Australia yet, so till then check the dates on the bottle when shopping about.
Dates? Did somebody say dates? Yes, if you check out the bottle of sake nearest you, you will find a date printed somewhere on the bottle or label that specifies the day the bottle was shipped. Most sake is stored at the brewery until they think it’s ready, so the date reflects when it left the brewery as opposed to when it was bottled.
So what can you expect from aged sake? It depends on whether it is koshu that has been designed by the brewery to be drunk as an aged product or whether it is sake that was probably intended to be drunk fresh but has been kept for a while and has become old sake. Deliberately aged koshu can often have sherry like aromas, a dessert like sweetness and woody aromas. They can be delicious and rewarding. Sake that is just plain old can be a funky, dull and show aromas and flavours more resembling cooking sake. but in my opinion, if you are looking for what makes sake great-drink it fresh. Within a year is best but given the slow turnover of sake in Australia two years sometimes has to be settled for. I guess what I’m getting at is there isn’t much point getting hung up on ageing sake. Age your wines by all means but drink your sake as quick as you can. A sake cellar sounds nice in theory but keep the turnover high. Ask a brewer and you’ll find almost all of them will recommend you drink their sake fresh. If you’re concentrating on ageing and what will cellar well, you’re missing the point.
So if you spot something labelled as koshu, by all means give it a go, but anything else I’d be drinking up as quick as you can; just how the brewer wanted you to.