Sake conquering the world

Japan’s famous rice drink is growing in popularity beyond its traditional borders.

© Tanaka x Chartier
| François Chartier takes a molecular approach to blending sake.

Much has changed since the consumption of traditional Japanese sake began hundreds of years ago. In fact, most sake drinkers today aren’t even from Japan, and this new international audience has opened the door to a more competitive and innovative industry.

The growing demand for the fermented rice drink beyond its place of origin has mainly been attributed to the popularization of Japanese cuisine and its culture around the world, especially in the United States and China. This, combined with a steady decline in domestic consumption over the past decades, has led sake brewers to adapt and innovate to meet the needs of an international audience interested in provenance and quality.

In the search for innovation, a few brands such as the Tanaka 1789 x Chartier series by François Chartier, and Iwa 5 by the former Dom Pérignon cellar master Richard Geoffroy, both try to go beyond what is strictly traditional in blending sake and claiming it as a new approach to fermented rice drink.

However, sake blending has been around since the Edo period, when vendors blended all the sake sent to the capital to satisfy the special tastes of customers, and in some cases it was blended by brewers even before leaving for the capital.

In the modern era, blending sake is actually very common. Chogo is the mixture of seishu (clear sake) after undergoing Kentei (official recording) and is used to adjust forces and provide consistency. Even though it comes from the same brewing recipe, there are small variations and the blend is used to meet production standards, but it’s not a step that gets much attention. While it is a widespread practice, it is not promoted in the same way as blending in the wine industry.

On the rarer side, some brewers blend different levels of maturity, changing the ratio of the blend as older beers age to add complexity to the final product. Others mix in order to give it a particular style, not only for the search of the overall quality, but to give their final mixture a taste and an aroma which makes the reputation of the house.

Therein lies the opportunity to innovate in the traditional world of Japanese sake brewing, and it has been seized by those wine industry professionals who have made their way into the field of Nihon-shu.

Tanaka 1789 x Chartier

François Chartier is a master blender at one of Japan’s oldest sake breweries, Tanaka Shuzo, located in Miyagi, Japan. He was hired as Tanaka’s new master mixer to work alongside the toji or master brewer. With extensive experience on wine and gastronomy, including writing the book Papillae and Molecules, Chartier brings a new approach to sake production, where the emphasis is on blending different production styles – such as kimoto and Yamahai (slightly different ancestral methods with more complex flavors) – to enhance the quality of each style by harmonizing their aromatic compounds, inspired by Chartier’s theory of aromatic synergy.

The Tanaka 1789 x Chartier range also includes different types of yeast, as well as the combination of polished rice at different ratios (as opposed to the traditional practice of a single polishing ratio for the drink designated by the quality standard such as Ginjo or Daiginjo ). Their goal is to adapt the elaboration process to each blend while maintaining the tradition that makes sake a part of Japan.

I am 5

After leaving Dom Pérignon in June 2019, Richard Geoffroy has not been idle. He joined Francesca Moretti in Franciacorta earlier this year, but has also moved into sake, where he has been working on Iwa since November 2019 with Ryuichiro Masuda of sake brewery Masuda Shuzou and architect Kengo Kuma responsible for the new Tateyama Brewery in Toyama Prefecture. .

Mixing seems to be Geoffroy’s obsession “I’m pretty sure I would start mixing water, it’s a compulsive thing.” Blending is the word used to design this blended sake using different types of rice, yeast and motorcycle wwhich is intended to be an experimental process drawing all its experience from the blending of Champagne wines, but reconsidering the recipe each year.


Another big name moving from Champagne retirement to sake blending is former Piper-Heidsieck Champagne cellar master Régis Camus.

Camus, a highly awarded winemaker, was named Sparkling Winemaker of the Year eight times by the International Wine Challenge, and who spent 26 years serving Piper-Heidsieck, Charles Heidsieck and Rare Champagne until he left home in early April this year.

“I am now passing on the keys to the future and the life of Rare Champagne to Maud. And I am passing on the longevity of the know-how and the signature of Rare Champagne Wine to Emilien Boutillat.” said Camus as he left. But retirement doesn’t last long when the craft drink itch is still there.

A partnership between French entrepreneur Carl Hirschmann, fashion show producer Etienne Russo and publisher Benjamin Eymere. Heavensake is looking to enter as a luxury item using Régis Camus’ blending expertise with not one but three different sake breweries: Dassai in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Urakasumi in Miyagi Prefecture, and Konishi in Hyogo.

While not entirely new, the blending of the worlds of wine and sake brings a fresh and exciting new chapter to an industry reborn and growing as a gastronomic cultural exchange.

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About Michael Brafford

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