Sake ups the ante | Wine-Searcher News and Features

Like whiskey, small-production, expertly-crafted sake is now joining the high-price tag game.

© Sake hundred
| Sake Hundred labels are a master class in understated elegance.

Ryuji Ikoma worked in technology as a systems integrator until the age of 25, when he decided to take on two of the least lucrative jobs imaginable: starting an online sake magazine, then create artisanal sake in small production.

Surprisingly, he didn’t grow up in the sake business.

“My friend had a sake shop. He taught me sake,” Ikoma told Wine-Searcher via Zoom from Japan. “Before, I didn’t know much and was afraid of sake. But my friend’s sake was delicious.”

Ikoma is now the publisher of saketimes, a free website in Japanese and English that attempts to teach saketimes to young adults. saketimes is vast in scope, which makes its sake trading company, Sake Hundred, the polar opposite.

Sake Hundred orders small quantities of very expensive sake, and the high prices are themselves a marketing ploy.

“In the $40 or $80 class, we don’t release that kind of sake,” Ikuma said. “We want our brand to be a luxury brand. Everything we make is unique. If it’s easy to buy or easy to get to, we don’t.”

Sake Hundred is the fanciest brand of sake I’ve seen. Everything about it screams high end. Start with the bespoke white box that each bottle comes in, complete with a 28-page booklet and a separate little “care guide”. (TLDR: refrigerate the sake.) There’s the unnecessary metal clip on the bottle that gives it a nifty image of an agricultural product. From the care guide: “Due to the nature of the container this product is stored in, on very rare occasions the bottle may experience minor leaks when stored on its side.”

And then there’s the price: $380 for the entry-level Byakko Bespoke “Crystalline Brew.” There’s also a $435 aged sake in oak and a $3,100 aged sake with a great story.

The pricing strategy worked on me because I wanted to know what a $380 sake tasted like (to be clear, my bottle was a press sample, we didn’t pay for it.) Why so expensive? This is partly because the production process is expensive: the rice is polished to only 18% remaining, far less than most commercial sake. But even considering that, it’s pricey.

Let me ask you a question: which is more interesting, the fact that it is a Junmai Daiginjo sake made from Dewasansan rice in Yamagata prefecture, or that it costs $380? Be honest.

In fact, if it was the polish report, Ikoma could have joined the current race at the smallest possible grit. He said Tatenokawa Brewery, which makes Byakko Bespoke for him, makes sake from rice polished to just 0.8%. Imagine a winery throwing away 119 grapes out of the 120 it harvests. But Ikoma says there’s actually a limit to how much you can go down.

“Polish is also equivalent to rejecting flavor,” Ikoma told Wine-Searcher. “So one percent had no depth, and it was closed and harsh. I wanted the sake to be open and very complex and rich.”

With this he succeeded. Byakko Bespoke is designed for the luxury wine market. It’s not a light, ethereal Daiginjo: it’s rich and full-bodied, and aromatic enough that my wife knew in the next room that I had opened it. There are green apples and white peaches. You might want to keep it cool as it starts to taste quite sweet as it warms up, but it has the balance to handle it.

Ikoma said he asked Tatenokawa to make this sake for him because, exceptionally, the brewery only makes Junmai Daiginjo sake; nothing less refined. Oujiman, a brewery with the same owner, made Sake Hundred’s oak-aged “Shirin” sake, which I didn’t try. He said they tried French and American oak before using Japanese mizunara oak from Hokkaido. There is a chronic shortage of mizunara, which is popular with Japanese whiskey producers, so it’s also a touch of luxury.

A lucky drop

The very expensive sake – $3,100 a bottle – is called “Gengai”. It is a holdover from the 1995 production of Sawanotsuru Brewery in Kobe Prefecture. In January of that year, Kobe was hit hard by the Great Hanshin earthquake, which reached 7.2 on the Richter scale and killed more than 6,000 people. The brewery had to be abandoned with the sake halfway through. Unlike wine, sake cannot normally survive being left alone at this stage of the production process.

“It was lucky sake because it survived the earthquake, but it was oishikunai,” Ikuma said. “Oishii” means delicious; “oishikunai” literally means “not delicious”, but as a Japanese speaker, I have to tell you that’s an extreme negative. If you tell a chef his sushi is “oishikunai”, you better hope he’s not holding a knife.

“Usually it would be sake thrown away,” Ikuma said. “But Sawanotsuru’s policy is that sake is something you grow. They thought that aging might make it delicious. So since 1995, every year they tried sake. After 20 years, they thought it would be delicious. was oishii.”

Sawanotsuru prepared 10 sakes for blind tasting for Sake Hundred.

“In those 10 sakes, there was Gengai,” Ikuma said. “But Sawanotsuru didn’t tell any back story. One of them was surprising. It was the kind of sake beyond my imagination. You can taste fruits and flowers. It’s three-dimensional .year we make 500, so in theory after seven years it will all be gone.”

Ikuma said Sake Hundred’s future plans are to continue making one or two sakes a year with different breweries.

“I don’t want to overdo it,” he said. “I want everything to be special.”

One way you can be sure of this is the high price you will pay.

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