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Thursday, Nov. 23, 2000
The man who never forgets a sake
Haruo Matsuzaki raises the small glass to his nose, sniffs for but a couple of seconds, and takes in a small sip. Slurping in a bit of air, he scribbles for a few seconds into his ever-present tiny notebook, finally expelling the sake into the spittoon next to the table. On to the next.
His calm outward demeanor belies a myriad of assessments of flavor and fragrance, for once he tastes a sake, it's in his head for good.
Such is the working life of Matsuzaki, sake critic extraordinaire. There are plenty of sake hyoronka (critics), but none can match the palate of Matsuzaki. He is perhaps the most respected critic in the industry, especially among the brewers themselves. Author of books, consultant to sake brewers and traveling lecturer, he works totally independently, unconnected to any single brewery or group of breweries.
As a boy, Matsuzaki collected sake labels and bottle caps, long before he could drink. His interest became more empirical once he reached legal drinking age. After graduating from Sophia University with a degree in Spanish, he joined the Seibu department store chain. His vast knowledge quickly became known, and he was made the buyer for the sake department at the Shibuya store. During his tenure there, he published several books on sake, and in 1997 he became a full-time sake journalist, consultant and critic.
He may be best known for his tasting prowess. The link between his memory and his taste buds is truly amazing. You can ask him about almost any sake in the country, and he can immediately rattle off the flavor profile. Yet, with characteristic humility, he claims it is just a matter of experience.
"There is no trick," Matsuzaki says, "and it's not a secret. It's a matter of developing two things: your memory and your ability to express yourself."
Discipline is required. "You have to write something down whenever you taste a sake seriously. This forces you to express it in words, and it allows you to remember that sake."
Matsuzaki can often be seen jotting impressions into his little black notebook. Many a time, while tasting with him, I've heard him comment on a sake, perhaps mumbling, "Mmm, nice fragrance . . . " Wannabes like myself will then, in a feigned nonchalant manner, take a glass of the same stuff and sniff like hell, trying to figure out what Matsuzaki sensei is picking up.
His knowledge of sake history, of what year particular events occurred and who invented what when, is vast. The fine details of the brewing process, the modern technology and developments with all their pros and cons, do not escape him. He is a student of the craft and the tradition.
This is the guy's job: traveling, tasting, writing, lecturing, partying . . . all about sake. Doesn't seem too bad for work, does it?
For the record, Matsuzaki really works hard. It's a tasting here, a brewery visit there, rush home to finish an article, then a speech, then another tasting. Especially during the sake-brewing season in the fall and winter, there's no rest for the weary.
Among other developments, he has created a sake tasting flavor wheel, that breaks sake down by flavor profile into one of 11 groups. "Originally, I had something like 22 different groups. I thought, whoa, this won't do, and had to work hard to combine and rename them down to 11." An English version can be found at www.esake.com
There are several such systems that have been created by different marketing organizations. Most have about four different classifications, far too few to accurately represent all sake. While all graphs of this nature have limited usefulness, 11 groups is certainly more representative than four.
The sake pub Chihana, (03) 3245-1666, located very close to Tokyo Station, uses this chart in their menu. All of their 50 or so selections of sake are classified under one of the 11 flavor groupings, so as to make it easier for customers to find one that suits them. (The menu is available in English as well.)
We, too, can benefit from Matsuzaki's chosen life work. His monthly seminars are open to the public. Although they are all in Japanese, they are always informative and fun. More information on these seminars can be found at www3.ocn.ne.jp/~kikisake/
Finally, his latest book is highly recommended. Titled "Tastes of 1,635: Nihonshu Guidebook" (Shibata Shoten), it is an updated and expanded version of a book first released a few years ago. The 1,635 sake reviewed within are from kura all over the country, each kura with some three to five sake listed.
If you are interested in sake and can read Japanese, you should have this book. Each sake is profiled in depth, with information on everything from price and distribution to yeast and the toji ryuha ("school" of brewmaster). The book is only 2,000 yen, and is available at all major bookstores in Japan.
Sign up for a free sake-related e-mail newsletter at www.sake-world.com To be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, send an e-mail to email@example.com, or fax your name and address to (0467) 23-6895.
Horaisen (Aichi Prefecture)
A light and elegant sake, with wonderful balance and an overall highly refined yet never-boring profile. A prominent but gentle nose of tingling fruit and a touch of nuts opens up to a layered, subtly grainy mouth feel with an even, long-lasting flavor. Best slightly chilled, without a doubt.
You may also want to look for "Ku," a junmai daiginjo version of this line, and "Beshi," a tokubetsu junmai-shu version.
Horaisen is brewed at a kura that has embraced the future. They have a young leadership, and all the brewers are local folks, not farmers from the countryside.