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Friday, May 30, 2008

DRINK

Aged sake from distillery in Chiba packs 20 years of flavor


Special to The Japan Times

After the period when the aging of sake was rarist, some breweries and retailers rediscovered the genre by accident. Stock that for some reason was left over would sit forgotten or neglected in a dusty corner, only to be later rediscovered after having turned from a remaindered caterpillar to a glorious jukuseishu butterfly.

Not everything that just sits around for several years gets better, but lots of such happy accidents are now proudly out there on the shelves of specialist retailers. More breweries are aging sake on purpose, though, and a few pioneers have been doing so for decades. One such is the Kidoizumi brewery in Chiba.

According to their Web site, Kidoizumi first put nine-year-old sake on sale in the capital in 1971, a long way ahead of the pack. They sell a splendid flight of sakes made to the same specifications, but at different ages — new one-year-old, then five-, 10-, 15- and 20-year-old vintages. The set of five sakes (180 ml each) retails for ¥4,725.

The color gives a pretty clear idea of the depth of the transformation, graduating from the virtually colorless first-year baby, through straw and gold on to a splendid coppery color after 20 years. The aromatic impression given by the youngest sake is of pale young wood, still green and pungent. The aroma leads one to expect a mouth-puckering attack of formidable astringency, but it is actually a rollicking great acidity that swamps the palate with the strongest impression. Still, it is no surprise to find a long, astringency lingering on the palate after the wave of sourness has passed. All the elements of flavor romp around with as much reserve as a toddler's birthday party.

After five years, those lean, woody aromas are joined by a bit of barnyardy straw and even scents of lightly smoked meat. The acidity and astringency still lead a powerful charge of flavor, but are already softened out by a soft emerging umami flavor. (Umami is the rich, soft satisfying flavor first identified as the key taste in Japanese dashi soup stock. Now an accepted scientific reality as one of the five basic tastes, it has finally gained currency as a Japanese loanword to the English language. Umami is the fulcrum of sake flavor, and aging sake increases the level of umami.)

After 10 years, the taste has deepened more in line with the color, but it is still a slightly richer expression of the hay-harvest, edge-of-woodland farmyard mode, but with the acidity becoming noticeably quieter. By 15 years, there is a distinct change of character, with ever-deeper flavor and profound earthy, mushroom aromatics leading the way. This direction is given new richness and harmony at the 20-year stage, with the sake's original rasping astringency transformed into a deliciously textured and toothsome mature astringency. Wine people will be shouting "sherry" at these charismatic woody scents, but they owe nothing to real wood, developing entirely from the components of the sake itself. The whole package of taste and aroma gains in harmonious intensity at the two-decade point, with the flavors coming together in a taut, superbly tensioned balance.

Located in Izumi City, Chiba Prefecture, the Kidoizumi brewery can be reached at (0470) 62-0013. For more information visit or www2.bii.ne.jp/kidoizumi/


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