Sake would be the immediate association with Japan and spirits – but the country has a long whisky producing culture and gin is fast catching up. Wabi-Sabi is an aesthetic principle of accepting the imperfection and transience of things. Hector McBeth shares his appreciation for Japanese drinks.

Upfront I must declare that my take on Japanese culture and spirit is that of an outsider. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of pretending to understand the eastern culture from a western perspective. Japan and all things Japanese are hot property now after hosting the Rugby World Cup so successfully in 2019 and following it up with the Olympic Games. 

Sake (pronounced Sa-kay) is the drink most associated with Japan and whilst the western world drink it warmed with sushi, you probably won’t see this practice in Japan where it is served both cold and warm, the latter usually to lower grade sake. (Note that grade does not mean lesser quality.) It is usually consumed with water or on its own.

Described as rice wine – which it certainly is not – sake is rice which is milled and brewed. There are several classifications of sake and the alcohol level is typically between 15% and 19%. Historically, sake dates to the eighth century in Japan and can furthermore be traced to China as far back as 500BCE.

" Unlike wine where the product is classified by individual grape variety, sake is graded by the milling ratio. (An interesting aside is that there are more than 100 individual types or varieties of rice ...) "

The practice in those early days, was that the rice was fermented by means of humans. All the locals would chew rice and nuts before spitting their mouthfuls into the communal vat. The enzymes in their saliva would help kick start the fermentation process. Fortunately, this was replaced with “Koji” a mold that initiates fermentation. This evolved with wooden fermentation vessels typically being replaced by stainless steel in the last century.

Unlike wine where the product is classified by individual grape variety, sake is graded by the milling ratio. (An interesting aside is that there are more than 100 individual types or varieties of rice ...) To understand the grading of sake the Japanese word Seimaibuai (say-my-boo-eye) is very important: it indicates the level the rice has been polished to – so a Seimaibuai of 70 means that 30% of the grain has been polished away.

Hence, Junmai (pure) has a Seimaibuai between 70 and 100; Junmai Ginjo has a Seimaibuai of between 50 and 60 while Junmai Daiginjo has a Seimaibuai of less than 50.

There are two styles of sake – the pure rice style (Junmai) as detailed above and the alcohol-added style (Futsu-shu). The grades in the latter are also divided into Ginjo and Daiginjo and Honjozo, depending on the amount of milling.

All these sakes are brewed with yeasts, milled rice and then further fermented with Koji mold. Fresh sakes can be stored in cedar barrels or left cloudy with lesser filtration; aged, undiluted and unpasteurised as well as carbonated. Each of these processes uses different terms to explain what they are to consumers. Typically, sake will be served in a tall bottle and drunk out of a ceramic cup. It is customary to pour for the person joining you, as Japanese custom sees this gesture as building friendship.

My first experience with Japanese spirit goes back three decades. I was presented with what I was told was Chinese whisky. My knowledge at that point was restricted to what I’d seen in B-grade movies! My impression was that sake and cheap imitation eastern spirit was high in alcohol and only good for causing hangovers ...

My initial sip was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. There were precious few English words on the label “Imo joshu” and 25% alcohol by volume (abv). Years later I realised that this unique spirit was shochu from the Japanese Kanji symbols that literally translate to “burnt liquor”. Shochu is the number one selling spirit in Japan.

With this knowledge, I subsequently found that Imo meant sweet potato. There are essentially three styles of shochu: Imo (sweet potato), Mugi (barley) and Komi (rice) – and all three differ completely in flavour. Modern shochu make use of other grains and vegetables including sugar cane and buckwheat.

The highest quality of shochu – known as Hon Kaku shochu – is distilled only once and therefore retains the character of the base used and are typically distilled at 25% abv. Konrui shochu, which has multiple or consecutive distillations with clear spirit and neutral flavour and up to 45% abv, are more frequently used in cocktails. You will find the unique traditional style of single distillation is drunk typically with cold or hot water and offers a glimpse into the tradition of distillation. This practice dates as far back as the 16th century and provides a perspective and understanding of how distillation evolved in Japan. Shochu can be drunk neat on the rocks as well as mixed. It has wonderful umami character and works well in drinks with lime, ginger and sugar.

Both these developments of brewing and distilling have been in Japan for centuries and contribute to understanding and explaining why Japanese whisky has grown so substantially over the last two decades. To make good whisky it’s necessary to understand how to brew; and producing good fermentations assists in making good distillates. Interestingly, after World War II Japan was occupied and as such was not allowed to import barrels. This forced the resourceful nation to develop the art of coopering and the use of local Japanese oak. These innovations allowed the Japanese to create a unique style of whisky. Whilst they clearly were trying to emulate a western-style drink, they managed to apply all traditions and modern techniques and today produce the most dynamic and comprehensive range of whiskies.

Most Japanese distillers use yeast strains that are utterly unique to them and consequently highly protected. They have the most incredible ability to adapt and innovate. The growth of Japanese whisky was enormous from the 50s through to the 70s and today Japan is the second-largest global producer of malt whisky. Unfortunately, some distilleries were lost at the turn of the century due to stock market crashes as well as the Japanese culture which does not allow for sharing and monopolies. This has made the companies more conservative so when the enormous growth from 2008 began, global demand has outstripped production and stocks have become strained, prompting both Suntory and Nikka to discontinue much of their age statement whisky. This success and lack of proper laws defining what Japanese whisky is has also allowed for a lot of “fake” Japanese whisky to enter the market.

Speaking of success, as gin has increased in popularity over the last few years, Japan has taken this category on. In typical fashion it has immediately adapted their process where they incorporate both season and unique botanicals into their very pure spirits, along with their intimate understanding of tea and nature. They are releasing gins that the world is quickly appreciating as some of the very best.

Most of the initial gins are produced by sake breweries and shochu distilleries as well as Suntory and Nikka. Sake is being distilled and then used as a base spirit extensively, as are the shochu being utilised for their soft mouthfeel and textured character. The whisky bases of barley and corn are being used to create a wonderful warmth that allows uniquely Japanese flavours to be pronounced. Japanese botanicals such as yuzu and mandarins for citrus, for example, or green tea for a fresh note. Ginger and sansho peppers are used to resonate spice and bamboo shoot and kombu (seaweed) to daikon radish and shiitake mushroom for umami notes.

Again it seems as though Japan is taking a western drink and emulating it and then improving on it by adding unique twists to make it their own. My personal view is that if we look closer it’s possible to discover something known as Wabi-Sabi, a philosophy that all life is transient and as such will throw imperfections. Having the grace to see the beauty in that imperfection is aspired to.