Category Archives: Spirits

Sake!

Well, actually, in Japan they don’t call it that. In Japanese sake is quite a generic term, meaning something like ‘booze’. This I found out after sparing no time or effort trying to explain to the non-English-speaking Japanese waitress that I wanted to have some sake. She just pointed at the drinks menu, throwing me a perplexed smile, implying, ‘Look, silly, these are all sakes.’ So, before we even begin, I must teach you the Japanese word for sake: NIHONSHU.

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Very long cordons on high-trained trunks – what an unusual sight!

While in Japan, I tasted a number of different alcoholic beverages, including shochu, a spirit that can be made from grains or fruits, and wine made from the Koshu grape when we visited the Kurambon winery near Mount Fuji. That was also quite interesting, especially to see how they train their vines (I think in an attempt to protect them from humidity and fungus infections). But the wines are made in essentially the same way.

Sake, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. It’s more like making beer (from the limited knowledge of beer-making that I have).

I and my family paid a visit to the Shin-Se brewery outside Kyoto. They weren’t quite used to welcoming tourists, apparently, but the fact that we had come all the way from Europe, and that I wanted to write up the story, seemed to help.

The brewery was a surprisingly old-fashioned plant, and most of its equipment couldn’t be described as high-tech by any stretch of the imagination. This is actually a general observation I have made about Japan. We associate it with the latest cutting-edge technology, which may be true in some sense, but in people’s lives this is not reflected at all. The cars they drive, the trains and buses, the buildings typically give the impression of worn-out objects from a different era.

ShinSe outside

Shin-Se from the outside.

Let’s start at the beginning. What we call sake is made from rice, and rice alone. But sake is a complicated matter, because how you clean the rice will produce several different types. So producers polish their grains to different levels of purity, to get closer to the starchy middle (for more expensive sake) or to include the rest as well (for cheaper products). The result is plain GINJO for less pure sake and DAIGINJO for a drink of purer starch content.

In Shine-Se ten different kinds of sake rice are used. These are fermented separately and produce separate brands or styles. In a high-quality sake, I was told, you won’t have more than two kinds of rice blended (but in commercial drinks anything goes).

sake

The technology may not be the latest, but hygiene is still very important

After washing and polishing, the rice is steamed for about 40 minutes. The water quality is considered very important, just like with beer, and producers tend to have their own source of water. The damp rice is then laid out thinly, in a single layer, on large flat trays and dried so that only the middle remains damp. The rice then undergoes a careful selection process and is then moved to a large flat basin, where it is allowed to pre-ferment for three days. This pre-fermentation serves to hydrolise the starches in the grain – that is, to convert the starches into sugar, which can then be fermented in the next stage. Our brewery uses cultivated yeasts to start the ferment, and temperatures can reach 33-37 C in the process. Temperature control is carried out manually as it is a very nuanced operation, our guide explained. The rice is under constant 24-hour surveillance at this stage to make sure temperatures don’t rise above 45-47 degrees.

When this hydrolisation process is over, the real ferment begins in large stainless steel tanks. 4 parts steamed rice are normally mixed with 1 part malted rice and water is added to create the mash. The tank is called SHUBO, meaning ‘mother of the sake’. The ferment, in various tanks, takes up to a month or so, at low temperatures.

When the fermentation is over, the brew is filtered – or not, in which case we get NIGORI, unfiltered sake white as milk. The sake is then left to rest in tanks (or less commonly in wooden casks) for several months. But some sakes, I was told, are allowed to mature for up to 30 years. Standard sake has an alcoholic strength of 15-16% but some reach 21-22%.sakes

Just like with most spirits and beers, what matters with sake is not the ‘vintage’ but a consistent house style. This is achieved through choice of grain and careful management of the fermentation process.

At Shin-Se we tasted a variety of sakes from cheaper and simpler to more complex and refined. Some were fruitier, others had pungent vegetable flavours and aromas. My favourite was a JUNMAI DAIGINJO, which means that it’s an all-rice sake, that is, no alcohol was added separately, and the rice was polished down to 50% (as opposed to 70% in a less pure plain sake, or 60% in a Ginjo).

One of the difficulties is, though, that all the labels only had Japanese script so it’s very hard to identify in hindsight what the full range was!

tasting away

the flight of sakes we tasted, going from right to left. Don’t ask me what the labels say!

 

Griselda the Kirschmaker

the Keiser property

the Keiser property

It was a bit like walking into a picture book. I was staying with a friend in Zug, a small town just outside Zurich. Knowing how crazy I am about fruit brandies, he treated me to a visit to a family-owned distillery. As we walked up the hill path, the clouds had just begun to lift over the hills surrounding the lake of Zug. Covered in dark wooden planks, the house was your stereotypical Swiss alpine home, and how pretty, how rustic! Especially when you know that something really extraordinary is produced behind those walls…

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a wide range of eaux de vie

We were greeted by a buoyant and very friendly lady with ginger hair. Her name is Griselda Keiser, she told us, and, continuing a family tradition, she produces a range of fruit brandies in her home distillery, on equipment inherited from her ancestors. The most famous brandy around Zug is, of course, Kirschwasser, an eau de vie made of cherries. But you shouldn’t think of normal eating cherries, she tells me. These are smaller, and specially developed for Kirsch-making. But the range of her fruit brandies was much greater: distillates of plums (Pflümli), Mirabelle (a small yellow plum producing the most delicious eau de vie), pear William, quince, and even Kräuter, a traditional liqueur which contains a secret blend of dozens of different herbs. Upon tasting it, the most obvious ingredient was aniseed.

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vintage Kirsch from Zug

Griselda showed us around the property with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately she doesn’t speak much English and my German is not great, either, but I did get the gist of what she was saying. Alas, when she offered us a taste of her different eaux de vie, I didn’t understand what she was saying, and so only ended up tasting the herb liqueur. What a shame. But I had at least become closely acquainted with her 2009 Kirsch, since I have a bottle at home, and it’s the smoothest, gentlest, most delightful drink with a very intense and pure cherry aroma. And yes, Griselda produces vintage distillates. She claims there are perceptible differences between the harvest of each year – and she particularly warmly recommended the 2009.

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the fruit is fermented in wooden casks

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Griselda shows us her traditional pot still

Showing us around the distillery, she explained that the still she uses is over 100 years old and is fuelled with wood. The fruit is hand picked and carefully selected so that only the best goes into the ferment, as blemished fruit will give off-flavours. It is then fermented in wooden casks in her cellar over several months (imagine the smell!), and then in January, when her other business, the sale of flowers, goes quiet, she gets down to the distillation work. Not only the fruit but also the stones go into the pot. These give the spirit an added twist of bitter almonds. Griselda distils twice to ensure purity of the alcohol. It’s a difficult balancing act, distillation. If you distil to a lesser purity, you’re left with richer flavours and texture (this is how traditional fruit distillates, including brandies, are produced). But in some products, for example vodka or gin, you want to achieve the purest alcohol possible, with an almost ethereal texture. It is the distiller’s decision where on this scale of purity and flavour richness they want their product to stand. What can I tell you – the end product at the Keiser distillery is very convincing!

The spirit is then moved to large demijohns (glass carboys), where it matures before being bottled. And if you want to order a gift for someone, Griselda will choose a bottle of your preference and even produce a beautiful, personalized, hand-written label.DSCF2418

If you’re ever in Switzerland, do visit the Keiser distillery. The place is charming, the surroundings stunningly beautiful, the welcome friendly and warm, and the Kirsch amazing!

http://www.zuger-keiser-kirsch.ch

The times they are a-changing

If you thought the Old World – New World distinction and competition which we talk about all the time today only applied to the wine world, you’ll have to think again. I had to anyway. Reading the Millionaires Club’s latest report published by Drinks International, I was astonished to realize that the New World has taken the world of spirits production and sales by storm. A huge and long-lasting storm, too. But it is a New World that has to be redefined: unlike in the world of wines, here we’re not talking about the USA, South Africa or Australia. Rather, it’s countries it wouldn’t even occur to the lay pub-goer to put on the alcohol map: India, Philippines, Korea, Brazil…

To quote from the report, ‘Scotland no longer makes the world’s best-selling whisky … the biggest brandies and gins don’t come from France, the UK, or the US but from the Philippines and India … Bacardi – so long the transcendent spirit – is being overrun in the confines of its own category.’ We live in exciting and surprising times indeed. And what’s even more surprising is that these countries often produce spirits that the average Westerner has never even heard about, let alone tasted: soju/sochu, or baijiu, to name just two of the market leaders. In the trade these are called domestic or regional brands, which means they don’t appear on the global market. Be that as it may, they sell far more bottles of their products than international brands do. To give you one example: the soju brand Jinro sold over 65 million 9-litre cases of soju in 2012. How many do you think the leading international spirit brand, Smirnoff, sold? Under 26 million – much less than half of the soju. And Smirnoff sells quite a lot more bottles than the next international brand down the line, Bacardi, does (at just under 20 million cases).

Some other interesting trivia: do you know how many Scotch single malts made it to the Millionaires Club, meaning they sell at least 1 million cases of 9 litres of whisky? One – yes, one. Glenfiddich, and it is  last on the Millionaires list, at no. 176. So one thing to learn is that, like with other products, quality is  not necessarily what drives the system. It’s still shocking to think that brands that are so ubiquitous in our Western world are dwarfs when compared to others that are totally unfamiliar to us and that come from (well they don’t really come because they barely leave their own region, no need for that) countries far far away.

The world’s best-selling brandy is called Emperador and it is made in the Philippines. It’s the world’s second biggest liquor brand today. It’s increased its sales by 500% between 2009 and 2012, in merely three years – quite amazing. And the list goes on and on – a number of whiskies made in India and Japan, and cachaca, and rum from – guess where? The Philippines! If no other lesson to take home today, the Asians do drink big time – because, as I said, the vast majority of these brands are not sold outside the regions of their production (which, for the record, tend to be massive enough as they are; think of China or India for example).

Here is the link to the full Millionaires Club report in PDF format.