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Bringing sake culture to the Philippines

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By The Glass

premium sakes
Seven of the 10 premium sakes tasted at the Sake Dinner at Inagiku Restaurant. -- SHERWIN LAO

RAYMOND JOSEPH, the youngest of the four Joseph brothers running the country’s pioneering wine and spirits importer and distribution company, Philippine Wine Merchants (PWM), is the only Filipino I know that is a real sake sommelier. Raymond has been frequenting Japan since 2009 to learn more about sake since PWM took on the distribution of Gekkeikan Sake Company Limited — one of Japan’s oldest (founded in 1637), and perhaps the largest, sake company in the world, from Fushimi district, Kyoto prefecture. Raymond even underwent a rigid two week “Sake Sommelier Apprenticeship” crash course from Gekkeikan over eight years ago, and has been attending sake courses from different prefectures to further hone his knowledge. This is Raymond’s passion now, and with PWM as his vehicle, Raymond is dead set on bringing sake culture to the Philippines.

SAKE ON THE RISE
As reported by The Drinks Business (the global leading drinks trade publication), sake exports in 2017 hit a record high of 23.5 million liters, up a huge 19% from the previous year; 2016 was the first year that sake export went over the 20 million liter mark. Sake exports have been on the rise since 2006, and the increase can be directly attributed to the growing number of restaurants serving Japanese cuisine opening outside of Japan. Sake is the truly indigenous Japanese drink that best accompanies Japanese food, and, as Japanese cuisine become more and more popular, so too does sake. The US, South Korea, and China are the biggest sake export markets.

Raymond Joseph and PWM see the opportunity to bring in more sake brands to educate people here, especially since appreciation of sake in the country is really at the infancy stage. PWM even has its own Japanese expat, the very affable Hiroaki Shibahara, to help in the sake portfolio buildup. Most of the focus of Raymond will be on the Tokutei Meisho-Shu, the higher quality graded and classified sake, as against the Futsushu or generic table sake.

The learning curve for sake could be similar to that of wine. Back in the day, Filipinos only referred to wines as red, white, or sparkling, but after the import liberalization of wine during the 1980s, which precipitated our wine drinking culture, which led to the abundance of brand choices and growing distribution reach, Filipinos now know how to ask for Bordeaux, Chianti, Rioja, and Champagnes, or, if they prefer to ask by varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, or what have you. Soon, we should hear more Filipinos asking for Honjozo, Junmai, Ginjo, or Daiginjo when ordering sake.

REGIONAL SAKES
Unlike wines, sake does not really have AOC or appellation classifications, even if almost all of Japan’s 47 prefectures have sake breweries, varying in size and production capacities. The biggest ones are from Hyogo, Kyoto, Niigata, Akita, and Fukushima prefectures. The two main ingredients in sake-making are rice and water. Sakamai is what the rice variety is called, and while there are several to choose from, the undisputed king of sake rice is the Yamada Nishiki Rice, primarily harvested in Hyogo, Okayama, and Fukuoka. Other sakamais used in popular sakes are Omachi, Miyama Nishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Oseto, and, for more boutique sake styles, the Dewa Sansan and Kame no O from the Yamagata and Niigita prefectures.

While the rice gives the inherent flavors, the rice polishing ratio is what adds refinement and concentration to the resultant sake. The lower the percentage of original rice size left after the polishing, supposedly the better, and, obviously, the more expensive. This is where we apply the term junmai — which means pure rice sake. Basic Junmai is at least 70% rice polished ratio, Junmai Ginjo is at least 60%, and the top of the line Junmai Daiginjo is at least 50%. The Junmai Daiginjo is what Raymond compared to Grand Cru in wines.




At a recent Sake Dinner held at everyone’s favorite Japanese restaurant, Inagiku of Shangri-La Makati, Raymond brought out an impressive 10 different premium sakes from nine Japanese breweries, coming from eight Japanese prefectures, to show the varying styles and even regionality of sakes. The sakes were served in wine glasses, as Raymond wanted the sakes’ nose and aromatics to be more appreciated. This is not a surprise as I have heard of a “Sake in Wine Glass” award held annually in Japan. Given the different sakamais and the distinctive regional qualities of this beverage, sake does have more wine-like qualities than any other alcoholic beverage in the world.

MORE TO COME FROM PWM
PWM already distributes some of the most recognized commercial sakes: Gekkeikan, Hakkaisan, and, more recently, Dassai. On top of this, Raymond and Hiroaki are still acquiring more, with a conscious lookout for high character sakes from other prefectures.

In the Grand Wine Experience on Nov. 16, 2018, all Grand Wine patrons got a preview of PWM’s growing sake portfolio. And, as Raymond announced at the Sake Dinner, by Jan. 7 select Ralph stores will already have sake bars, with several sakes to be poured by the glass, using the Le Verre de Vin wine preservation system to keep each sake fresh.

Of the amazing depth of the selection tasted during the Sake Dinner, the one brand that stands out is the Tatenokawa brand, a boutique brewery from the Yamagata prefecture. We had two precious Tatenokawa Junmai Daiginjo sakes that evening, a 33% rice polished ratio and an even dearer 18% rice polished ratio. Tatenokawa, as Raymond revealed, is the only sake brewery in Japan that can make sake using only 1% rice polished ratio — incredible but true.

I had an amazing time trying all the sakes. My top three favorites of the evening were: Kozaemon Junmai Ginjo made from Dewa Sansan rice, “very deep nose, lavender, crisp acid and long finish”; Tamanohikari Junmai Daiginjo made from Bizen Omachi rice, “alluring nose, almonds, coconut pandan, with very silky finish”; and the Tatenokawa Junmai Daiginjo, also made from Dewa Sansan rice with a 33% rice polished ratio, “uncanny Fuji apple nose, very fragrant, supple texture and a luscious sweet aftertaste.”

While I was listening intently to Hiroaki talking about each of the sake style, I realized I really need to drink more sake to hone my palate. I can also see why Raymond Joseph, a wine aficionado, is now very engrossed in sake. It is time to visit your nearest Ralph store to get first hand sensory education on the different sakes available in the market.

Happy New Year to all!

 

The author is a member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at protegeinc@yahoo.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.