On our quest to enjoy the best sake possible, important questions come up early in our development as a sake drinking artist. How much should I spend to get a good bottle of sake? Am I really getting my money’s worth by buying the sake that is well over $30 US, $50 US, or $100 US? Will the cheap, or more affordable, sake taste any good?
These are great questions to have, and it plagues the white-belt level practitioners as well as seasoned veterans of sake enjoyment. There is no single rule that states that the more you spend, the better the sake will taste. Sometimes pricing is influenced by the supply and demand of the product. If there is high demand, but limited quantities, naturally the price will be higher, but this does not guarantee that it’s a great sake. Or the marketing of the product to a specific demographic could lead to a higher price point being set from the beginning of the product’s launch without even having proven its worth. On the same token, a lower priced sake could great, but maybe just hasn’t gained popularity yet or lacks the marketing budget to demand a higher price. I am sure that red wine and white wine drinkers are faced with the same dilemma.
This topic reminded me of a family vacation to Kyoto, Japan. On a cool fall evening, there were five of us roaming the narrow, bustling streets of Kyoto looking for an izakaya (居酒屋- a type of Japanese bar that serves alcoholic drinks and a variety of small dishes or appetizers) where we could settle in to and get the party started. As it was a Friday, most establishments that we stopped at were packed with patrons. They were small and narrow shops, and having a “large” party of five made it a bit more difficult to be seated.
We didn’t mind searching for another venue because we were all on vacation and just happy to be in Japan, plus it allowed us to explore more of the area. So, we kept walking up the street. After about the sixth stop, we noticed an interesting izakaya. There must have been over a hundred bottles of sake stacked on shelves 5 levels high on each side of the entryway. The bottom rows were lined with sakedaru (酒樽- wooden sake barrels wrapped in straw), with a wall of sake bottles of different colors stacked up over it, that reached up to the ceiling.
Now that we were seated, it was time to order. We were passed a menu and when we opened it, we were blown away. Sensory overload! There were pages and pages of sake listed. There were also special sakes that were shown on the chalkboard above the kitchen. We didn’t know how we were going to select the perfect sake. My head was starting to spin from all the choices we had.
Once we had a few minutes to steady ourselves, the game plan was that we would all select one sake each, and everyone would take a sip and pass the masu (square wooden box for drinking sake) to the next person. This way we would get a chance to taste a variety of sake. Naturally, we all had difficulty narrowing down our choices to just one selection. Karakuchi (辛口- dry tasting sake), Amakuchi (甘口- sweet tasting sake), sake from Niigata or sake from Hyogo. There were just too many options.
To ease some of the pressure, we then agreed to add two more selections to our group choices, which would make it a total of seven that we could taste. Most of our selections made ranged in price from $6 US to about $30 US per serving.
The first of the added selections was easy to fill. We used it select the most expensive sake that they offered. No one selected at first because it just under $50 US for one serving. We were all hesitant about spending money on something that we knew nothing about. Now that is was a group decision, it was much easier to order.
The second choice was difficult. Everyone had a different choice in mind and we couldn’t easily come to a decision. So, we did what any clueless visitor would do, we asked a local. We sheepishly asked for assistance from a young couple seated next to us. To ensure that we were getting the right advice, we asked if this was their first time at the izakaya. When they replied that they came at least once a month, we knew we were on the right path.
We then inquired if they normally drank sake, beer or wine, to which they replied they like sake best. Ok, that was good enough for us. Now the key question was asked, “What sake would you recommend as the best sake here?”
The young woman, quickly flipped open the menu a pointed to their selection. We all looked at each other, then looked back at her again to make sure that she understood our question. We were a bit hesitant to answer because the sake she had selected was only $3 US per serving. I was really hoping that they were not trying to dupe the naïve visitors into buying the worst sake there.
I asked, “Are you sure that’s the best one?”, and she confidently reassured me that was the best one by showing us her masu that was filled with that very sake.
Ok, then. Let’s go for it!
When the seven different sakes arrived at our table, we decided that we would wait until we all tried every sake before announcing our choices as the best sake of the evening. The sakes slowly made their rounds accompanied with some “ooohs” and “wows”, and a couple of “whoas”. After the cycle had been completed, it was time for the announcement of the best sake.
I’m sure that you can guess what the outcome was…That’s right, with four positive votes, the lowest priced sake that the young lady recommended to us was the undisputed sake champion of the night. A couple of the other sakes got three votes, but the local recommendation won.
I would like to be able to tell you the name of the sake, but memories of that evening are not so clear as after the izakaya, we headed to a nijikai (二次会- after party or second party) and that’s where the memories remain (or were erased, but at least I remembered the lesson learned).
When selecting a sake, remember that price does not always dictate the quality or enjoyment of the sake. And if your personal selection happens to be in the lower end of the price range, the better it is for you. Why pay more when you don’t have to?
Our misguided beliefs that higher priced sakes are always better got slammed to the mat by our experience in Kyoto. Personal preference should be your main focus in selecting a sake.
There is no shame in appreciating a good sake, regardless of the price.