It was a sunny afternoon in Osaka—perhaps the sunniest day of November—and I had decided to spend it drinking in a basement.
I found myself walking the streets of the city's Horie neighbourhood, iPhone in hand, looking for Shimada Shoten, a nondescript sake shop I had pinned onto Google Maps. I had dragged my boyfriend here after countless random Google searches and the desire to get a better understanding of sake's rise abroad and its waning popularity in Japan. And to get a decent mid-afternoon buzz.
In recent years, sake sales have been losing ground in Japan, with beer leading the market. The highball (whisky and soda), made popular in the 50s, is also experiencing a comeback with younger crowds looking to enjoy the taste of whisky without affecting the flavours of their meal. Both libations are now so coveted that they are easily available in vending machines across the country. In contrast, overseas sake exports have grown from $43 million in 2005 to $94 million in 2014, setting a record for the fifth consecutive year. The rice beverage's popularity might be shrinking on its home turf, but with the ongoing growth of international sommeliers specializing in the drink, it seems like it's never been trendier to drink sake in the West.
When the moving blue dot finally merged with the red pin on my phone, I looked up to spot the rather plain façade of Shimada Shoten. I wasn't met with a single drop of disappointment. This is exactly what I expected after hours stuck in an online vortex of blogs and TripAdvisor reviews. The Ali Baba's cave of sake was hidden in the basement; the outlet-style ground floor only served as a cover for its awesomeness.
I was afraid the staff would not understand my request to access the sake den—to this day I still only know two words of Japanese: "konichiwa" and "arigato," but I went ahead with English: "sake tasting." I was quickly led to a dark hole in the floor, down a creaking ladder, and into a cave-like basement that was divided into two rooms.
The stone walls of the first room were lined with sake bottles, French wines, and a large wooden table with four seats. A small concrete doorframe led to the second room where the magic happened. Two large round tables made from sake barrel bottoms took up most of the space in the room. The walls were packed with sake boxes, opened sake bottles, a selection of guinomi (traditional sake cups), and an extensive sake book collection. Our host, a quiet woman showed us to our seats before asking, "how many?" followed by, "dry or sweet?"
We sat down with four bottles and a wooden box full of sake cups. Following the conveyor-belt sushi restaurant model, the bill is calculated by adding up the number of cups you've used (every new sake you drink requires a new cup) at ¥200 a cup (roughly $2). They tend to pile up pretty quickly.
Our first round featured four different bottles of sake. The first three were fairly similar in style: floral and dry. The fourth sake (aged 20 years) made me feel special in the same way a sip of Puffeney wine makes a girl feel like she can take over the world. It hit my tongue in all the right spots. A few weeks later, I found a poetic Google translation of the sake's flavour profile that somehow perfectly mirrored my feelings towards it: "It is a taste that has settled down in the calm that only the moon engenders."
My reaction upon tasting this sake and subsequently refilling my glass epitomizes the shift that's taking place in sake sales in Japan and abroad. One glance at the statistics and it looks like the business of sake is going through a 40-years-in-the-making rough patch. Japan's national beverage has been declining since its peak in the 70s and the sales of sake now account for less than 7 percent of domestic alcohol sales.
However, my friends, not all sake is created equal.
Generally, there are six commonly accepted categories: Junmai, Honjozo, Junmai Ginjo, Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo, and Daiginjo. What primarily differentiates a lower grade from a premium-grade sake is the percentage that the rice has been milled and the percentage of grain remaining. The rice for a lower grade sake like Honjozo, for example, is milled 30 percent, with 70 percent of each grain remaining (this is the number that appears on the bottle), while the rice for a premium Daiginjo sake is milled at least 50 percent, with 50 percent of each grain remaining. This is a general indication of sake quality, even though a lot of other factors come into play such as rice, yeast, mould, water quality, and aging.
Premium grade sake sales have, in fact, been growing both home and abroad. Fine dining establishments such as Park 45 in London are now offering pricey sake flights, thanks to Vanessa Cinti, a wine and sake sommelier who is carving a stronger market for higher end sake in the West. The good thing is that this tendency not only could benefit the exportation of sake, but also help to improve its image at home. This leads to the gyaku yunyuu effect, or "reverse importation," when local consumers observe the popularity and excitement over an indigenous product, which then leads them to appreciate it even more than they did before.
After standing in the corner, staring at us in silence while we finished drinking, the woman left the room. Fumihiro Shimada, the owner's son, took her place. I asked Fumihiro about his favourite sake. "Bowmore!" Even after being raised by sake fanatics—his grandfather, who opened the store 60 years ago, visited hundreds of sake breweries in his life—our friend was now part of this new generation of people who favoured brown liquor.
Fumihiro headed for the fridge and pulled out three more bottles: a dry sake not unlike the ones we had tasted before, a sweet one whose Japanese name roughly translated to "sexy," and an aged sake blend from Kyoto. Assembled from seven, ten, and 15-year-old sakes without any added water in the brewing process, the third bottle was unlike any other I'd ever tasted. It was as if a sweet dessert wine, whisky, and sake had a lovechild. It had a whisky-brown caramel colour with a sweet floral nose characteristic that hit the tongue with a basket full of dried figs and toffee on the finish. The perfect way to end an afternoon of sake tasting.
Osaka is known in the Kansai part of Japan as the city of kuidaore or, "eat 'till you drop." By the time I crawled my way out of the hole in the floor, belly full of sake, tipsy and clinging on to the ladder, it dawned onto me that I'd have to tweak the nickname and baptize Osaka by the end of the night: "The city where you drink 'till you drop. "