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Recommended Reading: How to Choose a Bottle of Wine, by Natasha Hughes

I recently came across this article on Psyche titled “How to choose a bottle of wine” written by Master of Wine Natasha Hughes.

Although about wine, many of the topics Hughes brings up could easily be transferred to the world of sake. Indeed, her remarks on wine find parallel in some of the presentations delivered at the  1st International Workshop on the Philosophy of Sake held in Akita City, Akita back in February (2020).

For starters, she writes:

“You’d think that the wine bottle labels might make your decision easier, but it sometimes feels as if you need a degree in decoding them.”

This was the precise topic of Uku Tooming‘s (Hiroshima University) presentation titled “What is in a Drink Title?” His research is based on a discourse analysis of sake labels, so he literally is “decoding” the labels and examining what effects their messages and images have on the sake-enjoying experience.

After addressing what’s on wine labels, Hughes progresses logically to addressing what’s in the bottle and how people will (quite possibly) experience the same exact wine in vastly different ways.  She writes,

“It’s well-known, for instance, that only some of us can smell asparagus in our urine—what’s less well-known is that differences of sensitivity apply to a whole range of aromas and flavours.  For instance, a key component of cool-climate Syrah is a chemical called rotundone, which gives the wines their characteristic aromas of cracked black pepper. But what if you’re one of the 20 per cent of the population who can’t detect rotundone?”

Our keynote speaker Cain Todd (University of Lancaster) addressed these same issues in his talk “Value of Sake.” Unlike sake, wines are known to fetch thousands of dollars, but if the imbibing experience is so diverse, how can a price truly reflect what’s in the bottle? Of course sake also has a wide variety of flavor profiles, and since much of how sake is enjoyed is unique to the individual, questions regarding commercial price and ranking different sake according to taste are somewhat futile.

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This is a bottle of natsu sake (literally, “summer sake”) sold ONLY during the summer and meant to be enjoyed right away. This particular sake is brewed by Dewatsuru up in the mountainous area of Daisen City, Akita.

One thing that Hughes does not address is wine’s aftertaste (or perhaps I’ve missed it?). Wine connoisseurs do not just make the job from the label to tasting, then stop—the aftertaste of wine is just as important to the wine experience as the initial tasting.  With sake, too, the aftertaste (ato-aji 後味) is an important part of the sensory and physical experience of enjoying sake, as Akikio Frischhult (Akita International University) and Giulianno Torrengo (University of Milan and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) discussed in their presentation, “Ato-aji: the Nature of Aftertaste.”

Creating a field of sake studies seems daunting, but their is already a wine-studies framework that has existed for decades (if not centuries). Borrowing the wine studies framework and applying it to the study of sake (when appropriate) is a good place to start on our quest for understanding what a “philosophy of sake” is, and to understanding the social and cultural environment from which it came.

We look forward to hosting the 2nd International Workshop on the Philosophy of Sake as soon as possible and hope you will join us!

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The Poetry of Sake

I recently read a book (monograph?) titled Akita Sake Breweries and Their Stories. The book provides a brief description of how sake is brewed, introduces Akita’s sake history, then provides short histories of 35 of Akita’s sake breweries.

Pouring sake at Akita’s Ama no To (Heaven’s Gate) saké brewery.

While I was familiar with many of the breweries and their labels (i.e., product lines) I did not know too much about their histories, some of which were quite fascinating.

The book was published by the same center that helped fund our Philosophy of Sake workshop in February, the Institute for Asian Studies and Regional Collaboration at Akita International University. In his postscript, the editor Yutaka Takemura says,

“If wine is a bottled poem, then sake is a bottled haiku.”

What a wonderful quote!

The idea for the Philosophy of Sake workshop was born from the popular research grounded in the Philosophy of Wine. Indeed many of our presenters had their foundations in the Philosophy of Wine. In preparing my own paper, I first read a number of papers on the Philosophy of Wine, and then applied what I learned to understanding what a Philosophy of Sake might be.

We hope to organize the 2nd International Workshop on the Philosophy of Sake in late 2020. If so, I will continue my investigation into sake as it appears in premodern Japanese literature and will be sure to work this quote into my paper!