Wednesday, November 18, 2015

3 bad translations that lead sommeliers and drinkers to the wrong sakes

Yes, I'm drinking sake in a yukata with Suehiro president Inokichi Shinjo
Sake appreciation is held back in the U.S. by a number of factors, not least of which is difficult language. This is partly why inferior U.S. sakes have so much of our market; they're not just cheaper, they're also easier to understand.

Translation is not a problem for European wines because English and other European languages are related. French used to say "terroir" doesn't translate well, but there are reams of English written about "terroir," and most of us get it.

But Japanese doesn't share any European roots and is prone to terrible and sometimes funny translations, as anyone who has ever rented a car or used a public toilet in Japan knows. I have a sweatshirt that reads "Relax body We are all prostitutes," and even though I speak Japanese I'm not sure what the original sentiment was there.

And sake is not wine. We want to compare it to wine because that's how we use it, but in production it's closer to beer, which is brewed. In fact its multistage brewing process is so complicated that it's really not at all like any other alcoholic beverage.

However, our desire to explain sake with wine terms has led to picking some wrong winners from the sake world -- and shunning some good sakes. Here are three examples.

1. "Nigori" does not mean "unfiltered"

This is the most egregious translation convincing people that a product is something it's not. "Nigori" means cloudy; it's sake that, in rare artisanal cases, might be coarsely filtered to leave in some rice fragments. But in most cases it's just cheaper, sweeter sake that has some rice blended back in. Whichever is the case, "nigori" is filtered. Being called "unfiltered" on American menus has given it a natural cachet that it doesn't deserve. "Nigori" is not virtuous. If you want to drink milkshake-like sake with your raw fish, that's your prerogative, but there's a reason it's a minor style in Japan and hugely popular in the U.S.

2. "Honjozo" does not mean "fortified"

In the 1990s honjozo sakes were the choice of many Japanese connoisseurs. This did not include me, because like almost all Americans once I learned "honjozo" sakes have alcohol added during the brewing process, and thus are not "junmai" ("pure rice," a good translation) I wasn't interested. Only after a long time drinking and talking about sake have I come around to enjoying honjozos, and now I often order them in Tokyo. Alcohol is added to cheap sake to save time or money, but honjozo is a premium classification and in this case it's done to create a very dry, clean, food-friendly style. Aficionados often prefer honjozo with sushi because it doesn't compete with the fish; it's like drinking a crisp Pinot Blanc instead of the flowery Gewurztraminers that daiginjos resemble. And here's why the word "fortified" is inaccurate: alcohol is added, but not, as in Port, to stop fermentation to create a sweeter, high-alcohol sake. In fact, water is added back to deliver an alcohol level usually slightly lower than most junmais, and honjozos are dry. "Honjozos" are not sweet, alcoholic or cynically manipulated. Yet I have heard even Master Sommeliers make this mistake and it's really hard to disabuse them of it. Honjozos never caught on in the U.S. and are going through a precipitous drop in sales in Japan, as the old goal of food-friendliness disappears before a more modern, and I daresay American-influenced, idea of awesome flavorfulness. I'm not going to affect honjozos' historic decline with this post, but at least I can set the record straight.

3. "Genshu" does not mean "cask strength"

This is the closest translation to being accurate. Most sakes reach a natural alcohol level of near 20% and water is added to make them more palatable. "Genshu" sakes do not have water added, so the whisky analogy seems good, but it's not. Whisky distillers don't usually put pure undiluted spirits in a cask to age; they add water before putting the whisky to bed for several years (the amount of water is a whole area for whisky geeks to explore.) The point is that a "cask strength" whisky has almost always had water added -- just not before bottling -- but "genshu" sake never has. It is fair to call "genshu" undiluted but that is not a plus for drinkability. Here's where you should think about "fortified" wines, even though no alcohol is added. Most sakes have water added to bring them to the alcohol-level range of Napa Cabernet. It's ironic that many of the same somms who bitch about high-alcohol wines feature genshu sakes on their list. Would you drink 20% alcohol Port with dinner?

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1 comment:

Elizabeth Clark said...

Thank you for sharing, this was very interesting. I don't have much opportunity to buy sake, but a little more knowledge is always appreciated. Cheers!