Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sake in a can

Japan is the world capital of bizarre beverages. I had a great one this week before even arriving: sake in a can.

Made for ANA by the Niigata producer Shirataki, Sora no Jozen Mizunogotoshi is a junmai version of one of my favorite export sakes. It's everything you'd want from a can of sake on an airplane: clean, refreshing and fairly dry, more so than the junmai ginjo version in bottles. There's some fresh lime and honeydew fruit with notes of rice cracker, coconut and light cream. The little cracker-and-nut snacks they hand out bring out more fruit, but with the less-salty main course, I get back to clean and refreshing: this is a food-friendly sake that's perfect for its purpose.

What made me sad is that I was the only person I saw drinking it, though it was by far the best drink available in economy class. The beers were typical Japanese major brand lagers, nothing wrong with that but they're available in vending machines all over the country. Where the sake completely kicked ass was over the wine selection: private label Vin de Pays Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from Languedoc. Cheap, unimaginative and not very food-friendly. ANA also has a private label Charmat-method sparkling wine that's too sweet and simple for my taste. You can get Chivas Regal but no single malts, and there's basic gin and vodka but no cocktails.

Of people having a drink with their meal, I'd say more than half in my area had one of the wines. I even saw one guy sticking an unopened 187 ml bottle of Languedoc Chardonnay into his knapsack. Dude, that's like stuffing your pockets with the rice crackers! OK, I've done that, and so did Joe DiMaggio, so I shouldn't judge.

But here we had a junmai sake from Niigata -- a premium sake made only with rice, water and koji mold from one of the best regions in the country -- up against an industrially farmed international grape varietal fermented in skyscraping tanks and pawned off on a foreign airline looking to pay the lowest possible price. And we had a crowd of mostly Japanese people along with Americans who know enough about Japan to fly there. And nobody, but nobody, other than me preferred the sake.

This made me sad. But it's not surprising. Sake makes up only 8 percent of liquor sales in Japan, compared to 67 percent for beer. Wine is at just 4 percent but rising, and I can't complain about that since I am peddling a book on wine, not sake, to Japanese. The sad thing is, if I did write a book on sake, young Japanese just wouldn't care. They're uninterested in what they see as their grandparents' drink, even though the quality of sake has never been higher. No wonder top producers are so interested in the burgeoning US market.

Anyway, back to sake in a can: I'm surprised this isn't more popular, since the format has an obvious advantage for vending machines, which are still dominated by One Cup brand sake in a small 180 ml glass. (When I first moved to Japan as an itinerant traveler, I bought some One Cups and used them as glassware, after emptying them, much as US college freshmen sometimes drink from used jelly jars.)

The question of how long it would take before sake absorbs some nasty metallic taste should be moot, because the more older sake I drink, the more completely convinced I am that sake needs to be as fresh as possible, preferably drunk within 6 months of release date. For ANA this is not a problem as the airline can probably order canning in alignment with its needs.

I've had wine in a can (sparkling wine from Coppola), and while it's fun to bring to the movies, it just didn't work for me taste-wise. But sake is a brewed product more akin to beer than wine, and not even a complete beer purist would refuse to drink beer from a can, especially on an airplane. Maybe glass is better, but a can is good enough for this purpose. If it were available outside of ANA, I'd take it to picnics, ballgames, and anywhere else people bring cans of beer. Take a note, Shirataki.

This was only the second-most unusual beverage I had yesterday, but the winner -- a drink so weird I just had to try it -- richly deserves its own post tomorrow. Set your imagination free on the strangest combination of soft-drink tastes; I'll bet this one tops it.

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