Sake Takes on the World

François Chartier takes a molecular approach to blending sake.

Japan’s famous rice-based beverage is finding increasing popularity beyond its traditional borders.

© Tanaka x Chartier
| François Chartier takes a molecular approach to blending sake.

A lot has changed since traditional Japanese sake started drinking hundreds of years ago. In fact, most sake drinkers today are not even from Japan and this new international audience has opened the door to a more competitive and innovative industry.

The increasing demand for the fermented rice beverage beyond its place of origin has mostly been attributed to the popularization of Japanese gastronomy and its culture around the world, especially in the US and China. This, combined with a steady decline of domestic consumption in the last decades, has led Sake brewers to adapt and innovate to cater for an international audience interested in provenance and quality.

In the search for innovation there are brands such as Tanaka 1789 x Chartier series by François Chartier, and Iwa 5 by former Dom Pérignon cellarmaster Richard Geoffroy, both trying to go beyond what is strictly traditional by blending sake and claiming it as a new approach. to the fermented rice beverage.

However, sake blending has existed since the Edo Period, when sellers would blend all the sake sent to the capital to satisfy customers’ particular tastes and, in some cases, it would be blended by brewers even before leaving for the capital.

In the modern era sake blending its actually very common. Chogo is the mixing of seishu (clear sake) after it has undergone kentei (official registration) and is used to adjust strengths and give consistency. Even if it comes from the same brewing recipe, there are small variations and blending is used to meet production standards, but it is not a step that gets much attention. While it is a widespread practice, it is not promoted in the same way as blending in the wine industry.

On the more uncommon side, there are some brewers blending different levels of maturity, changing the ratio of the blend as older brews age to add complexity to the final product. Some others blend in order to give it a particular style, not only for the pursuit of overall quality but to give their final blend a signature taste and aroma the house might be known for.

Here is where the opportunity to innovate lies in the traditional world of Japanese sake brewing, and it was seized by wine industry professionals who have made their way into the realm of Nihon-shu.

Tanaka 1789 x Chartier

François Chartier is the master blender at one of Japan’s oldest sake breweries, Tanaka Shuzo, located in Miyagi, Japan. He was hired as Tanaka’s new master blender to work alongside the toji or master brewer. With an extensive background on wine and gastronomy, including writing the book Tastebuds and Molecules, Chartier brings a new approach to the production of sake, where the focus is on blending different styles of production – such as kimoto and Yamahai (slightly different ancestral methods with more complex flavors) – to enhance the quality of each style by harmonizing their aroma compounds, inspired by Chartier’s aromatic synergy theory.

The Tanaka 1789 x Chartier line-up also includes different types of yeast, as well as combining rice that has been polished at different ratios (unlike the traditional practice of a single-polish ratio for the beverage designated by the quality standard such as Ginjo or Daiginjo). Their goal is to tailor the elaboration process to each blend while retaining the tradition that makes sake a part of Japan.

Iwa 5

After leaving Dom Pérignon in June 2019, Richard Geoffroy has been busy. He joined Francesca Moretti in Franciacorta earlier this year, but also turned his attention to sake, where he has been working on Iwa since November 2019 with Ryuichiro Masuda of sake brewery Masuda Shuzou and architect Kengo Kuma responsible for the new brewery Tateyama in the Toyama Prefecture .

Blending seems to be Geoffroy’s obsession “I’m pretty sure that I’d start blending water; it’s a compulsive thing.” Assemblage is the word used to design this blended sake using different types of rice, yeast and moto, which is meant to be an experimental process extracting all his experience blending wines in Champagne, but reconsidering the recipe every year.

Heavensake

Another big name jumping from Champagne retirement to blending sakes is the former chef de cave of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, Régis Camus.

Camus a highly awarded winemaker named the Sparkling Winemaker of the Year by the International Wine Challenge eight times, and who spent 26 years in the service of Piper-Heidsieck, Charles Heidsieck and Rare Champagne until leaving the house on early April this year.

“I now pass on the keys to the future and the life of Rare Champagne to Maud. And I pass the longevity of know-how and the signature of Rare Champagne Wine to Emilien Boutillat,” Camus said upon leaving. But retirement doesn’t last long when the itch to craft beverages is still there.

A partnership between French entrepreneur Carl Hirschmann, fashion show producer Etienne Russo and publisher Benjamin Eymere. Heavensake seeks to enter as a luxury product using Régis Camus blending expertise with not one but three different sake breweries: Dassai in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, Urakasumi in the Miyagi Prefecture and Konishi in the Hyogo Prefecture.

While not entirely new the blending between the wine and sake world brings a new fresh and exciting chapter to an industry that is reviving and growing as a gastronomic cultural exchange.

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