Today’s sake is a rarity: Koshu, aka Aged Sake!
I picked this bottle up at tiny Ikedaya Liquor shop in Hofu, Yamaguchi, the only place you can get Takeuchi sake these days. It was just hanging out in their cooler, and it stood out because I’ve seen a lot of Wakamusume sake before, but never this particular label.
And with good reason, because this sake has been in that fridge for 8 years!
Now, here’s the thing. Sake is not wine. It is not known for being an aged drink: most sakes are recommended to be drunk within 6 months of bottling.
However, in recent years, the idea of aged sake as a thing to try is gaining traction. There are people targeting it as a new luxury market, on par with vintage French wines, and of course that means it’s getting expensive and “trendy.”
The problem is, of course, that being the kind of drink it is, no one knows exactly how sake ages. Sometimes that $200 bottle of koshu will be utterly undrinkable. Other times it will be a rich, flavorful party.
So imagine my thrill when the shop owner told me this particular bottle would be regular price: 458 yen, or about $4.
A chance to gamble on something special for less than $5? How could I say no?
Now, here are the basics about koshu. As sake ages, the enzymes in the bottle continue to work on the drink. It doesn’t continue to ferment, and it usually doesn’t spoil if it’s stored right. But it changes. The color deepens, and the flavors shift. It can become rich and honeylike, or dark and soy-sauce-y. Or, it can turn into a yogurt flavored mess.
This one was not so extreme. It had deepened slightly in color from the light straw of most junmai to a light amber color.
The aroma on opening was very slightly cheesy, but soon evaporated to…nothing much.
The first sip I took, my heart pounding, was rich. Again there was a note of cheesiness, with a mild honey-like sweetness that gave way to a very mellow umami. The liquid itself was thick and syrupy, coating the mouth and lingering long after I’d swallowed.
After I finished the drink, I was left with an impression of heavy, rich sake that was certainly drinkable, but not in quantity. And, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t for me.
It was too much. Too much flavor, too much lingering aftertaste, too heavy a feeling in the mouth and the stomach. Now, this is much better than my previous experience with Koshu, a 20-year aged, dark brown cup of gorgonzola-smelling blech, but still not what I drink sake for. I can see this being a post dinner digestif, but not a nice refreshing cup to end a busy day with.
So. Was it worth it? Sure. It was an experience. But I’m still not convinced koshu will ever be more than a curiosity, a way for bored drinkers to try a little gambling with mouths.