Japan from the inside out

Pass that bottle to me

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 28, 2010

IT’S ONLY the first bottle that’s expensive, goes a French aphorism about wine, and that’s one universal insight we can all drink to. The Japanese have a saying of their own: Sake ga sake o nomu, or the liquor drinks the liquor. In other words, once you work up a head of steam, it’s time to clear the tracks.

Bacchanalians in both American and Europe have taken a shine to the traditional Japanese beverages of sake and shochu in recent years, as these statistics show. Now they’re also beginning to get hip to the fact that the Japanese can mash it up with Western grog as well.

For proof, Minoh Beer Imperial Stout, made by the A.J.I. Beer microbrewery of Minoh, Osaka, was named the World’s Best Stout earlier this month. In a British beer contest. For the second straight year.

The organizers of the World Beer Awards said the stout is “silky textured with a sweet rounded malt opening”, and perhaps that’s better understood after you’ve got one or two Minohs under your belt. Here’s a quick look at Minoh and some other winners at the World Beer Award 2010 website. The page also features the best brews by region, and Japan is well represented here too, with awards for different beer varieties in the Asia division.

That’s not even the best part of the story. The World’s Best Stout is brewed by the Oshima sisters—Mayuko and Kaori—whose father was a liquor store owner and got them started in the business. Who could ask for better in-laws than that? Here’s a detailed report in English by a beer-loving gent who visited the brewery in person and took plenty of photos. (The dude really likes production equipment.) There’s also a cutout of a newspaper photo that shows a third sister, Nozomi.

This site has a nice English-language interview with Kaori, who is identified as the brewmistress. It also has a photo of the world’s best stout poured out in a glass, and yes, it does look tasty, doesn’t it? Finally, the Minoh beer website has plenty of information about all the beer they make and where to buy it, but only in Japanese.

If there’s anything better than a pleasant surprise, it’s two pleasant surprises, and here’s the second. Japanese vintners, aided by Ernest Singer, have begun attracting attention among overseas oenophiles by turning koshu—the local version of Sneakin’ Pete—into an upmarket white wine that the New York Times says “could become the first Asian wine to draw international recognition”.

In yet a third surprise, it turns out that the New York Times is also capable of excellent journalism, albeit in the Dining and Wine section. Their article on the development of koshu wine is very readable; it’s rich, full-bodied, and smooth on the palate, with only subtle hints of snoot and condescension.

Mr. Singer was a Tokyo-based wine importer who became intrigued with the potential of koshu when he drank an experimental batch of dry white wine made using koshu grapes, which are grown mostly in Yamanashi. The article describes how he leased some land and came up with the concepts for using the grape to make some top drawer tipple. (The heavy rains of summer and fall mean that Japan is not the ideal place to grow grapes for wine, though the grapes grown for eating are quite good.)

A group of Japanese koshu producers and Mr. Singer have formed Koshu of Japan to promote the beverage overseas. Here’s their English-language website, and here’s a page that provides some information on the history of the koshu grape in Japan. (It’s been around since the 8th century.) Finally, here’s the Japanese-language website of one of the leading Japanese producers. They go by the name of Grace Wine in English, but Chuo Budoshu (Central Wine) in Japanese.

They make more than koshu in Yamanashi, by the way. The Sadoya Winery in Kofu is holding a special sale of 100 bottles of 50-year-old wine, one red, one white, made with European grapes from their own vineyard. The crop was particularly good that year, as the vines were recovering from a typhoon the year before and rainfall was light. If you’re in Japan you can stock your wine cellar by calling the winery direct at (055) 251-3671, but be prepared to pay JPY 15,000 a bottle.

Grape stompin' in Hiroshima

Nothing goes better with wine than women and song, so it’s about high time we got to that part. Not long ago the Miyoshi Winery of Miyoshi, Hiroshima, held their annual fall wine festival. One of the attractions was a wine-pressing dance performed by 10 ladies from a local ballet class stomping on 200 kilograms of merlot grapes in a four-meter-diamter tub, though in the photo it looks more like a plastic wading pool for adults. They created the dance themselves based on their observation of traditional European wine-stomping methods.

Of course they’re barefoot! (And keep your foot fetish fantasies to yourself.)

It was so much fun, the reports say, that some kids jumped in spontaneously and began dancing on their own. One second-grade girl interviewed admitted it was a little painful at first, but after a while she started to enjoy the lumpy feeling on her feet.

What the heck—a little toe jam probably enhances the bouquet.

Now Japan has the world’s top whiskey as well:

Suntory Liquors Ltd.’s Suntory Single Malt Whiskey Yamazaki 1984 has been awarded the top prize among some 1,000 entries in an international liquor competition held in London…

Not only was it the best among 300 whiskies, it was also named the Supreme Champion Spirit among all the prize winners in every category.


And now for the song! If you’re a beer hound, you’d better drink it while you can, because there isn’t any in heaven, assuming you’re sober enough to head in that direction. In Heaven There Is No Beer is originally a German tune that’s often performed as a polka, but if the three Oshita sisters of Osaka can make the world’s best stout, then surely Flaco Jimenez can perform the song Norteño style, singing both in English and Spanish. The embed code isn’t coming up for some reason, so here’s the straight YouTube link. Don’t let that stop you from clicking.

For those who prefer the grape to the hops, Sticks McGhee proves that no one outfunks wine drinkers by performing Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee. It isn’t the most exciting video around, but that’s by far the best version of one hot song that put Atlantic Records on the map. Hoy hoy!

And what better sums up the spirit of today’s post than this traditional Chinese song whose title translates to Liquor Crazy. Despite the name, it’s rather elegantly performed on the ruan, or four-stringed moon lute. It sounds like the sort of tune the late John Fahey would have liked, but then he was liquor crazy too—particularly about bourbon.


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3 Responses to “Pass that bottle to me”

  1. Roual Deetlefs said

    Salut !!!

  2. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Good one! I looked for a good Japanese drinking song, but only could find enka tunes. That’s OK, but I wanted something livelier.

    – A.

  3. Roual Deetlefs said

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