I was talking on the phone a few weeks ago with Beau Timken, proprietor of True Sake in San Francisco. If you don’t know True Sake, you should—when it opened in 2003, it was the first store outside of Japan devoted entirely to sake, and it continues to be America’s premier sake retailer, with a selection of over 200 brews. At the moment they ship only within California, but Timken tells me that in the first quarter of 2009 they will unveil their new online shop, which will have the largest online sake selection outside of Japan, and shipping will be possible to other states whose laws still allow their citizens such freedoms and pleasures.
One of the things that Timken mentioned in the course of our conversation was that sake, like wine, tastes different when it’s been transported to different parts of the world. This is not necessarily a sign of abuse or mistreatment, but simply a function of transport—if you put a living, complex entity such as wine or sake (or a person, for that matter) on a boat for a month, it’s not going to be entirely the same as it was if it stayed at home. I often see this in younger champagnes when I taste the same cuvées (and often the same disgorgements) in both France and in the United States. The wines generally taste much more youthful in France, while in the States they feel slightly rounder and less aggressive. This isn’t always a bad thing, especially in the case of young champagne.
Timken describes a similar difference in sake, where a given sake will often taste crisper and edgier in Japan, while after being rocked on a boat during the 30-day journey to California, it seems to become slightly rounder and mellower, smoothing it out. He told me that he’s done experiments at home of gently shaking bottles for 30 consecutive days and comparing them with the same sakes left undisturbed, and has also found notable differences. Timken says that he even knows an owner of a prominent sake brewery in Japan who secretly prefers the mellowed taste of his sakes after they’ve been shipped to the United States, although of course if he made this known in Japan, it would likely cause an uproar.
Ultimately, none of it really matters for most of us, practically speaking, as we usually haven’t got a choice—most of our drinking experiences take place in the regions where we live, and any effects of transport automatically become part of the overall experience, for better or for worse. It’s useless to get hung up about it. But it’s curious to think about nevertheless.