Saturday, 20 February 2016

Nakata Scores a Hat-trick with “N” Sake

Producer: "N" Sake by Hidetoshi Nakata, Takagi Shuzo

Clad in a dark blue Tom Ford denim jacket with matching jeans, Hidetoshi Nakata cuts a precise figure as he enters the private room at French fine dining venue Les Amis to promote his latest venture. After achieving worldwide fame in the arenas of football and fashion, Nakata’s third big venture focuses on promoting something closer to home and heart – Japanese sake. After a pilgrimage through various Japanese prefectures that saw him visiting over 250 producers, Nakata discovered one that could help him realise his vision of producing a premium sake. The chosen brewery, Takagi Shuzo, has been making sake since 1685 and already produces the much sought-after Juyondai label, one of the few internationally recognised brands. “To me Takagi Shuzo was the best, because of the sake master’s knowledge,” said Nakata.

Nakata’s “N” Sake belongs to a little known subcategory of sake – that of vintage dated sake. While most sake is meant to be consumed quickly, Nakata claims that his sake, properly stored, will keep for up to five years. If this sounds similar to wine, it’s because Nakata started off as an oenophile. “I used to drink maybe 90% wine and 10% sake, but then I realised the similarity of sake and wine. Today there are so many Japanese restaurants all over the world, but the market for sake is still not there, because of a lack of information,” said Nakata. This year he releases the 2015 vintage, the third iteration of a project that started in 2013. Nakata, a certified Sake Sommelier, is deeply involved in the sake making process. In consultation with the master brewer he decides the polishing rate, type of yeast and varieties of rice used. “N” Sake is made using 100% locally farmed Yamadanishiki and Aiyama rice from the Hyogo prefecture. These are special breeds prized for their starchy cores and fruity flavours. After the rice has been fermented, the liquid sake is extracted by placing the mash in cloth bags and allowing the sake to drip out, a time consuming and expensive process but one that yields finer results.

An equal amount of attention has been paid to the packaging to make it stand out from the crowd. Crafted by Japanese design house Nendo, the stark simplicity of the matte black bottle evokes the cylindrical shape of a charcoal stick and comes with a slight groove to aid gripping. Practical and beautiful at the same time, the bottle is UV proof and designed to keep its contents cool for up to 6 hours. Nakata has exacting instructions for presenting “N” Sake – it should be decanted for 15 minutes, chilled to between 8 to 12 degrees Celsius and served in wine glasses to bring out the sake’s fullest intensity and range of flavours. To Nakata, the most important thing about the sake is its cut, or finish. “The finish is more important than the taste, and shows the technique of the master brewer. The sake should go down smoothly, like water.”

N Sake is positioned as an ultra-premium sake and only available outside of Japan. A mere 1000 bottles are made each year and sold to high-end restaurants around the world. In Singapore for example, you can find N Sake at Waku Ghin and the newly established La Terre wine bar, but such perfection comes at four digit prices. “The point is not to make a business but to create a market for other sake makers to come in,” explained Nakata.

With prescient timing, Nakata has tapped into a budding thirst for Japanese sake. In an article last August, The Straits Times reported that at least 18 sake bars and restaurants had opened in Singapore in 2015, a trend that shows no sign of abating. While sake consumption is falling in Japan, the rest of the world is discovering the different types of sake and coming up with creative food pairings. Nakata has made it a point to emphasise the versatility of sake by pairing "N" sake with French or Italian food instead of Japanese dishes. As a sommelier at the tasting quipped, "People who appreciate sake appreciate flavours."

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