A Happy New Year! This is the year of an ape or monkey in the Chinese zodiac. Everyone at an age of 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, 84 or 96 this year was born in this zodiac. Let’s celebrate this newly arrived year for the rejoicing monkeys with drinks of the Japanese origin together with anybody, age over 21.

Recent statistics of the alcohol beverage consumption in Japan shows: beer 65%, spirits-Shochu 10-11%, sake 5-6%, wine 3%, whiskey 1%, others 14-15%. Beer is the most favored alcohol beverage. Though, beer never existed there until 1868 except for sporadic gifts from the Dutch which was the only western trade partner for almost three hundred years from the late 15th century. Japan was an isolated, passive, authoritarian land where many things were managed by rules and traditions, including sake. Once an American, Admiral Perry, cracked the closed door, the country started participating actively in the capitalist economy by labor of ordinary citizens. Then beer got welcomed for quenching those thirsty from business activities with its effervescent, refreshing and low alcohol content nature. Since then sake has been losing the sole, national alcohol beverage status. Particularly the young and females distance themselves from it today because of sake’s tradition in drinking as well as blunt taste. Alas to say, sake has slipped down to less than 10% of the whole alcohol beverage consumption, unlikely to be worth being called as the national drink anymore. Spirits-Shochu 25-35% alcohol has also chewed up the sake share due to lower prices and its versatile nature of mixing with fruit juices, herbs, teas and many things, which lures the tastes of the younger generation. Shochu is prized by raw materials sweet potato, barley, buckwheat and locations many in Kyushu, Okinawa islands, with specific aroma notes in the first sips. Wine is still in a cradle and may take 10-20 years to grow to a toddler stage despite of a good number of sommeliers, because of the high cost of tax as well as many hands-expenses in trade, and little promotion in the traditional food culture. Many of the Japanese domestic wines are fermented with grape juice concentrates that are imported. Ordinary consumers are hesitant to pay $30 a bottle for a Chianti, which may cost around $5-10 at our discount liquor store here in the US. Others 14-15% are in my curiosity, probably unknown or unanswered or undecided or something else.

Japanese beers are Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi, Suntory and Orion from Okinawa along with some craft beers. Kirin used to be the number one but Asahi has taken over. Almost all belong to a type of Pilsner, light, not very hoppy, and easy swallowing. Asahi and Sapporo bottled products are brewed by contract breweries in Canada or the US and Kirin by Budweiser in CA, while canned or premium ones are imported directly from Japan. At Japanese grocery supermarkets you see mostly the canned, while the bottled are at Japanese restaurants. That is all right as far as their taste is Japanese with its own recipes, I guess. Look at labels for the country of production. At some places, you may find premium, bottled beer by Suntory or Sapporo, imported. These beers are excellent partners with spicy sushi, teriyaki and tempura. If getting serious with pairing with sushi, move to sake, I recommend.

Sake, as seen in my series of “Ask Doctor Sake” from June 2012 to February 2015 of this Las Vegas version publication, is an alcohol beverage from rice, brewed in the traditional process. Sake is divided into elaborated classes by the Japanese regulation for its tax purposes, which may have caused some myth and confusion. Junmai is sake naturally brewed, while Honjozo or Daiginjo, in the absence of the Junmai term, is the one alcohol added. An unfiltered, often described as Nigori, cannot be officially called sake in Japan. They are in their jurisdiction, which is not applicable here. Our sake is sake by our regulation and our trade practice. Anyway, sake spreads as Japanese food or sushi does here. Three bands, Gekkeikan, Shochikubai, and Ozeki, all brewed in California, dominate our market, while the imported competes in a specialty, premium segment. All sake are not born equal. Though, the difference in aroma, flavor and taste lies within a narrower range than wine. For food pairing, sushi may go well with cold dry sake, while teriyaki or tempura with hot, heavy bodied sake. The imported, probably 99% of them, carries the original packages and labels in Japanese which are hard to be distinguished by appearance. According to my sake business experience, sake might be better sold as exotic for the time being, though it might limit sake within a foreign origin, ethnic market. Going beyond the current, enclosed market might be possible with market-friendly appearance and taste into a dry white wine territory particularly for pairing with seafood, though it would take time. Sake needs education, education and education more for business and pleasure.

Kanpai or cheers with J-beer or sake for health and prosperity in this happy new year!