Why go to a nihonshu bar?
Once you start to know more about Japanese sake or “nihonshu” it gets more difficult to find a place where you can enjoy great sake outside your home. Chain izakayas usually offer mass-produced sake by big breweries that tend to lack the refined taste of the smaller more traditional breweries. These smaller breweries simply don’t have the resources to supply large cities such as Tokyo. The nihonshu or sake bar is a good solution to this problem. The bartender or “master”, as they are often called in Japan, will travel around the country searching for good sake for their bar. In case there is a prior relationship, the brewery might even send bottles of their latest products to the master’s bar directly.
One of the main benefits of going to a sake bar is that the sake will be stored in a cooler at the right temperature. The best temperature for sake is usually between that for beer and wine. Fridge temperature is a little too cold and could mask some of its subtle nuances. At Talkin” Loud, some of the bottles are also kept inside plastic bags. I had never seen this before, so I asked the master about this. He explained that the bags were supplied by the brewery and their purpose was to protect the sake from infrared rays, since they could alter the taste.
Another benefit is having the right glass. Ideally, the glass should be relatively small, and with a wide opening so that you can smell the sake before drinking. Food pairing is also important. What you eat can enhance the taste of sake, but also suppress it. The master at a nihonshu bar can prepare small dishes that pair well with the sake served. Finally, if you really don’t know what to drink, the master can ask you questions about your tastes and help you select a sake you may like among the two dozen bottles kept in the cooler.
Inside Talkin’ Loud
Talkin’ Loud is one such sake bar, on a backstreet of Arakicho in the heart of Yotsuya. I was told that many stray cats roam that particular street. In fact, the brightly lit and easy to spot shop sign shows a cat wearing glasses and balancing a small ceramic sake serving bottle or “tokkuri” on its head. Located on the ground floor, the storefront consists of a wide window allowing those on the outside to gaze into its cosy interior. It looked tantalizingly inviting on the rainy night we chose to visit.
After stepping inside, I took a few seconds to take in the interior. It was decorated with several framed pictures of sophisticated-looking cats, like the one featured on the outside sign, enjoying sake. I was told they were drawn by the master’s sister-in-law. She also designed the logo on Talkin’ Loud´s own sake cups. With half a dozen counter seats and the same number of table seats, there was in total enough space for a dozen sake enthusiasts. Acid jazz was playing in the background, true to the name of the place since it was named after the British Acid Jazz record label founded by Gilles Peterson in 1990. Looking up, I spotted a Talkin’ Loud record on one of the shelves behind the counter. And despite the name, it is a low-key quiet place where neither the background music nor the discussions of other patrons are too loud and it is never necessary to actually talk loud.
The master and bar owner is Taro Ishida. He is a youngish man who was born and raised nearby Arakicho. At the start of our conversation, I showed him a book on Japanese sake by Haruo Matsuzaki that I had brought along. He said he was familiar with Mr Matsuzaki who was a customer at a shop he used to work in before starting his own bar. He recommended I check out another book by Hiroshi Uehara, if my Japanese reading skills were up for it. He said that a character based on Mr Uehara also appears in the manga by Akira Oze “Natsuko no sake” or “Natsuko’s Sake”. “That manga is the reason I got interested in sake in the first place” I exclaimed. We continued talking about the manga for a while with him explaining what real-world rice and sake the fictional ones in the manga were based on.
At one point in the conversation, I asked Ishida san what his favourite sake was. He answered, not surprisingly, that it was difficult to choose one. However he did share which one inspired him to start working in this business. It was a sake from the Kiso valley in Nagano prefecture called “Jurokudai Kuroemon” 十六代九郎右衛門. It’s pretty hard to find in Tokyo but he was lucky to be able to taste it at a bar in the Otsuka area of Tokyo. He said he was struck by how such a fruity tasting drink could be made from only rice and water.
A sake tasting treat
One reason I started reading up on sake is that my partner doesn’t drink much sake, so whenever I buy a sake bottle, I usually need to drink most of it myself. So it goes without saying that I need to make sure I buy something that is good. Since I like to make practical use of this knowledge whenever possible, I also take the same approach when choosing a glass at a restaurant, much to the detriment to my dining companions. However, at Talkin’ Loud, I soon realised that such an abundance of caution was unnecessary. Any sake that I tried was fantastic, even ones I thought I wouldn’t like. It’s similar to having sushi at a high-end restaurant – every piece you eat will be delicious, even the ones you had previously disliked, simply because everything is so fresh and carefully prepared.
At one point Mr Ishida brought out a bottle labeled “Echoes” made in Toyama, and told me “I’d like you try this one, my treat”. The taste was unlike sake, but very familiar. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. “It tastes like white wine, right?”, he finally said. And he was right. It was remarkable to drink an alcohol made from rice but which tasted like something made from grapes. He explained that this unique taste came from the fact that the sake meter value was -50. I gasped since I had never encountered, let alone heard, of any value below -12, which indicates a very sweet sake. He went on to explain that the reason it didn’t taste overwhelmingly sweet was because the acidity value was quite high, about 10 (this number is typically between -2 and +2). A high acidity value can counterbalance a low sake meter value. to I asked him where I could buy a bottle for myself in Tokyo but was told that you couldn’t buy it in the capital.
At the end of the evening, I threw caution to the wind and simply said to Mr Ishida “You choose something, surprise me”. And he did exactly that. He dug around in the cooler for a while and took out a bottle from an Ishikawa brewery with a hand-drawn label representing a woman’s face. It looked very amateurish, perhaps something someone had brewed in their basement. The taste, on the other hand, was fantastic, hands down the best sake I had tasted that evening. “It’s a limited edition”, he” explained, “and can’t be bought in Tokyo”, thus preempting my next question. He then showed me a similar unopened bottle but from the previous year. “I’m saving this one for later”, he explained. Most sake taste better when consumed soon after shipping. This one, however, gets better with age. I just hope I can be sitting at the Talkin’ Loud counter when he decides to opens this bottle!
For smartphone users, please click the link below to go to the Tadaima Japan website that includes the place information:
Please click here for another article on this place from the perspective of a Japanese person (written in Japanese):