28 February 2020
28 February 2020
In the back streets of Kyoto, Japan, is a small nine-seat sake bar. This is nothing unusual – the country is full of small bars, many of which serve sake in some capacity. What marks Yoramu’s bar as special is the proprietor’s unique, single-minded approach.
Yoram Ofer didn’t know anything about sake when he moved to Japan from his native Israel in 1986, but the more he drank of it, the more he noticed that what was served in bars and restaurants tended to be chosen for its neutrality and was often “bland” and “lacking in character”. Despite Japan’s developed drinking culture, there were also no dedicated sake bars. Sake Bar Yoramu, which Ofer opened in late 2000, was the first of its kind.
Not long after the bar opened, Ofer began experimenting with aging sake – another first. Unlike wine, which needs to be aged in a controlled atmosphere to prevent spoilage, sake can be aged in temperatures that move from as low as three degrees to as high as 33. It also has several peaks, “which are actually reincarnations,” Ofer says, “meaning that the drink will change entirely and be unrecognisable from its earlier stage.” Like wine, not all sake will benefit from aging. But those that do will show many different faces throughout the process – faces that can rebound from good to bad and back again.
If you are lucky enough to get a seat at Yoram’s bar, the first question he will ask you will be about your tastes. The next will be how much time you have. Based on your answers, Yoram will start to pull bottles of sake from behind the bar and in the fridges. After explaining how to taste properly, he’ll guide you through his enormous, unique range, constantly asking questions and gauging your reactions to each taste, which will dictate what he chooses next.
The most interesting thing about sake, says Ofer, is how enormous the flavour range of it is, considering just four ingredients go into making it: rice, water, yeast and koji fungus (a culture that triggers fermentation). In stark contrast to the neutral examples served in bars and restaurants, not just in Japan but abroad, Ofer only stocks sake that is interesting, complex, powerful and made from a single tank – not blended. Ask for the blush-coloured Ine Mankai, which is made from an ancient strain of red rice and tastes a little like cherries. Or compare a fresh unpasteurized sake with one that is 30 years old; age giving the normally clear beverage an amber hue.
Yoram is the first to admit that his opinions when it comes to sake are far from universal. “I am used to being in the minority,” he says. By offering a wide range, he allows the customer to form their own opinions about what they like. “I just want everyone to have an open mind,” he says.
* Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific Pty Ltd at all times promotes the responsible service and consumption of alcohol.
By Anna Webster