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Gengai — The Aged Sake Defying Common Wisdom

The miraculous aged sake, Gengai, turned 26 years old in January 2021.

This date marks a much more somber anniversary, too: The 26th year since the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated the Japanese city of Kobe and irrevocably damaged countless businesses, including area sake brewers.

It’s not coincidence that these anniversaries align. Gengai began its bittersweet journey to greatness as a sake precursor, housed in tanks at one of the breweries ravaged by nature’s wrath in 1995.

Bottled for consumption a quarter-century later, Gengai is truly defying expectation. A combination of time, environment and, perhaps, divine cosmic luck has transformed Gengai into one of the sake world’s greatest miracles — one that reveals the wild possibilities of sake aging.

A Sake Spared

The Great Hanshin Earthquake wrought particularly savage damage on Sawanotsuru, one of Japan’s most noted sake breweries. All seven of the brewery’s wooden storehouses at the time were utterly destroyed, forcing Sawanotsuru to shut down production and sales.

Somehow, multiple tanks of shubo — a sake precursor key to the subsequent brewing process — survived. Yet, with their facilities too damaged to continue the brewing process, Sawanotsuru had no choice but to let the shubo languish.

Rather than dump the tanks, workers at the brewery made the fateful decision to let time decide. Having conducted research on sake aging before, Sawanotsuru hung their hopes on storing the tanks, to be revisited again at some uncertain future date.

Some time later, Sawanotsuru staff cracked open one of the tanks for a taste test. The results were discouraging. Unbalanced and far too acidic, the aged shubo was unfit for sale, even five, then ten, years later.

Twenty years later, however, the unexpected happened. Sawanotsuru brewers found the shubo’s overwhelming acidity had mellowed, morphing into a pleasantly sharp tartness, bolstered by a complex and harmonious blend of sweet, bitter and umami. The shubo had transformed into an elegant cocktail of perfectly balanced flavors.

The exciting development defied conventional wisdom and Sawanotsuru’s wildest expectations. It was, in a word, miraculous.

The Birth of Vintage Sake

SAKE HUNDRED had its first brush with the miracle shubo in 2018. Sawanotsuru had reached out, offering a tasting of the brewery’s aged sake experiments. Ryuji Ikoma, SAKE HUNDRED brand owner and veteran of thousands of sake tastings, immediately sensed something special with the 20-plus-year vintage.

Sake, like other drinks, possesses its own terroir — a combination of production process, locality, and the very personalities of the people who make it. The concept of vintage, though, is relatively unknown in the sake world even as it’s remained a timeless buzzword for wines and whiskeys. Seeing the unbridled potential in a new category of vintage sake, Ikoma adopted Sawanotsuru’s fateful brew.

He dubbed it “Gengai,” for its expectation-defying flavor.

The chemistry of sake, in fact, lends it to the aging process. Left to mature, its flavors, color and characteristics deepen and complicate.

Yet, sake aging is also an unpredictable science. When a tank or barrel is stored, brewers often have little inkling of what flavors will ultimately greet them when it’s opened years later. The chaotic aging process opens the door to possibility — for every disappointing failure there is also a potential miracle.

Gengai, for one, is an undisputed success. Twenty-six years on, it has developed into a symphonically complex drink; mellow, with a strong aroma and a caramel sweetness accented by bitter chocolate notes. It’s smooth on the palate, mellow and mature, with bitter, sweet, umami and tart flavors mingling seamlessly. Its aroma recalls dried fruits and oriental spices and, when swirled, an umami, tartness and minerality waft forward. For those not in the know, it’s easy to mistake Gengai for something other than sake entirely.

An Aged Diamond in the Rough

Sawanotsuru, well-versed in the art of aging sake, describes Gengai as “complete.” In other words, it’s reached its pinnacle in the aging timeline, its flavors now holding steady year to year. Its now rich and complex profile is caught in amber — there’s little difference now between the 2019 and 2020 Gengai vintages.

It’s expected, though, that over the next ten years this profile will continue to deepen and take on additional dimension.

That’s great news for beverage collectors, yet there’s one problem: Gengai is, by its nature, a limited commodity. Its flavors and its miraculous circumstances can never be replicated. SAKE HUNDRED predicts that, as quantity dwindles and the drink further matures, Gengai’s price tag will increase commensurately.

The time to drink Gengai may be a few years from now, or ten years from now. As is the case with all sake aging, how its flavors will develop is unknowable. But it’s the excitement of not knowing that makes aged sake, and Gengai, so singularly special.