A novice guide to wine, sake and other spirits

Drinking, even social drinking, is frowned upon in a conservative society like India. In Indian States like Tamil Nadu, where the State Government owned liquor shops make a hay-day, drinking is considered a sin. And it is justified to some extent when you look at number of minors, as young as eight years, who consume alcohol.

The scene in India is slowly changing with youth taking to pubs to socialise and relax over weekends. Many pubs have mushroomed in the country catering to this growing interest. This cultural shift is scorned and many keep their drinking habit a secret from their families, who consider this an embarrassment.

This is quite in contrast to culture in the West or in far-east countries like Japan where drinking is considered an ice-breaker. When a new person joins the workforce or after the end of a conference, people hit bars or pubs. Students and people who are familiar with such culture will tell you that while it might be easy to talk formally, controlled intake of alcohol helps you interact without inhibitions during cross-cultural meetings.

When it comes to Asian countries, Japan has a robust drinking culture and western influence is visible in the drinks served in Japan starting from beer to brandy. Though sake is an indigenous Japanese drink, you can see people preferring western drinks to indigenous sake sometimes primarily due to high cost associated with quality sake. Japan’s traditional alcohol include sake, shochu and awamori that are made from rice and umeshu, the Japanese Plum wine.

For a long time, sake was the only kind of alcohol Japanese made. But for the first time in 1924, Japanese beverage maker Suntory began a whisky brewery in Yamazaki in Kyoto prefecture. The product in itself screamed Japan right from its taste to packaging. The bottle has turtle shaped shells. This is unique because, turtles symbolise good luck in Japan. The cutting was modeled after techniques of Satsuma Glass Cutters, who produced Japan’s first glass in Edo period (between 1600-1868). Unfortunately the first product, Kaku, was was not received well by Japanese due to its peaty flavour.

Japanese Whisky from Suntory. Source: pilotskid.com
Japanese Whisky from Suntory.
Source: pilotskid.com

I’m no connoisseur of Japanese drink but I got all these information from an anime, a style of Japanese television animation aimed at children and adults, called Bartender. For people like me, who rarely venture out to socialise over drinks and know only famous liquor like beer, wine or vodka, I was curious about what goes into popular cocktails and how wine and sake are made. I looked up at articles. But they were either too long that I lost the patience to read or too short that they hardly had enough information. I wanted sources that will sustain my interest. And that is when Bartender caught my eye.

It is, like most anime, based on a Japanese comics (manga) of the same name. In the span of 13 episodes, it gives a fair idea about what to expect in a bar/pub, amazing facts on cocktails and origin of spirits of Japanese and Western origin. In terms of time, of course the anime takes longer hours than an article. But I felt the impression the show makes is so strong that it is the easier to remember.

For example you get to know about Scotland’s famed single-malt whisky, its history and different types of whisky produced from the country. After Scotland was annexed into England in 1700s, the whisky producing region was divided into six. The scotch each region produced was unique in taste, texture and aroma. Ardbeg and Laphroaig from Islay Island have aroma of iodine and their flavour is heavy.

Ballantine's blended whisky from Scotland. Source: ClubWhisky.com
Ballantine’s blended whisky from Scotland. Source: ClubWhisky.com

Ballantine’s, produced in Scotland since 1827, is one of the largest selling whiskey in the world. The land’s famed whiskey is a range of blended scotch whiskies. When single malt whiskies were considered superior, blended whiskies were born as a sign of resistance against high tax on malt. Initially blended whiskies were made from corn mixed with malt and other grains.

In addition, the episodes give information about what goes into famous cocktails like Margarita, Bloody Mary and Hemingway’s Daiquiri. You will also know by the end of anime about why apple-based drinks like cider and calvados are from Normandy, while wines are prominent in Burgundy. (Calvados is a brandy made from fermented apples in Normandy, France.)

The anime was by no means comprehensive, but for a novice it is a small step to understand spirits.

After learning about western drinks from Bartender, I wanted to know more about sake, the Japanese alcohol. Moyashimon, another manga, held answers for my curiosity. In contrast to Bartender, Moyashimon was very Japan specific. It happens in an agriculture college and deals with issues like how to make Japanese sake and traditional miso better. Hence it more educational. 

Rice is almost always an integral ingredient. Sake is made by mixing rice and water, leaving it to ferment with yeast for a month. More intricate the sake is, longer it takes to ferment.

Japanese sake. Source: ana-cooljapan.com
Japanese sake. Source: ana-cooljapan.com

But this is not how sake was made in ancient times. Kuchikami sake, made during ancient times, followed a different method. You chew rice and spit it into water and use saliva to break down starch. This was the origin of sake and chewing was done by shrine maidens in those times. Surprisingly in Moyashimon there was a section dedicated to wines of Burgundy, France. So from this anime you not only get information on Japanese sake, but a flavour of French wines as well in 22 episodes that spanned 20 minutes each.

I spent close to 12 hours watching these two shows. (I calculated it just for the sake of writing this story). It was a time well spent, at least for me. For one, it satisfied my interest on wines, brandy and sake. But they offered much more than just theory. They explored their rich history, cultural heritage and efforts put into making superior wine or scotch that sets them apart.

It made think that while anime and manga are widely considered form of entertainment, the content some of them carry are not only educational but relevant in the current times. Thanks to that, if I ever get a chance to go to France, I’m sure that I will be able to enjoy my wine much more than I did in my recent trip to Italy. Because I actually know the effort and heritage the wine I’m drinking carry.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Prasanna Krishnan says:

    Nice article you seem to enjoy your bit of travel and research

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Prasanna. Yes it looks like I love travel as well as research 🙂 When am I going to get your book?


  2. Vikas says:

    Ay you kudigaaree 🙂


    1. Read carefully pa. I said for people who don’t drink and want to know more about spirits 😀


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