Yoram Ofer is something of the lone wolf with a reputation. People who know of his Kyoto-based bar Yoramu (the Japanese phonetic spelling of his name) sometimes whisper that he is… different. Some in the sake industry consider him a heretic. On hearing rumors of his eccentricity, people might be a little intimidated about going. It turns out that all the talk of quirkiness and weird practice stems from his treatment of sake, not people. Yoram is kind and accommodating, a gentleman behind the bar who loves serving sake. The twist is that he loves serving it his way: mostly aged. He is also not afraid to speak his opinions and correct what he feels are misperceptions. He’s an educator and idea-agitator, as much as a bartender.
He began aging sake roughly fifteen years ago, shortly after opening his bar at the end of 2000. Prior to that, his experience with sake (which he prefers to call by its Japanese name, nihonshu) was a mixed bag. Yoram explains, “I started drinking nihonshu more or less when I arrived in Japan thirty years ago, in 1986. I wasn’t drinking it with any intent and at the time I didn’t find the nihonshu I drank exceptional in any way. I was simply a young man in Japan, studying Japanese and working to support myself. When I went out with friends, I drank what was on offer. Now I know that the nihonshu of my early days in Japan was a terrible product, but since I had no expectations, I was not turned off.”
Thankfully, he kept drinking and eventually met some people who cared about the beverage and could elevate his knowledge. “As the years went by,” he confesses, “I got to understand that there was much more to the taste of nihonshu than what you found when you went out.” In the early 1990s, Japan was in the late stages of the heady bubble years, which Yoram perceives as having been a bad time for sake. He notes that although Japan had a developed drinking culture with some of the best bars and best bartenders in the world, he couldn’t find a bar that specialized exclusively in sake beyond one in the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo that is now defunct. And the menu there, Yoram complains, was dominated by expensive, highly aromatic premium sake. Where was the dynamic range that sake can offer?
On the other hand, Yoram explains, the younger generation seemed to have no interest in, or knowledge of, Japan’s national drink. “That (lower-shelf) crap sold from the late 1940s all the way to the end of last century was to blame. It turned two generations of the Japanese against their national brew.” Yoram felt that he needed to open his own bar focusing entirely on sake if nobody else around him was doing it. “I am very much a loner in whatever I do, so being alone did not bother me. Before opening, when I asked some people for their opinion, most assumed that I’d fail quickly and miserably.” More than fifteen years later, he is not only still in business, but also thriving. Some nights, all nine seats at his bar are occupied, and patrons come from all over the world.
When asked how many selections he carries, Yoram deflects, “Honestly, I never count the bottles in the bar. The space is limited so I don’t think I can fit more than sixty to seventy bottles there. However, the point is not how many bottles you have, but how different each one is from the rest, and how wide a spectrum of taste you can provide. I try to cover as wide a taste range as possible. I’ve been to many places where the number of bottles on offer was amazing, but a closer look revealed that they were essentially all the same: easy to drink and not offensive in any way. In other words, they were “bannin-uke” (trying to appeal to everyone).”
Yoram’s use of the word “offensive” is interesting. He is conscious of the fact that koshu challenges people’s palates and preconceptions. Not everybody likes every cup he offers. Sometimes, he doesn’t like what he creates either, but seems determined to continue down this path of unusual discovery.
If Yoram ages a sake, he does so at uncontrolled temperatures. He acknowledges that controlled cold temperatures may yield good results, but he takes issue with the amount of energy used–and carbon footprint left behind–by refrigerating for years what may only be a fleeting sip of pleasure at best. He is also looking for bold and dynamic flavors, which uncontrolled temperatures seem to offer with greater frequency.
“My own aging is entirely at temperatures that move from about 3-5°C (37-41°F) in winter to 33°C (91°F) in summer. The conditions are brutal, but the results in most cases are bigger, more powerful flavors than ones kept at constant temperatures. I usually start with items that I believe can withstand such conditions, and that means sake with strong acidity, high alcohol and powerful structure.”
What do his detractors say? He has an interesting counterargument for their criticisms of what he is doing and it starts with their use of the word “hine” (pronounced “hee-nay” and often used in the form “hineka”). “Hine” suggests that something is off or has turned funky. “Hineka” would be “funky smell.”
“In other words,” Yoram points out, “the implication is that once sake enters this ‘hine’ stage, it is no longer fit for drinking. What this approach to evaluating sake means is that presumably there is only one ‘approved’ taste you can look for in a certain nihonshu. Anything that goes beyond that is wrong, so aging is bad.”
While we are drinking various aged sake at the bar, he describes how the flavor can change multiple times over a span of years and pours examples. It’s like an intensity that ebbs and flows with time.
“For me there are only two stages,” remarks Yoram. “Good condition and bad condition. I’ve found that between two peaks of good condition there is a period–the length cannot be predicted–of very bad condition. Unlike most other drinks, I’ve found that nihonshu does rebound from a bad condition to a totally new phase of life where the taste is completely unrecognizable from its initial condition. This may sound very new-age, but the transformation is so great that I treat it as re-incarnation. It’s definitely not like the aging of wine. If I had to choose an example it would be like a spirit that is then aged in a cask and altered completely. Except with nihonshu there is no need for a cask; an even greater change occurs in the bottle.”
Behind the bar are bottles of sake whose liquid contents are turning the hues of autumn. It’s hard not to wonder if some of them are struggling experiments or simply in a phase of “very bad condition.” Sipping them is the only way to find out. Are there ever complete wrecks? How do you know when a sake has simply aged too much and cannot be reincarnated, so to speak?
“That is very difficult to answer. But generally, bad koshu feels very flat and has a smell that I call ‘soap,’ like the laundry hand soap my grandmother used.”
Yoram is aware that many in the industry might assume that he is a “weirdo” because what he is doing runs counter to conventional wisdom–like drinking sake fresh. He also knows that a few like what he is doing. In the end he seems to prefer remaining aloof from the industry and tending his bar. It’s not, after all, the industry that matters to him.
“Enjoying a drink is about what your taste buds tell you, so I see no need to convince anyone of what I’m doing. I run a nine-seater bar where you can find very unique nihonshu, aged or not aged. My main goal is to offer a wide taste range covering the various ‘incarnations’ of nihonshu. The customer will decide for himself/herself what they like.”
And indeed we do. We are helped, of course, by Yoram. He is standing across from us, asking our opinions, and gauging our reactions to everything we are drinking. This makes it easier for him to determine what to offer us next. Brewers don’t generally have this luxury, which in Yoram’s mind helps explain why they seem more cautious and less eager to experiment with aging.
Yoram concedes, “It wouldn’t be fair to expect brewers to work like a tiny bar. The problem in the nihonshu industry is different. Because of financial pressure and sometimes because of a lack of awareness, many brewers send their sake to market too early, when it still hasn’t reached its peak potential.”
Opinionated? Often. Pretentious? We don’t think so. A lone wolf in the wild plotting his own path? Yoram could have worse reputations.