What does the date on a Sake label tell us?

“Tell me Sebastien, when was that Sake made?” I often get the question under one form or another. Most consumers will agree that many Sake names can be hard to decipher on traditional labels, especially if the “designer” used handwritten, poetic, unusual Chinese characters. The date on the label should be easy to read though! Well, as counterintuitive as it may seem, the numerals themselves and what they refer to can be hard to “interpret” or even “misleading” for non-specialists. Sakagura (Sake breweries) have to make an extra effort to provide detailed information to their retailers and clients, and it is not always simple or straightforward in a world where many continue to glue paper labels by hand on small series across many references. I definitely see some openings for modern information technology, from QR code stickers to blockchain. 

When was it brewed?

Like everything Sake, the rules for labels are set by the National Tax Administration. The mention of a “date” on the label is mandatory for Sake sold on the domestic market, and it makes such sake “taxable”. It is not mandatory to put a date on Sake aimed at export though, confirming that customer information was not NTA’s primary purpose.

The date field I am referring to reads  製造年月  (“Seizounengetsu”), i.e. “production” date (製造 Seizou is a word for production and 年月 means year & month) . The so-called production date, however, can be close to the date when the Sake mash was pressed or, as it is more often the case, close to the date when the Sake was shipped out of the Kura … an event that may take place months or even years after the Sake mash was pressed. In between, the Sake will have matured in tanks … or in bottles. Such bottles may sit in the Kura without a label on them until the last moment (so as not to attract taxation), or be labeled at some point, with a date put on them, and sit there for a few more months. Hard to read …

For matured Sake – or conversely for very fresh sake- Kuramoto (brewery owners) may often give additional information to their retailers and clients, creating additional fields on the label (sometimes a date is stamped by hand), or additional stickers on the bottle.

醸造年月 (“JouzouNenGestu”) refers to brewing month (it is not a legal mention). Sometimes a “vintage” such as “2018” is indicated for the Sake (not a legal mention either)… and/or for the rice!  In other cases, a shipping date may be clearly mentioned (蔵出年月 for example), a useful element of information for the consumer of aged sake: was it aged in the Kura’s cellars until recently, or did it sit in the shop for a long period of time?    

Not only is the “mandatory” date field ambiguous, the numerals can be hard to interpret for foreign readers. In fact, brewers may use different date formats: October 2018 may be written “2018-10” “18/10” (or a permutation of the numbers) as per the Gregorian calendar, or “H30/10” “30/10” or a permutation in the Japanese calendar following imperial eras (“H” stands for Heisei). Does “3/10” mean March 2010, or October 2021 (2021 is Year 3 of the Reiwa era)? It is not always easy to know, although experience and knowledge of the Kura will help dramatically. Another useful bit of information deals with vintage. “BY” in a date refers to “Brewing Year”, a period which by tradition starts July 1st of each year and runs until 30. June the following one. BY2018 will refer to the period between 1/7/2018 and 30/6/2019 … but it will often be written as “BY30”, referring to the Japanese calendar (for Brewing Year Heisei 30).

Enjoy your exploration of the idiosyncrasies of Japanese Sake!      

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