Sake has given Richard Geoffroy’s career in alcohol-making a second wind. In November 2019, a Shinto ceremony in Japan’s Toyama prefecture solemnised Geoffroy’s entrance into a world steeped in ancient traditions. Only months before, the 68-year-old Frenchman had stepped away from a quite different world across the globe when he retired from his role as chef de cave of Dom Pérignon, a position he had held for three decades.
He maintains that the move was one of “purpose” and “passion”. “If you don’t regularly reset your challenges, you dry out. My major concern about getting older is to not intellectually dry out. The body is one thing but the mind is another — it needs to be worked out just like physical muscles,” says Geoffroy in an interview with Options.
To him, sake — with its 1,200-year-long history and the “unparalleled” nature of the microbiology involved in its brewing process — proved the perfect challenge. Geoffroy’s sake brand IWA gives him the perfect platform on which to continue his experimental journey in alcohol production — through a new medium.
After a feature in French newspaper Le Monde — in which he was quoted saying that the sake brewing is “more complex” than the making of champagne — Geoffroy received a barrage of criticism from former peers in the champagne industry, telling him that his “betrayal” to sake was sacrilegious.
But Geoffroy, previously the face of Dom Pérignon — and perhaps champagne in general — was unfazed, and claims he was simply being “objective”, adding: “There is nothing more complex than the microbiology of sake brewing. It is unsurpassed and in a way, it is a miracle.”
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The ingredient list for sake is deceptively simple, comprising only five basic ingredients of rice, water, koji (cooked rice or soya beans that have been inoculated with a fermentation culture), yeast starters and yeast. These elements are represented in the name of Geoffroy’s sake IWA 5, which he says is the universal number of “balance and harmony”.
Despite the short list of ingredients, making sake is not easy as it involves microorganisms at multiple stages of the brewing process. Koji is a specially cultivated mould grown on the surface of rice grains to invert fermentable sugars, that can then be turned into alcohol by yeast which begins its fermentation process when it is added to a starter batch of sake.
This delicate process is arguably made even more complicated by Geoffroy’s ambition to incorporate the blending techniques he spent years at Dom Pérignon perfecting. His job as head winemaker required blending wines of selected grape varieties, vineyards and vintages to arrive at a carefully calibrated product.
In a similar fashion, each IWA 5 “Assemblage” — as it has been named — has up to 20 variations of rice wine to achieve the perfect balance of nose, palate and finish, before bottle-ageing for at least a year to achieve the harmony that Geoffroy pursues and believes is sometimes missing in conventional sake.
The techniques of blending and even bottle-ageing in sake were unprecedented when IWA first began in “terra incognita”, or unchartered territory. Although these methods have shaken up the “singularity” of sake brewing traditions, all three IWA 5 Assemblages produced thus far have been well-received in Japan, says Geoffroy. Some other sake makers are now even experimenting with these practices.
While Geoffroy says he is “not interested” in competing for “superiority” — as preferences are simply a “subjective consideration of style” — he is certain that IWA 5 stands out in comparison to other high-end sake. His inventiveness has seen him receive high praise from consumers in Japan, some of whom say that they have “experienced new sensations” with IWA 5.
Still, Geoffroy acknowledges that his offerings break rank and has no misgivings with anyone who is not a fan of his blended sake, adding: “I’m not an authority on sake brewing. What I have introduced is a very distinct proposition, but the fact that such a distinct proposition has been so well-received in Japan makes me truly happy.”
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Already, Geoffroy’s eyes have wandered beyond the Japanese archipelago and to the global market. To him, it is a shame that sake has not attained the global appreciation that other forms of alcohol, such as champagne, have managed.
“Sake has been a Japanese affair, which I believe is unfair. I think sake deserves to make a statement to the world because it has universal potential,” says Geoffroy. “What defines greatness in many products is that they are proudly local and yet are able to succeed around the world.”
“Sake has the potential for export growth and being meaningful to diverse cultures all over the world, beyond just Japan,” he continues. Geoffroy also feels that sake and champagne are comparable forms of tipple — “easy drinking” fermented drinks with “meaningful” traditions. From his perspective, there is no reason that sake should not achieve the same sector recognition as champagne. He worries that the business of sake is in steep decline, with up to two-thirds of Japan’s some 3,700 sake breweries in the 1970s shuttering in the past 50 years. Japanese demand alone will not be sufficient to revitalise the sake industry and instead requires a top-down reapproach, says Geoffroy.
He also adds coyly that claiming to be the person to drive the necessary change would be a “lack of humility”, but admits it is this aspiration that brought about his transition to sake. “This project should be about dreams, about setting high objectives. If I could crack the rigid mould of sake to bring it gastronomically, culturally and geographically out of Japan and attain success abroad to feed back into the domestic sake industry in Japan, I would feel a level of achievement.”
He adds: “Of course, business endeavours need to be profitable, but you have to come up with a higher purpose to contribute to something. All of us get to contribute at different levels as individuals, whether it is to family, a company, a country or even the planet, we all need to be on this world for a purpose. This project is exactly that — of purpose.”
Remembering its roots
Larger convictions aside, the Frenchman has not forsaken sake’s Japanese roots. Early on, he met with renowned architect Kengo Kuma, who initiated the “realities of Japan” to Geoffroy and introduced him to Ryuichiro Masuda of Masuda Shuzo, a family-owned sake company established in 1893.
Shiraiwa, the company that owns the IWA brand, was co-founded with Masuda. It was in Masuda’s brewery in Toyama prefecture that Assemblages 1, 2 and 3 were produced. In the meantime, Kuma was presented with the rare opportunity, even for an architect of his stature, to build his first sake brewery which opened in October last year in the town of Tateyama, also in Toyama. Shiraiwa’s kura (sake brewery) stands in a 10ha rice field and the company is named after this site.
Assemblage 4, bottled in mid-July, is the first to be made in the Shiraiwa kura and will be aged for 12 to 15 months before being available for purchase. Also on IWA’s list of collaborators is industrial designer Marc Newson, whose long list of designs includes the ubiquitous Apple Watch. IWA’s specially made sake glasses hope to bring the same universal appeal to a global consumer market.
Marketing aside, Geoffroy is confident the quality of IWA’s sake — and especially Assemblage 3 with its unique combination of vibrant aromatics, umami body and a major emphasis on the finish — will speak for itself. “Having learned so much from Assemblages 1 and 2, I keep playing here along a very fine and fragile line of balance. This paradox of presence and weightlessness has been my joy to create,” he says. IWA 5 Assemblage 3 is available through IWA’s official E-shop and at selected top restaurants throughout Singapore, like Esora, Jaan By Kirk Westaway and Waku Ghin.