Blending Techno And Tradition: You Should Be Dancing ... With Sake
If techno makes you think of pulsating music and mood-altering illegal drugs in sweaty nightclubs, and if sake conjures up notions of scalding hot liquor in tiny cups that are impossible to hold, then international DJ and electronic music artist Richie Hawtin would like to change those perceptions. It's not that either is incorrect, it's just that he believes electronic music and sake have far more in common than you might think — and may even enhance the experience of one another.
"I first traveled to Japan in 1994 and, upon landing, the culture immediately made a deep impression on me," says Hawtin. "I found a country filled with beautiful contrasts which balanced high technology and deep cultural traditions."
It's a correlation — that marriage of past and present — that would be naturally intriguing to the British-born Hawtin, who recorded for many years under the name Plastikman and is considered a pioneer of minimalist electronic music characterized by alternating quantities of moodiness, melody and monotony, and combining classical concepts with modern technology.
Growing up primarily in Windsor, Ontario, Hawtin learned about electronica from his dad, a fan of German techno bands like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, then cut his teeth across the river as a DJ in the Detroit club scene in the late 1980s, mixing techno and house music. Hawtin continued to hone his craft in clubs and studios around the world, but it was that early visit to Japan that inspired him to take a deep dive into sake. Initially, the locals laughed at him when he ordered the rice wine, calling it an "old man's drink" as they ordered beer. Soon enough, however, they became interested in teaching Hawtin about sake's subtleties.
"I started to learn more of the old customs of pouring for one another," he recalls, "and with each bottle, I realized how beautifully social sake was in these communal types of experiences."
Sake is made by a process of brewing rice that has been polished; all rice is brown, but removing 40 percent or more of the husk, bran and germ yields the white interior. The ratios of polishing can allow the brewer to achieve different flavor profiles, from dry to acidic to floral. According to sake expert John Gautner, milling (or polishing) the rice helps to remove unwanted fat, protein and amino acids before fermentation: "This leads to cleaner, more elegant and more refined sake. It also allows more lively aromatics to come about."
To some, sake might seem somewhat like a beer-wine hybrid: the rice is brewed with yeast, like a beer, but is not carbonated. And like wine, it is aged to allow the flavors to develop. While making sake is a centuries-old craft, new techniques and inventions — like modern rice polishing equipment that can accurately remove certain percentages of a single grain of rice — have allowed for a renaissance in high-quality sake.
Hawtin started to get serious about sake in 2008, when he took a class with Gautner, visiting Japanese breweries to learn about production and participating in extensive tastings of sake's six different categories: Junmai, Honjozo, Junmai Ginjo, Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo and Daiginjo. Since then, Hawtin says, "I just followed my own taste and let it take me on countless adventures."
As his knowledge expanded, Hawtin began to think about how sake connects to music. "Enjoying sake at dinner before a long night out or before one of my sets, I found that sake had the perfect balance of alcohol with little to no additives — which gives a completely different experience and feeling from other drinks," he says.
Later, taking his obsession to a new level, Hawtin opened a sake bar in Ibiza, Spain, a hotspot for electronic music and international clubbers more associated with copious amounts of vodka than fermented rice beverages. After that sake bar closed in 2015, he launched the Enter.Sake project, in which Hawtin works with traditional brewers to create a signature line of sake, with a goal to help bring more premium sakes into the Western consciousness.
"So many people have had bad experiences with sake," Hawtin says. "Older, lower-grade sake that found its way out of Japan was presented to us as warmed-up, hot alcohol — which I like to refer to as rocket fuel." Hawtin's project focuses on craft sakes, some of which are produced at breweries that date back to the 18th century.
But how does sake relate to electronic music? For Hawtin, it's the interplay between layers of flavors and music, and how small adjustments — polishing small percentages of a grain of rice or zeroing in on a single beat — can affect the balance of the result.
"I firmly believe that sake resonates at its own unique frequency in a similar way to the electronic music I produce and play," he says. "Combining these two ingredients is a recipe for a beautifully hypnotic experience."
Interested in the marriage of techno and sake? Here's a curated list by Hawtin that brings the two together:
Ben Klock, "Twenty" with Junmai Daiginjo:
Subtle hypnotic repetition in the music complements this top-of-the-line style of sake requiring that at least 50 percent of rice grains are milled, resulting in a sake that is typically soft, fruity and fragrant.
Dubfire, "Ribcage (Adrian Sherwood remix)" with Junmai Nama Genshu:
A mind-altering buildup that pairs with this sake's earthy, bold flavors and higher alcohol content.
Charlotte de Witte, "Control (Original Mix)" with Honjozo:
Focused intensity that brings out the inherent fragrance found in this drier sake. Honjozo is characterized by the small amount of distilled ethyl alcohol, or "brewer's alcohol," which is added during the final stages of production.
Etapp Kyle, "Essay" with Junmai Ginjo:
Melodic intervention sets the tone for this track, making its rhythmic precision play well with the full-bodied Junmai Ginjo, a crowd-pleasing sake.
Kristen Hartke is a D.C.-based food and beverage writer.