At a local wine store, I was perusing their new Sake selections when I noticed something odd about one of the bottles. It was a little murky and it shouldn't have been. It wasn't nigori, "cloudy sake." There was another bottle of that same Sake and it looked perfectly fine. So I looked at both bottles more closely and then realized the problem. In some respects, you could say that one of those bottles was past its "expiration date."
In general, Sake is meant to be consumed within one year of its release. After that one year passes, most Sake will tend to degrade with time. There are certainly exceptions but it is a good general rule to understand. Sake lacks a vintage date so how do you know whether your Sake is too old? Well, you often will find a date listed on a Sake label and it is important.
That date is the shipping date, when the bottled Sake was released from the brewery. It is not the date when the Sake was produced. After production, Sake is usually stored for six to eighteen months before it is released. The date on the label is when the Sake, after its storage time, was released. For example, a Sake with a shipping date of September 2011 may have been produced in 2010.
Now, one of the Sake bottles at the wine store had a shipping date of 2011 but the other, the murky one, had a shipping date of 2008, which makes it very much out of date. The distributor should never have sent that Sake to the wine shop. It is their responsibility to understand about Sake shipping dates and make sure that they do not sell Sake past its prime. And if there was one out of date Sake in their warehouse, then I suspect they have others too.
There is an additional complication. Unfortunately, the date is not always easy to read on Sake labels because they don't always use the common U.S. calendar format. Sometimes the year is listed according to the Japanese calendar. In Japan, the current era name is Heisei and began in 1989 when the Emperor ascended the throne. Each subsequent year is numbered from his ascension to the throne, though it is not a straight correlation to our calendar.That makes it even more important that the distributor ensure they do not sell old Sake.
Sake is not the only alcohol with this timing issue. Fino and Manzanilla Sherry are also often intended to be drank as young as possible, and generally you don't want a bottle that is more than one year old. The bottles commonly have a release date on their label and those are easy to read. But you will find distributors selling Sherry past its prime.
Distributors, pay attention to the dates of the Sake & Sherry you are selling!