World’s First Vinegar Sommelier

by Julian Ryall
World’s First Vinegar SommelierHealth-conscious commuters lap up this ancient seasoning in tasty drinks, desserts — and even for breakfast

At the preposterous suggestion that vinegar is merely a condiment, Mitsuyasu Uchibori is aghast. Born into a family that has made vinegar in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture for more than 130 years, it is inevitable that Uchibori takes pride in his company, which produces more than 10 varieties of vinegar and has branched out in an unexpected direction.

“Vinegar is reputed to be the one of the oldest seasonings in the world and dates back to a time when food was prepared with just salt and vinegar,” said Uchibori, a graduate of Yamanashi University’s Department of Brewing. “But now there are many spices available and we have forgotten how to get the very best out of vinegar.

“That’s why we need a ’sumurie,’ to teach how to best use vinegar,” he said. Describing himself as a missionary, Uchibori is the world’s first and only vinegar equivalent of a sommelier, bringing together “su,” the Japanese word for vinegar, and the French term for a wine expert.

Vinegar on tapDismissing Western food as being debased by oil, Uchibori says Japanese cuisine is based on water, a key ingredient in vinegar, and that the water in Uchibori Vinegar Inc.’s hometown of Yaotsu is ideal for his purposes.

“We are fortunate to have three unique elements that other companies don’t,” he says, ticking them off his fingers. “We have ideal soft water, clean air and excellent micro-organisms that create the vinegar.

“In truth, all we do is create the environment in which these three elements can work together comfortably.”

The production process involves a range of vinegars made from rice that has been fermented, each with a subtly different taste and texture. Some are more tangy, others smoother. And Uchibori’s lines have been given the seal of approval by Sukibayashi Jiro, one of only two sushi restaurants in Tokyo to be granted the coveted three Michelin stars in the latest edition of the restaurant guide, as well as the Harrods sushi shop in London.

But the use of vinegar in traditional cooking comes as no surprise; finding it served almost as a cocktail or with yogurt, milk or as a dessert is more unexpected.

Uchibori launched his first dessert vinegar — blueberry — in 2003 and expanded the company’s chain of a dozen specialist Oak’s Heart vinegar stores in October 2007 with a stand-up vinegar bar in Tokyo Station that is appropriately named Expre-su.

A steady stream of commuters — mostly females aged in their 20s and 30s — stop by for a morning pick-me-up. With fruit juice fermented into vinegar, the drink is good for the health, easy to digest and non-fattening. And it helps that it tastes so good.

The blueberry dessert vinegar, served with milk that marbles the concoction, is tangy and has a clear but pleasant vinegar aftertaste. The orange and soda drink is sharper, but the version served over ice cream and cornflakes with a cassis topping is an excellent way to start the day.

And on the way home in the evening, give the beer or Champagne versions a try.