Friday, November 8, 2013

Sake, Portland & Gordon Heady

Late on a Friday evening, I looked down onto the city of Portland, Oregon, my belly pleasantly full of Sake. It was the end of a fantastic night with my good friend, Gordon Heady, drinking Sake and dining on Asian cuisine, hitting a few different spots in Portland. Our final destination was Departure Restaurant + Lounge, fifteen floors above street level, and the exterior deck of the lounge looks right out onto the city. With over 35 Sakes on this list, this is a fine place to sip the final ochoko of the evening.

While recently touring the wineries of Oregon, I had a free evening in Portland so made plans to meet up with my friend Gordon Heady, to have dinner and drink Sake. As I have said before, Portland is a great destination for Sake lovers. Gordon had some surprises too, bringing six Sakes for me to taste, including a special competition Sake (pictured above).

As I have written before, Sake competitions are very different from the usual wine competitions with which you may be familiar. For Sake competitions, the producers craft Sake which is generally intended only for the competition, and not for retail sales. Contrast that with wine competitions where they submit wines which are created for retail. Competition Sake is produced in very limited quantities, and a tiny amount of bottles might be given away, or sold in very limited instances. Such Sakes might be priced at $500-$1000 per bottle, due to their rarity, cost of ingredients, quality and the amount of time and effort invested into the production. I have been fortunate to taste about a dozen competition Sakes over the years.

The Sake that Gordon shared with me was brewed by the Momokawa Brewery, located in the Aomori Prefecture. The brewery has won 63 consecutive gold medals at the Nanbu Toji Guild Sake Competitions, more than any other brewery, and has also won numerous golds at other Sake competitions. This particular Sake was a Daiginjo, made with Yamada Nishiki rice with a semibuai of 35% (meaning 65% of the rice kernel was polished away). It was pressed using the rare shizuku ("drip") method, where bags of the sake and lees are tied off at the neck and hung up, so the sake will slowly drip out over time. This is supposed to produce a higher quality Sake, though you also produce less Sake than through other pressing methods. It is also possible that this Sake may have been pasteurized once.

This was the first Sake I tasted of the evening and what a superb way to begin. Sublime, impressive, and inspiring. Such a balanced and harmonious melange, being both rich and light, with intense flavors of green apple, melon, and pear with complex undertones of mild herbs and other elusive flavors. Such amazing depths to this Sake, each taste intriguing and tantalizing my palate. It is a Sake to slowly savor and enjoy, to relish each mouthful of its wonders. Even those with little experience with Sake will understand the high quality and complexity of this brew.

A true friend shares such awesome Sake.

The other five Sakes were all from the portfolio of The Floating World, a small Sake importer based in New Mexico. The company was started in 2011 by Deborah Fleig and Linda Tetrault, who once had a Japanese spa products business. Over time, their interest in Sake grew and it seemed like a natural progression to move toward importing artisan Sake from Japan. They currently import five Sakes, though these are not available in Massachusetts right now. However, that offers an excellent opportunity for an enterprising company to bring them into Massachusetts. Based on my tasting, their portfolio includes some unique and fascinating Sakes.

The Hakugyokko “White Jewel” Junmai Yamahai Muroka Nama Genshu ($32/500ml) is produced by the Kidoizumi Shuzo, which is located in the Chiba Prefecture and was founded in 1897. They are a pioneer of the organic movement in Japan, and use local rice that is grown without chemical fertilizers. They are also the only Sake brewery that uses a Hot-Yamahai method. Usually, yamahai is brewed with cold temperatures, like nearly all Sake, to prevent potential invasion by unwanted bacteria. Kidoizumi developed a special method of cultivating natural lactobacillus and adding it to a starter kept at a very high temperature.

The White Jewel is made from Yamada Nishiki rice, polished down to 60%, and has an SMV of -5, which would tend to make you feel that it would be slightly sweet. However, it also has a high acidity, at +2.1, which tends to make it more dry. This is why you can't rely too much on the SMV (Sake Meter Value) to determine whether a Sake will be sweet or dry, as other factors are involved too, such as acidity.As it is a Muroka Nama Genshu, that means that it undergoes no charcoal filtration, pasteurization or dilution. I am a huge fan of Yamahai Sake, loving its rich umami and earthier flavors.

I would sum up this Sake with a single word: savage. It had a more wild, earthy taste, much more savory and dry. It had a richer mouthfeel, with subtle melon and pear flavors beneath the earthier elements. There was plenty of complexity and depth of flavor, and I would love to have paired this Sake with a mushroom risotto or a leg of lamb. Highly recommended, though probably not something a newcomer to Sake might enjoy.  

The Soma no Tengu “Forest Spirit” Junmai Ginjo Muroka Nama Genshu Usu-nigori ($30/500ml) is produced by the Uehara Shuzowhich is located in the Shiga Prefecture and was founded in 1862. In a number of ways, they are a very traditional brewery, still using wooden presses and fermentation vats as well as some wooden barrels. Most of their Sake is produced with wild yeasts, and they use local rice, about 30 different types, which have been sustainably grown.

The Forest Spirit is made from Yamada Nishiki rice, polished down to 59%, and has an SMV of +6, which would tend to make you feel that it would be dry. As it is a Muroka Nama Genshu, that means that it undergoes no charcoal filtration, pasteurization or dilution. It is also a usu-nigori, which means it is a "thin" nigori which has been pressed so only a minimal amount of the lees end up inside the Sake.

You may be used to sweet nigori Sake, but this will surprise you with its dryness. It is a smooth, easy drinking Sake with mild tropical fruit flavors enhanced with a slight steamed rice taste. It has more depth than many other nigori Sakes, and I much prefer this style over the sweet versions.

The Okarakuchi “Super Dry” Junmai Ginjo Muroka Nama Genshu ($36/500ml) is produced by the Akishika ("Autumn deer) Shuzo, which is located in the Osaka Prefecture and was founded in 1886. Akishika is a small brewery, with a staff of only five people. The Toji, the Sake brew master, is also the owner of the brewery, and now uses only organically grown rice, contracted from local farmers.

The Okarakuchi is made from Yamada Nishiki rice, polished down to 60%, and has an SMV of +18, which would tend to make you feel that it would be very dry. As it is a Muroka Nama Genshu, that means that it undergoes no charcoal filtration, pasteurization or dilution. This Sake is also said to age well, something unusual in the Sake world as most Sake is not produced to be aged.

This was a bone-dry Sake, very crisp and clean, with more subtle, though complex, flavors that nearly elude your palate. You'll find some intriguing fruit flavors, such as pear and melon, and what seems like mineral notes too. Despite its higher alcohol content, it doesn't seem "hot", and I would love to see how this tastes with a year or two of age. This would be an excellent Sake with seafood.

The Kizan Sanban “Kizan #3” Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu ($37/720ml) is produced by the Chikuma Nishiki Shuzo, which is located in the Nagano Prefecture and was founded in 1681, making it over 330 years old. This is a very cold region, and they use a local rice, Miyama Nishiki, which grows well in this climate. In addition, the brewery has four wells which are sourced from the Chikuma River, which supplies excellent, soft water.

The Kizan is made from Miyama Nishiki rice, polished down to 55%, and has an SMV of -15, which would tend to make you feel that it would be sweet. However, it also has a high acidity, at +3, which tends to make it more dry. As it is a Nama Genshu, that means that it undergoes no pasteurization or dilution.

The high acidity of this Sake meant that it had only a mild sweetness to my palate, and plenty of juicy fruit flavors, from berries to pears. It also is more full bodied, with a rich mouthfeel, and some herbal notes on the finish. This seemed to be the most wine-like of the Sakes, and would probably make a nice entry Sake for wine lovers. With its high acidity, it also is even more food friendly than usual, with a broad range of cuisines.

The Inemankai “Ine’s Full Bloom” Junmai Genshu ($50/720ml) is produced by the Mukai Shuzō, which is located in the Kyoto Prefecture and was founded in 1754, making it over 250 years old. It is still a family owned business and the current Toji is Kuniko, the eldest daughter of the owner and one of the first women in Japan to become a Toji. They are known for creating experimental batches of Sake, with unusual rice types and different yeasts.

The Inemankai, a unique Sake, is made from Gohyakumangoku & Murasaki Komachi (an ancient variety of red rice). Even the polishing is more unusual, with varying rates for different rices. The brewing rice is polished down to 83%, the koji rice is polished down to 73%, and then the red rice is only polished down to 91%. It has an SMV of -5, which would tend to make you feel that it would be a little sweet. However, it also has a high acidity, at +2.3, which tends to make it more dry. As it is a Genshu, that means that it undergoes no dilution though the alcohol content is only about 14%.

I might have had red Sake only once or twice before, so it is a special treat. It possesses an interesting ruby red color and presents a more unusual taste, like smoked fruit, and which Gordon likened to smoked salmon. There is a definite smokiness to the Sake and it is more savory and dry, with a crispness due to the acidity. Its complexity is somewhat enigmatic, as you try to determine the flavors that flit across your palate. Very interesting and I'm glad to see such experimental Sakes.

Note on pricing: Based on the wholesale prices of these Sakes, I have extrapolated the potential retail prices they would possess in Massachusetts, so they are only rough estimations. Prices in other states will likely differ as well.

After tasting through these six compelling Sakes, we wandered off for some dinner and our first stop was Saucebox,which has an intriguing Asian menu. It is a hip looking spot, a cool place for either drinks or dinner. They have over 12 Sakes on their list, including some very good choices. We ordered the Pupu Platter ($24),so we could sample a selection of items, including spring rolls, tapioca dumplings, nigiri trio, ribs, and pork sarong. Everything was fresh and tasty, and the presentation was colorful and enticing. The tapioca dumplings were unique, with a thicker, almost coconut macaroon-like texture to them. The rib meat fell off the bone, and had a delicious Asian flair. This is a place I would like to return again to try more items off their menu.

Our next stop was Masu, a Japanese restaurant which specializes in sushi, and that is what we ordered. Excellent nigiri, fresh, good-sized and flavorful. From sweet tamago to briny sea urchin, this was certainly high quality sushi and I would return here. They carry over 25 Sakes, with plenty of great choices.

We ordered a bottle of Denshin Ine Junmai ($40), which is produced by the Ippongi Kubo Honten brewery (founded in 1902) in the Chubu region of the Fukui prefecture. The brewery sits at the base of Mt. Haku, deep in Echizen which is known for its crystal clear water. It is made from Koshinoshizuku rice, which was polished to 65%. I have had a couple other Sakes from this brewery before and have been impressed with their products, and this was not an exception. Smooth, full bodied and fruity, this was an easy-drinking Sake, something you could sit and drink all night.

It was a fun and tasty evening, and I owe many thanks to my friend Gordon for sharing his Sakes with me. The diversity and complexity of Sake was so evident that night, and it was supportive of a major reason why I love Sake so much. Forget overly hot Sake you get at cheap Asian spots. That is not indicative in the least of the true wonders of Sake, of its vast variety and complexity. If you truly want to experience Sake, spend an evening with a Sake lover doing a Sake crawl, sampling a number of different brews, learning about all that it can be. Like wine, tasting makes all of the difference.

Kanpai!

Departure on Urbanspoon
Saucebox on Urbanspoon
Masu on Urbanspoon

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