Friday, December 19, 2014

2014: Favorite Sake Items

What were some of my favorite Sake items of the past year?

Let me continue the lists of my best recommendations and favorites of the past year, 2014. I have already posted seven other lists of my Favorites of the past year, from wine to food, and this is my final list, my Favorite Sake Items of 2014. This is certainly not a complete list but it is more a sampling of memorable matters I have experienced and posted about over the past year.

This is also a purely subjective list, based on my own preferences, and makes no claims about being the "best" of anything. But all of the items here have earned my strong recommendations and I hope you will enjoy them as well. For more sake related items, you can just search my blog posts for the past year.

Sake continues to maintain a prominent role, a specialized niche, on my blog. My passion for Sake is ever growing and I continue to promote it to others, to spread the word about this fascinating beverage. I want to destroy the stereotypes about Sake and shine a light on the truth, to show its diversity and complexity. I want more and more people to taste it, finding joy in its flavors. I want more stores to stock and sell Sake, to make it something they recommend to their customers. I want more restaurants, of all cuisines, to carry Sake on their beverage lists. Sake is as worthy as any other alcoholic beverage and deserves at least equal billing.

Sake in the News: I;m very glad to see that Sake seems to be getting more and more attention in the media. This year, I have been posting a series of regular Sake News articles, which collect the links to some of the most interesting and informative Sake articles in the news. Each Sake News post references about 3-4 new Sake articles found online, and is a good way to see the diversity of Sake articles that are currently being written.

Sake Statistics: For the last few years, Sake exports have been growing and breaking previous records. In 2013, Sake imports to the U.S.increased by 13%, to 516,000 cases. That still makes Sake very much a niche beverage in the U.S. but continued double digit growth is a positive sign. What is also positive is the amount of domestically produced and consumed Sake. In 2013, Sake produced in the U.S. increased by 1% to 1.7 million cases, over three times the amount of imported Sake. The top U.S. brand is Sho Chiku Bai, constituting 27%, about 587,000 cases, which is also greater than the amount of imported Sake. SakeOne, located in Oregon, grew by 8.4% to 89,000 cases. There is plenty of room for growth so we need to continue advocating for greater Sake consumption.

Favorite Honjozo Sake: The Nyukon "Into Your Soul" Tokubetsu Honjozo, produced by the Musashino Shuzo, is made from Gohyakumangoku rice which has been polished down to 60%, so it would technically qualify as a Ginjo though they do not label it as such. The taste was dry and clean, with subtle peach and melon flavors, and hints of herbs. Smooth and easy drinking, this was delicious and would appeal to Sake lovers as well as those new to Sake.

Favorite Junmai Sake: The Kamoizumi Shusen Junmai "Three Dots", produced by the Kamoizumi Shuzo, is made from Hiroshima Hattan rice which has been polished down to 58%, so it would technically qualify as a Ginjo though they do not label it as such. An elegant Sake, this presents with a strong umami taste, more mushrooms and leafy herbs. It has a bit more body than the Nykon, but remains dry, smooth and easy drinking. This would be an excellent Sake with meat dishes.

Favorite Ginjo Sake: The Kokuryu Tokusen "Crystal Dragon" Ginjo, made by the Kokuryu brewery, is made from Gohyakumangoku rice which has been polished down to 50%, so it would technically qualify as a Daiginjo though they do not label it as such. This was a more powerful Sake, with bolder flavors of fruit, especially melon, pear and even a bit of cherry. There were depths to the Sake as well, showcasing hints of other, nearly elusive flavors. Definitely a Sake to slowly savor, to enjoy its complexity.

Favorite Daiginjo: The Evoluzione Junmai Daiginjo, produced by Ume No Yado brewery, is an elegant Sake, with a nice melange of subtle fruit and herbal notes. It has a lighter body and plenty of complexity, making it an impressive Sake. I don't have much technical info on this Daiginjo, but its flavor profile and style make it a worthy selection.

Favorite Kimoto/Yamahai Style Sake: The Mioya Shuzo Yuho "Rhythm of the Centuries" Yama-oroshi Junmai Kimoto, made by the Mioya Shuzo, is made from Notohikari rice which has been polished down to 55%, which would qualify it as a Ginjo though it is only labeled as a Junmai. It has a higher acidity, at 2.2, than the usual Junmai. Most Sake is aged for six months to a year before it is released, but this Yuho is aged for about four years prior to release. This may be why the Sake is so smooth on the palate, an easy drinking liquid which goes down far too quickly. It has a powerful umami taste, with underlying elements of earthiness, some citrus flavors and even Sherry notes on the finish. Nice acidity, a lengthy finish and plenty of complexity. An excellent choice, it garners my highest recommendation and I think it will be enjoyed not only by Sake lovers, but also those new to Sake.

Favorite One-Cup Sake: The Kibo is produced by the Suisen Shuzo, a Sake brewery that was destroyed by the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake, but which rebuilt itself. "Kibo" means "hope" and it is a very appropriate name. The Sake is produced using local Hitomebore (which means "love at first sight") rice, which has been polished down to 70%. It has a dominant aroma of steamed rice with hints of melon, both which also come out on the palate, along with a bit of green apple. It is dry, smooth, and full bodied with some pleasant umami. It is easy drinking and you could pair it with pizza or a cheese burger.

Favorite Sake Liqueur: The Ume No Yado brewery also produces an Aragoshi line, Sake-based liqueurs, including a Yuzu Shu. Each of their liqueurs contains Sake, 21% of fruit by volume, and a tiny bit of Shochu for depth and aroma. The Yuzu, an Asian citrus fruit, possessed a bright citrus flavor, a bit of tartness and a mild sweetness. Very pleasant and would make an excellent cocktail addition, though many people might enjoy it on its own too.

Favorite Infused Sake: At Miya's Sushi, they create numerous infused Sakes, generally offering 7 or so, at any one time though their experimentation with different flavors continues. You might find the Emerald Witches' Lips, flavored with hand picked white pine needles, or the Dragon Lady Sake, made with ginger, lemongrass, and honey. The Pineapple & Sumac Berry Sake was delicious and the Ultraviolet Kisses Sake, a briny drink made with homegrown red aged shiso and sour plum. My favorite though was the Chinese Firecracker Sake, a blend of home grown hot chili peppers, lemons, limes, citron, lemongrass, and honey. It was a complex and intriguing blend of citrus and underlying heat. The mild sweetness helped to balance the spiciness, and the citrus provided some nice acidity.

Favorite Organic Sake: The good folks at The Floating World a small Sake importer who I've previously raved, has a new Sake and it too is a winner. The Mutemuka Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu is rather unusual as it is a premium Sake made from two types of rice, including a table rice. For their moto, the yeast starter, they use Kaze Naruko, which is a Sake rice grown only in the Kōchi Prefecture. For the fermentation tank though, they use Hino-Hikari, a type of table rice, which means this Sake uses more table rice than Sake rice. For this Sake, the rice is polished down to 65%. Up front, there is a fruity taste, some melon and pear notes, but that quickly transforms on your palate into a more savory and earthy element, which then dominates your mouth. A surge of umami floods your palate, with hints of herbal notes and a tinge of bitterness. It possesses a fascinating complexity and this is also a very food friendly Sake, especially because of its high umami.

Favorite Warmed Sake: Yoshimasa Ogawahara introduced me to warm Sake through his Hikomago Junmai, and it was an enlightening experience. I tasted the Sake at a few different temperatures, witnessing how the taste profile varied at the different temperatures. The Hikomago is a matured Sake, aged for three years before release, and was made so that it could be enjoyed warm. It also paired well with a variety of foods, from olives to cheese. Drink more warm Sake.

New Sake Brewing Innovation: Getting geeky, I explained about a new Sake innovation in my article, The 10,001 School of Sake Brewing. A different fungus, rather than the usual, is the subject of experimentation to produce koji. It is supposed to create Sake with more amino acids than normal. The first commercial version has been released, and though I haven't tasted it yet, it is very intriguing to me. It could be an umami bomb of epic proportions with those added amino acids. It is always cool to see the cutting edge of Sake innovation.

Favorite Sake Sorbet:: The Pazzo Gelato Cafe invited me to create my own gelato/sorbet flavor, and my choice was the Tipsy Sensei, a sorbet blend of Ty Ku Coconut Sake, Yuzu and Coconut. It was such a fun experience, though the Yuzu was very dominant in the sorbet, and the recipe needs adjustment to bring more of the coconut out. However, it was indicative of the potential for using Sake to make ice cream and other frozen treats.

Favorite Sake Bar, Las Vegas: Located off the Strip, the J Sake Bar is a new spot and carries over 100 Sakes and serves a variety of Japanese dishes. I had a fun time, though it was far too brief, and I could have easily spent several hours there, tasting a range of Sakes. It is more like an izakaya, and certainly a spot that all Sake lovers should visit if they go to Las Vegas.

Favorite Restaurant Sake List: At Abriya Raku, a Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas, you'll find an incredible Sake list, with over 75 choices, 50 of which are available by the glass. There is a nice diversity of Sakes, and the markup is one of the lowest I have ever seen at a restaurant, usually less than twice the usual retail. For example, a $30 Sake at retail may sell at Raku for only $50. That makes it a very affordable spot to try a few different Sakes, and it helps that they serve plenty of delicious food too.

Favorite New Sake Book: Famed Sake expert John Gauntner has a new book, Sake Confidential, and is an excellent work that addresses more advanced topics about Sake. This book fills a gap, as most Sake books are generally introductory, with mostly basic information. However, it is still easy to read and understand, and provides plenty of fascinating information about Sake. Even those knowledgeable to Sake are likely to learn at least a few things from this book. I loved this books and I highly recommend it to everyone interested in Sake.

Favorite New Sake Magazine: John Gauntner is also behind a new magazine, Sake Today, which is a quarterly magazine all about Sake. The magazine has plenty of interesting articles, great photography, and also fills a needed niche. The articles are diverse, and you'll find both introductory articles as well as more advanced topics, as well as cool interviews. Other magazines rarely publish Sake articles so a magazine devoted only to Sake is very welcome..

New Sake Menu: I was pleased this year to design the new Sake menu for Thelonious Monkfish, an Asian restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge. It now has some delicious and interesting Sakes, fairly priced, and it's great to see that the restaurant is doing its part to promote Sake consumption. It was fun to work with them, teaching their staff about Sake, and I hope you visit the restaurant and taste some of the Sakes I selected for them.


What were some of your favorite Sake items this year?

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