Friday, June 22, 2012

Sipping Sake: Recommendations & Reviews

With the brutal heat now assailing the local area, people are seeking out chilled, refreshing drinks. One option, which may be overlooked by many, is a glass of lightly chilled Sake. In addition, Sake will pair very well with traditional summer fare, from clam bakes to BBQ. So there is no reason not to add Sake to your summer drinking repertoire.

As I posted about on Wednesday, I spent a glorious Monday attending two Sake events, including an afternoon Sake seminar & tasting at the residence of Takeshi Hikihara, the Consul General of Japan. That event was a partnership with Chairman Haruo Matsuzaki; of the Sake Export Association and President Peter Grilli of the Japan Society of Boston.In the evening, the Japan Society of Boston hosted a Sake tasting and dinner at Cafe Sushi in Cambridge. John Gauntner, the famed Sake expert and Sake Dendoushi ("Sake Evangelist"), also attended both events.

During this day, I had the opportunity to taste about 45 Sakes, which came from 18 kura ("sake breweries") located in 14 Prefectures including Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Hokkaido, Hyogo, Ibaraki, Iwate, Kagoshima, Kyoto, Niigata, Okayama, Shimane, Tochigi, and Yamaguchi. There was even one California brewery represented, Ozeki USA. The Sakes included types, grades and styles such as Junmai, Honjozo, Ginjo, Daiginjo, Kimoto, Nigori, Sparkling Sake, Organic Sake, Koshu, Namazake, and Genshu. As the weather was wonderful, much of the tasting at the consulate was held on their outside patio, just a beautiful setting for such an extensive tasting event.

As with wine, if you truly want to understand Sake, you need to taste it, and taste as many different ones as you can. Tasting events like this, with over 40 Sakes available, are a superb way of learning the diversity in flavor profiles of Sake, even within the same category. Not all Junmai tastes the same, and neither do all Daiginjo possess the same flavor profile. Many factors play into the flavor and aroma of a Sake, from the type of rice to the yeast, from the method of production to the nature of the pasteurization. That is one of the reasons why Sake is so exciting, that infinite diversity that can be found. The Japanese refer to "Sake zukuri banryu," the “10,000 schools of Sake brewing,” referring to the vast amount of methods by which Sake can be produced.

I'll touch on some of the highlights of the tasting, noting that I have tasted and reviewed some of these Sakes before. Overall, it was a very satisfying collection, showcasing a nice range of styles and flavor profiles. It was especially nice that some of the brewers were present, and could explain about their Sakes. They were all very personable, quick with smiles, and rightfully proud of their brews. We also had the opportunity to taste the Sake with a light buffet, primarily Japanese cuisine, and later that evening I tasted more of the Sake with sushi and Japanese appetizers. Sake is very food friendly though I would have liked to see it paired with some nontraditional cuisine.

Akita Seishu Co. Ltd., from the Akita prefecture, was founded in 1865 and produces the Dewatsuru brand, a name that means "The crane of the Dewa region," intended to reflect the elegance of their sake. Their brewing motto is "Good harmony makes good Sake" and they also try to use as many local ingredients as possible.

The Dewatsuru Kimoto Junmai was very appealing to me, with a rich and earthy taste, and is an excellent example of Kimoto Sake, an old and laborious method of production that often produces Sake with an earthy, gamey profile. Lots of umami make this style very food friendly, especially with mushrooms and other umami rich foods. The Dewatsuru Hihaku Junmai Daiginjo had strong aromatics and presented an elegant and complex taste, with notes of melon, floral elements and a touch of red fruit. The Dewatsuru Hiten No Yume Junmai Daiginjo Nigori is not yet sold in the U.S., but hopefully it will be in the near future. This Sake is made with Akita-Komachi rice, a variety that grows only in Akita, and is more of a savory than sweet Nigori. It too was elegant, with a hint of sweetness, some tropical fruits, but also a strong savory component. One of the best Nigoris I have ever tasted.

Kaetsu Sake Brewing Co. Ltd., located in the Niigata prefecture, was founded in 1880, and you will find more information on the brewery in my prior review of the Kirin Hizoshu Daiginjo, pictured above. The Hizoshu is an amazing aged Sake which I highly recommend. Their Kirin Koshihikari Junmai Daiginjo is also recommended, with a richer taste but which is also smooth, clean and complex.

Marumoto Sake Brewing Co., located in the Okayama Prefecture, was founded in 1867 and you will find more information on the brewery in my prior review of their Chikurin Karoyaka Junmai Ginjo Organic, probably the first organic Sake made from Japanese Sake rice, and Chikurin Fukamari Junmai. They also make the Happo Houhou Shu Sparkling Sake and Sparkling Rose Sake, both being a little sweet, fruity and lightly effervescent.

Nanbubijin, Inc., located in the Iwate prefecture, started brewing Sake in 1915 and around 1951 decided to start producing "clean and beautiful Sake." Thus, their new name became Nanbu Bijin, where Nanbu represents their region and Bijin means "beautiful woman." I have previously reviewed their Nanbubijin Tokubetsu Junmai, which the brewer stated matches well with beef. The Nanbubijin "Southern Beauty" Junmai Ginjo is made from local Ginginga rice, which took 8 years to develop, and is smooth and elegant, with delicious tastes of melon, peach, and a bit of steamed rice.

Okunomatsu Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., located in the Fukushima prefecture, was established in 1716, and was one of the breweries which sustained significant damage in last year's terrible Japanese earthquake and tsunami. But they have forged ahead and we all should be glad that they have done so as they produce high quality and delicious Sake.

The Okunomatsu Tokubetsu Junmai is a namachozo, pasteurized only once after bottling, and it has a clean, crisp taste with some tasty fruit flavors. I was informed this would be good both gently warmed or chilled. The Okunomatsu Juhachidai Ihei Daiginjo is produced by the shizuku method, a drip style of separating the Sake from the lees. This is supposed to produce a higher quality Sake and in this case, I think it succeeded quite well. This was one of my favorite Sakes of the tasting, being elegant, restrained, complex, and absolutely compelling. I returned several times for another taste of this killer Sake. Their Okunomatsu Junmai Daiginjo Sparkling Sake was another delight, different from many other sparkling sakes. It has some pleasant tropical aromas and only hints of sweetness, being more savory with a little bitterness on the finish (in a good way).

Rihaku Sake Brewing Co. Ltd., located in the Shimane prefecture, was founded in 1882 and is named after a famous 8th century Chinese poet, Li Po, who is known as Rihaku in Japan. Rihaku loved Sake and his motto was: “I drink a whole bottle, and pen a hundred poems.” The Rihaku "Wandering Poet" Junmai Ginjo is a very popular Sake with prominent and bold flavors of melon, banana and peach accompanied by subtle herbal notes. A good Sake introduction for someone new to this beverage.

Takasago Sake Brewing Co, Ltd., located in the Hokkaido prefecture, was founded in 1899, and are unique for their use of an ice dome in brewing. Once it gets cold enough in the winter, they constrict an igloo like building near the brewery, and that ice dome remains very cold inside. They brew their Daiginjo in the ice dome, which is also made in the shiziku style. The resulting Takasago Ginga-Shizuku "Divine Droplets" Junmai Daiginjo is light, clean, crisp and complex. It is a more subtle Sake, but one that will seduce your palate with its elegance. Their Taisetsu "Garden of the Divine" Junmai Ginjo is also smooth and elegant, but with a bit stronger flavors, including some nice melon notes. The Taisetsu Junmai has a richer flavor, with tastes of steamed rice, herbs and peach. It is interesting to note that John Gauntner helped them devise the English name for their Sakes.

Asahi Sake Brewing Co., located in the Yamaguchi prefecture, has a motto of "We brew sake for sipping, not sake for drinking, nor sake for selling." They seek to produce the highest quality Sake they can, something to slowly savor rather than guzzle and gulp. Their Sake is very popular and I have previously reviewed the Dassai Migaki Niwari Sanbu Junmai Daiginjo. I also got to taste the Dassai Junmai Daiginjo Sparkling Nigori, which is one of the best sparkling Sakes I have tasted. It is not too sweet, with a light effervescence, mild tropical fruit flavors, and a savory backbone. It has much more complexity than the usual sparkling Sake.

Sudo-Honke, Inc., located in the Ibaraki prefecture, is the oldest, still operating Sake brewery in the world, having been founded back in 1140s A.D., so it is over 860 years old! What a sense of history in ever sip of their Sake. Pictured above on the far left is the Sato No Homare "Pride of the Village" Junmai Ginjo, one of my favorite Sakes and you should read my prior review.

Some of the other Sake breweries represented at the tasting include: Tentaka Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., Ozeki Corp., Ozeki USA, Shiragiku Sake Brewery, Suehiro Sake Brewery, Tatsuuma-Honke Brewing Co., Ltd., Yamamato Honke, Murai Family, and Yoshinogawa.

Expand your palate and delve into the fascinating and delicious realm of Sake.

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