Friday, December 20, 2013

2013: 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, 2013. 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 2013. 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.

My Tipsy Sensei Series: Back in 2012, I launched a new and exciting endeavor, to write Sake-related fiction. I have always loved writing fiction and previously posted several food & wine short stories on my blog. So, I eventually decided to create the Tipsy Sensei series, a collection of stories about a Sake expert in Boston who learns that the supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore actually exist. The intent of this series is to share my passion and knowledge of Sake, as well as to tell interesting and thrilling stories, delving into the rich legends and folklore of Japan.

This year, I continued the Tipsy Sensei, publishing two books. The Tipsy Sensei & Others is a book of 9 short stories, including four which are part of the Tipsy Sensei series. Hand Fed Tigers is my novel, a direct sequel to the prior Demons, Gods & Sake. Published in October, Hand Fed Tigers delves into zombies, cats and ninjas. I'm currently working on the next novel in the Tipsy Sensei series, and it will delve into the dark history of World War 2. Thanks to everyone who has bought and read the Tipsy Sensei books, and I greatly appreciate your reviews and input.

Sake in the News: Sake seems to be getting more and more attention in the media, and I also had an article, 10 Things To Know About Sake, published in the Beverage Media magazines. Magazines from Wine Spectator to Boston Magazine published Sake articles, although they contained a few errors. Most Sake articles in these magazines are introductory, so it is tougher to find more in-depth articles though some change may be on the way. Sake Evangelist John Gauntner is behind a new magazine, Sake Today, which has not yet published its first issue, though it sounds very promising. I eagerly look forward to its inaugural issue.

Most Common Sake Error: I see the same error time and time again, both online and in print. And the fact that it continues to get printed helps to perpetuate and spread the error to others. The error centers on the Junmai sake and whether there is a minimum polishing requirement for the rice. Many state that Junmai must be polished down to at least 70% of the rice kernel but that is incorrect. Ten years ago, that law was changed and now Junmai does not possess a minimum polishing requirement. To be Junmai, a Sake can only contain 4 ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji-kin. Please stop claiming that it must be polished down to at least 70%.

Sake Exports: As I mentioned last year, Sake exports have continued to grow, breaking some previous records, though exports still constitute only a small portion of the Sake industry. During the first six months of 2013 (the most current statistics I have), Sake exports had grown by 11%, which is a reason to rejoice. The U.S.generally imported about 25% of Sake exports, but during the first half of 2013, that figure rose to 28%, showing that U.S. Sake consumption is on the rise. Though Sake consumption in Japan continues to decrease, that decrease is mainly due to major decreases in futsu-shu, while premium Sake consumption has shown a small increase. More good news!

Sake Seminar for Designers: The annual Design Blogger's Conference is a fascinating event for interior design bloggers, and not the first place you might think you'd find a Sake seminar. However, I was invited to be one of the speakers at the 2013 event, to discuss Sake and blogging, as well as to do a tasting. The attendees were very receptive and curious, and the Sparkling Sake seemed to win over many new fans. Outside of the seminar, I got to meet and chat with numerous attendees, and it was a great place to network, and spread my passion for Sake. One can make Sake converts where ever one travels.

Favorite New Sake Portfolio: Unfortunately, Massachusetts doesn't seem to see much new Sake, and I have tasted most of what is available here. When I travel, I am always eager to sample new Sakes, to see what else is available across the country. While in Portland, Oregon, my friend Gordon introduced me to 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, and they currently import five unique and delicious Sakes, though these are not available in Massachusetts right now. I tasted all five Sakes and found them all compelling in their own respect, and if they are available in your area, definitely check them out.

Favorite Overall Sake: At my superb dinner at N/Naka in Los Angeles, we ordered a bottle of the Denshin Natsu Daiginjo Nama, which I later learned was a rare Sake, with only 420 bottles made each year. It is produced by the Ippongi Kubo Honten brewery, which was founded in 1902, in the Chubu region of the Fukui prefecture. It was made from the famed Yamada Nishiki rice, which was polished to 50%. Incredibly complex, great fruit flavors, crisp, clean and smooth. A "Wow!" Sake, sure to impress, and which everyone at our table loved very deeply. It receives my highest recommendation though it may be difficult to locate.

Favorite Junmai Sake: The Denshin Ine Junmai is from the same brewery as my Favorite Overall Sake, though I enjoyed this one at the Masu restaurant in Portland. It is made from Koshinoshizuku rice, which was polished to 65%. Smooth, full bodied and fruity, this was an easy-drinking Sake, something you could sit and drink all night. This can be enjoyed with or without food.

Favorite Ginjo Sake: This category was a tie, though interestingly, both Sakes are Okarakuchi, meaning that they are dry, and usually refers to very dry Sakes. The Okarakuchi “Super Dry” Junmai Ginjo Muroka Nama Genshu is from the Floating World portfolio. It 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. 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. This would be an excellent Sake with seafood.

The Toyo Bijin Junmai Ginjo Okarakuchi Sake is also made with Yamada Nishiki rice, which has been polished down to 55%, and has an SMV of +15. It also has a higher than average acidity, 1.5, which contributes to its perceived dryness. I greatly enjoyed this Sake, finding it to be crisp, clean and smooth, with pleasant flavors of melon and Asian pear. A well balanced Sake, it is easy drinking, and would appeal to both Sake lovers and newcomers to this wondrous beverage. This would be an excellent Sake with food too, especially as it possesses a higher acidity.

Favorite Kimoto/Yamahai Style Sake: The Hakugyokko “White Jewel” Junmai Yamahai Muroka Nama Genshu, from the Floating World portfolio, is made by the only 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. 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. 

Favorite Nigori Sake: The Soma no Tengu “Forest Spirit” Junmai Ginjo Muroka Nama Genshu Usu-nigori, also from the Floating World portfolio, is produced by the Uehara Shuzo, founded in 1862, which is a very traditional brewery in many ways. 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. It is 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.

Most Unusual Sake: The Inemankai “Ine’s Full Bloom” Junmai Genshu is another from the Floating World portfolio, and is produced by the Mukai Shuzō, which was founded in 1754. 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 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. 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. 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.

Favorite Introductory Sake: What Sake is best to introduce a newcomer to the category? Well, the Obata Manotsuru "Crane" Junmai might be a good choice.  It is made with Koshiibuki rice, which was milled down to 65%, and has a Sake Meter Value of +6 to +8, meaning it is more on the dry side. This was a crisp, smooth and clean Sake with flavors of melon and peach. It had a rich mouth feel and the finish was long and satisfying. A pleasant, easy drinking Sake which would pair well with a variety of foods. It should appeal to a broad range of preferences and palates, so would make a nice Sake for someone just starting out, though even Sake lovers will enjoy it.

Favorite Sake Crawl: With my friend and fellow Sake lover Gordon, we enjoyed a fun Sake Crawl in Portland, starting with a tasting at my hotel. We then went out on the town, hitting three different spots, and enjoying a variety of Sakes, paired with some delicious food. We ended up at a bar that looked out on the city, a great way to end the evening. Portland truly is a city for Sake lovers, especially with good friends like Gordon.

Sake & Food Pairing: I've written a number of articles about the versatility of Sake and food, and wrote two more this past year, including Sake, Seafood and Lobster Anywhere and Pairing Cheese & Sake. Others in the media also seem to be catching on that Sake is great with all types of cuisines, especially because of the umami factor. I've been writing and talking about Sake and Umami for over five years (including this popular post The Science of Sake & Food Pairings).  In a recent article in the Japan Times, the idea of Sake and Umami is continuing to spread. Start adding Sake to your menu, no matter what type of food you are eating.

Favorite New Sake Book: Though Sake, Health & Longevity by Yukio Takizawa was published in 2011, it seems that it only recently became available as an e-book and I picked up a copy. In my post, Health Benefits of Sake, I discuss some of the findings from this small, but informative book. the book discusses more than just health benefits, and gives info on Sake production, food pairing, and more. If you are interested in Sake, pick up a copy of this book.

My Favorite Sake Rant: In Sake Don't Need No Stinkin' Scores!, I explain why I don't believe Sake should be scored on the 100 point system like wine. This was inspired by a Wine Spectator issue which reviewed Sake without scoring them. However, they indicated they might do so one day, if they acquired more tasting experience. Sake benefits from not being scored, and I hope that my Rant persuades you to agree with my position.


What were some of your favorite Sake items this year?

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