Any time I make a trip to Japan I always try to squeeze in a brewery visit or two and on my last visit I was fortunate enough to visit one of my favourites in Nishiyama Shuzo makers of Kotsuzumi from Hyogo prefecture. I first came across Kotsuzumi when I received a bottle of their flagship sake Tanko Junmai Ginjo as a souvenir from a friend but at the time knew little about them. It was an amazing sake that soon became one of my go-to sake whenever I visited Japan. So I was doubly excited when they warmly invited me take a look around the brewery.
Established in 1849 Nishiyama Shuzo is in a beautiful, mountainous location in Tanba City in the middle of nowhere, Hyogo. Many breweries are located in difficult to get to countryside areas so as to have access to good water, and Nishiyama is no exception. Like many breweries their water is their pride and the folks at Kotsuzumi wasted no time in telling me their famous soft-water from the Takeda River which they pump from wells on site had been featured in the famous gourmet manga-comic Oishinbo where it was described as “plump, round with a surprisingly quick, fleeting finish. Truly a pure, bold water”. High praise indeed! The fact that the local water is soft-water is also noteworthy as most Hyogo sake comes from the Nada region famously for its particularly hard water.
One of the first things you notice about a bottle of Kotsuzumi is the striking labels. All their Labels are designed by respected artist Hirosuke Watanuki. It was nice to see the motifs on the labels reflected throughout the brewery, all the signage and even the outside garbage bin bore a design from Watanuki-san which gives a unique feeling of continuity and consistency which also reflects in their approach to brewing. As Kotsuzumi’s Toji Yashima-san explained, they brew in small batches all year round to maintain consistency and freshness. Many breweries still follow the traditional style of doing all their brewing only in the cooler months and then spending the warmer months marketing and promoting (or even resting!). However at Kotsuzumi their year round brewing philosophy means if you spot a Kotsuzumi bottle on the shelves you can be sure it is only a few months old and unlikely to be from last year’s production. This “fresh is best” approach to brewing also means you won’t find any koshu or aged sake about. Again as Yashima-san explained, their small size and constant brewing system means they don’t have any tank or storage space even if they wanted to age their sake. But then again who needs it?
Nishiyama are very much a modern brewery and pride themselves on individuality. This is evident in their use of only locally grown rice including the familiar Yamadanishiki and Gohyakumangoku as well as the very local, organically grown Tajima-Goriki and Hyogo-kitanishiki. Also unusual is their almost exclusive use of Ogawa #10 yeast strain. A far from common or easy to work with yeast strain that Yashima-san finds rewards with light, delicate, elegant sake. Breaking further from tradition is the method of having all brewery workers (kurabito) involved in all aspects of brewing without the Toji, Yashima-san keeping any secrets to himself. It is common or traditional in breweries for the Toji to take full control and responsibility for many aspects of brewing without delegating tasks of high importance to other brewers until they’re too old to do it all themselves. This is why you often hear stories of Toji who spend the brewing months living on only a couple of hours of sleep a day and working up to six months straight without a day off. Admirable but not always practical. After all if the Toji were to become sick, production would ground to a halt. By making the techniques, brewing data and know-how of the Toji available to all the brewers consistency is guaranteed. A smart move in these fiscal times I’d say.
These days it’s hard for a brewery to make ends meet on just sake alone so mnay of them branch out with other products usually starting with Ume-shu, Yuzu infused liqueurs and often shochu. Nishiyama Shuzo is no exception producing all of these as well as grape liqueur, strawberry liqueur and even Amazake yoghurt. Amazake, if you’re not familiar is a sweet, non-alcoholic beverage made using koji and rice, often drunk warm. But beyond these I was most surprised to be shown their Grappa distillery(!). Yep, of all places to find Italian firewater, it’s being distilled out in the boondocks of Japan.
Of course on such a trip I was unlikely to leave without a couple of bottles and I couldn’t resist grabbing a “fresh-as-can-be” bottle of the Tanko Junmai Ginjo and Tokubetsu Junmai. But imagine my surprise when it was casually mentioned that some of the Kotsuzumi portfolio was available in Australia! What?? Since when? How did something like this get by a know-it-all like me? Nonetheless it is true that the Kotsuzumi Tokebetsu Junmai and the Kotsuzumi Junmai Ginjo Hanafubuki are in fact available through Sake Online. Grab some!
Kotsuzumi Tokubetsu Junmai Seiamibuai: 58%
Rice: Hyogo Kitanishiki
Slightly earthy aromas, blended with white chocolate, white flowers and hints of poached pear. Plush and full on the palate with a dollop of umami and a slightly spicy, grippy finish. Also recommended slightly warmed or room temperature.
If you find yourself in Japan with the chance to try the Tanko I highly recommend it as one of my all time favourite sake. Their Daiginjo are also nothing short of outstanding and interestingly keep to the brewery policy of not milling rice any lower than 45%. In this day and age of seeing who can go lowest with 35% becoming the norm for competition sake, I find that a breath of fresh air. Arguably, to go much lower than 45 or 40% the sake loses its umami and the whole exercise becomes more about bragging rights than sake quality.
As I’ve said all along, one of the main things required to bring sake to a wider audience is education. So many people don’t know what sake is or have skewed or misinformed views of sake that prevent them from trying it (or in some cases trying it again). And who is to provide the education? It’s worth noting that being born Japanese does in no way credit one with an instinctive knowledge of sake so forget listening to the Japanese person who says “of course I know about sake, I’m Japanese”. Nor does years of training as a wine sommelier instantly make one an expert on all alcoholic beverages so be wary of the one who “knows wine, therefore knows sake”. So who to listen to?
Well, someone who has been out in the trenches for longer than most waving the sake flag loud and proud is Toshi Maeda. After arriving in Melbourne in the mid-nineties from Kobe Japan, Toshi enjoyed a fling playing drums on the pub-music circuit before settling into hospitality. Like many young Japanese he wasn’t too enamoured with sake in his younger years, preferring beer and wine with the occasional glass of sake here and there. However, working evenings at a Japanese restaurant Toshi found himself constantly asked by Australian customers for recommendations from their vast sake menu. In an effort to better help his customers Toshi valiantly began tasting as much sake as he could and like many others headed down the sake rabbit hole never to return. Fast forward a few years to 2007 and Toshi eventually opened his own izakaya (casual, shared dining restaurant) in Richmond, Melbourne naming it appropriately enough Maedaya. With the idea of making sake the star, Toshi took a big chance by having no wine on the menu and no BYO. A brave and admirable move! Despite meeting with a little apprehension from some when first opening, customers opened their minds and gave sake a chance finding something on the menu of 115 different sake that they liked. At a recent sake tasting at Wagamama Restaurant in Brisbane I caught up with Toshi for a bit of a chat about all things sake.
When I asked how the “wineless” drinks menu was being received these days Toshi explained that with reputation firmly in place most customers know what they’re in for and among the regular customers there are those that have their favourite sake and just stick to those every time they come and those that want to try something different each time. I have to admit when I visited Maedaya last year I was so enthralled with the range of sake available I didn’t even notice the lack of wine. With that much sake, who needs it? However Toshi also notes that there are still many that come to the restaurant with the image of sake as being a high alcohol spirit to be drunk piping hot as a shot at the end of the meal. This is one of the misconceptions he is keen to erase. “I want people to actually try sake and enjoy it and want to drink it again,” he says. A very important point. Having people try sake once and walk away from it as a one-off experience will do nothing for the industry moving forward. It’s about liking it enough to come back again and again. When I asked Toshi how he convinces customers to go for sake over beer or wine he explains, “I tend to treat sake as wine. You have wine with food and sake should be drunk with food too. Whether it’s a meal or just some simple salty snacks or edamame. And sake goes with so many types of food. Especially with fresh seafood. If you drink wine or beer with some seafood it can leave a strange aftertaste. But with sake the flavours work together without clashing.” However, Toshi also acknowledges the future of sake in Australia lies in experimenting sake with different styles of cuisine besides Japanese. “Sake can be matched with French or Italian dishes very well. Also cheese works well with some ginjo or junmai sake. I wish more restaurants would have at least one or two sake on their list so customers can experience sake with other cuisine,” he says. On the upside sales are strong through his online retail service sakejapan.com.au showing more Australians are in fact drinking sake at home instead of just saving it for when they are at a Japanese restaurant.
After watching Toshi in action on Wednesday night it was clear he is passionate about helping people enjoy sake. Canapés were matched with warm sake (Kizakura Yamahai), a Yuzu infused premix, the fantastic Rihaku Blue Purity Junmai, the sweet and sour Kizakura Nigori and ume-shu (plum wine). And sure enough with a range that wide everyone seemed to find something to their taste. Indeed not all sake is for everyone but there is at least one sake for everyone.
If you’re in Melbourne by all means pop in to Maedaya and have a chat with Toshi and see if he can’t find a sake to put a smile on your face and if Melbourne is a little far sakejapan.com.au is only a click away and you can get all your sake goodness delivered to your front door. As sake’s audience grows it’s good to know there are generous, knowledgeable and approachable people like Toshi Maeda out there on the front lines busting the myths and showing people how good sake can be. Respect.
So after the barrage of linguistic lunacy in my last post I figured we may as well continue on and look at some other common words and characters often found in the names on sake labels. Most of these are quite high in usage so you’re bound to come across them at some point.
*Not so much a word as a particle to indicate possession or ownership is NO 乃. To be honest I feel like this one is in higher usage than some of the other ones already looked at but there you go. NO will always be in the middle of a name as it means to belong to something. Names such as Koshi no Kanbai (the winter plum of Niigata), the previously mentioned Sawanotsuru (the crane of the swamp) and the sake from a couple of posts ago Yoshinogawa (the river of joy). Incidentally, this character for NO is an older way of writing. These days just about anywhere besides sake labels the character would be written as の. This character can is used in conversation to signify possession and is seen all over the place in Japanese life.
*白 HAKU or SHIRO, known to us as “white”, is positively everywhere! Again a bit of a universal meaning of purity. Due to the fact that it features in the name of several of the larger breweries you tend to see it about quite a bit. Hakutsuru (white crane), Hakushika (white deer), Shirayuki (white snow) all from Hyogo. Another, Rihaku from Shimane appears to translate to white prune but is actually the name of Chinese poet Li Bai (Li Bai is the chinese reading for the same characters that spell Rihaku) and is often seen with the English name “Wandering Poet” written on the label.
*The Japanese love of hot springs (onsen) is no secret so it’s hardly surprising that the kanji for “spring” 泉 IZUMI or SEN and it’s rejuvenating undertones features on many sake labels. Kameizumi (turtle spring?)from Kochi, Gunmaizumi (Gunma’s spring), Kinsen (golden spring) from Hiroshima.
*It is also quite common for breweries to use the old name of their region in the brands. Probably the most common is Niigata. The old name for Niigata was 越後 Echigo but the first half of this character also reads as 越 KOSHI. You’ll notice many Niigata sake bearing the name KOSHI followed by the previously mentioned NO to indicate being from Niigata. Obvious examples are Koshi No Kanbai, Koshi No Hatsu Ume (Niigata’s first plum), Koshi No Tsuru (Crane of Niigata). Other regions also use either their old name or the name of the regional brewers’ guild (Toji Ryuha) such as sake from Kochi bearing the name 土佐Tosa or sake from Iwate with the name 南部Nanbu.
Other honorable mentions of characters you are likely to come across include:
*亀KAME-Turtle signifying long life
*神SHIN or KAMI-God or holy
*竹TAKE or CHIKU- bamboo, signifying strength
*竜TATSU or RYU- dragon
*鹿SHIKA-deer. Fairly common in Kansai sake.
There really are tons of others but I think these ones will pop up often enough to keep you interested. Knowing what the name of your favourite sake means can add to the depth of enjoyment so as I said before, don’t be put off by not understanding the names you might find they’re not quite as hard as you think.
Probably the biggest obstacle for people trying to get into sake is the language barrier. Depending on how far you wish to delve into the sake world it can feel as though you are learning a whole new language. And I guess in essence you are. So much of the shop-talk doesn’t translate well into English leaving folks to try and decipher the Romanized text of sake labels and menus resulting in plenty of confusion. On top of that it is the names of the brands/breweries. You’d almost be forgiven for giving up and sticking with beer. Almost.
Interestingly though, many of the characters (kanji) that make up the names of the sake brands are widely used every day words. When talking about all things Japanese you may notice some of these words crop up quite a bit, not only as names of sake but also places and surnames. If you can get a grasp on some of these regular occurring words it may make it easier to remember the names of your favourite sake (and people and places for that matter). Here are five of the more common ones and the reasons behind their use.
1. The most widely used kanji among sake names is 山 YAMA. Meaning “mountain”, yama signifies strength, majesty and longevity (a recurring them you’ll find with sake names). Popular examples include: Otokoyama (man-mountain), Ooyama (big mountain), Tateyama (from Toyama, two Yamas for the price of one!). You may also spot this kanji on a bottle of Yamahai 山廃 style sake. Yep, same YAMA.
2. Next most popular kanji is 鶴 TSURU, crane (as in the bird of course not the crane for building construction!). In Japan the crane is a symbol of good fortune. It doesn’t take more than a glance into Japanese art and mythology to see the importance of cranes to Japanese culture. Also, in Japanese mythology cranes are said to live up to 1000 years which again appeals to the symbology for breweries with long history hoping to be around for many more years to come. Japan’s largest sake brewery, Hakutsuru (white crane) and Sawanotsuru (crane of the swamp) from Hyogo are two of the better known examples also Taketsuru (bamboo crane) from Hiroshima among many others.
3. The next most popular kanji is actually two kanji put together to make 正宗 MASAMUNE. The interesting history (legend) behind this one actually goes back to a specific brewery in Hyogo. Up until around the 3rd Century all sake was cloudy and unfiltered. It was around this time that the first processes towards making clear sake through filtering and pressing were discovered. This new type of “clear sake” was called SEISHU 清酒 which is a literal translation. Many years later this term was picked up by the government to define sake for tax purposes (if you look on any sake bottle you’ll find this kanji somewhere). Fast forward to 1840 and the then President Tazaemon of the Yamamura family’s brewery was looking to come up with a new catchy name for their sake to break away from the popular theme of naming after Kabuki theatre characters. On a visit to an acquaintance at a temple in Kyoto he happened to notice a book lying around with the name Masamune in the title.
Now for a bit of a Japanese lesson; most kanji characters actually have two or more ways of reading depending on context and which other kanji they are combined with. This is probably the biggest headache for anyone wanting to learn to read and write Japanese. In the case of MASAMUNE, the first kanji 正 means “righteous, justice, correct”. There are actually four ways to read this kanji but SEI and MASA are all we need to know for now. The second kanji MUNE 宗 can mean “a religious sect, essence, main point” and has three readings but again we’ll stick with just MUNE and SHU. So upon seeing the name MASAMUNE Mr Tazaemon realised that with a bit of wordplay 正宗 MASAMUNE could be read as 清酒 SEISHU thus coming up with a cool new label. The Japanese love a bit of wordplay so it didn’t take long before word got around and other breweries started using MASAMUNE on their labels too. However by 1884 when the brewery went to the government to trademark the name MASAMUNE they found they couldn’t due to the perception of MASAMUNE as having become generic. So they plonked SAKURA (cherry blossom) in front of it and gave us Sakura-Masamune.
The part two to the MASAMUNE story is the reputation of the legendary Goro Masamune, swordsmith from the 1200s. Some breweries go for the metaphor that their sake has a crisp, clean, “kire” cut or more accurately, “finish” to it just like a perfect sword from Goro Masamune. These days there are still plenty of breweries bearing the MASAMUNE moniker; Yamagata Masamune, Kiku Masamune and Hakuin Masamune to name a few.
4. KIKU 菊, chrysanthemum is another hugely popular name. Most people would tell you the cherry blossom is the Japan’s national flower and the rest would say it’s the chrysanthemum. It’s actually neither as the government has never officially chosen one. However there is no doubt the chrysanthemum has a deep significance in Japanese culture. depending on the season and the colour of the flower they can symbolise grief and sympathy or even affection and romance. It also has a very imperial image due to its use as an emblem by Japan’s royal family. Some examples include Kiku-Masamune, Kikusui and Kikuhime
5. Rounding out the top five is 大 DAI, TAI or OO. Basically meaning big or great, you’ll see this kanji everywhere from sake labels Daishichi, Taiheizan, Daiginjo (great ginjo!) to place names (Osaka 大阪) and even on menus in restaurants to signify a larger serving of a dish where available.
This is merely scratching the surface of the topic of kanji use in sake labelling but I believe just a little bit can go a long way towards understanding the complexity of labelling and the Japanese language for that matter. Don’t let a little thing like “linguistics” put you off trying something off the sake menu!
To be continued……
Yet again I’ve fallen to the trap of getting bogged down with other things and have unfortunately neglected my Sake Australia duties. The good news is I’ve been busy with things sake related. More on those another time. I’ve just returned from another stint in Japan where I drank plenty of amazing sake, ate lots of great food, met lots of interesting people and learned tons of new things. Always an adventure.
However I thought I’d come back with something a little local(ish) as in something related to sake available in Australia.
As I’ve mentioned before, Niigata is an amazing region for sake. A suitable climate, rich traditions and the highest sake consumption of anywhere in Japan has helped establish the region as probably the premiere sake destination. Similar to wine regions, Niigata is made up of a good cross-section of impossibly tiny producers whose product is virtually unseen except around the local vicinity and larger producers shipping sake all over Japan and even as far flung as humble old Australia. Yoshinogawa fits in the latter. Again similar to wine and beer producers, the common perception is that the bigger the producer the blander or more “commercial” the product. While in some cases that may be true, for the sake industry it definitely isn’t the rule. Many of the larger producers make great sake, it’s just that they augment their sales with production of cheaper lesser products which can become the thing they are better known for. Now all this is a bit off course because Yoshinogawa is not that big. Just relatively for Niigata breweries. Also as the oldest brewery in Niigata (est. 1548) they are one of the “faces” of Niigata sake.
So lets start at the top. I know I’ve tended to stay away from the dizzying heights of Daiginjo in favour of more approachable styles, but in this case I’ll cut to the chase. While I would never dare to be so blasé about Yoshinogawa as to describe their Daiginjo as “typical”, I will say if you like Daiginjo, you’re gonna love this. Matured for three years at minus 5 degrees celcius (the low temperature results in a slow maturation), plenty of complex floral aromas and tight pine and stone-fruits on the palate with plenty of plush fullness without being overbearing. A dry, clean, light, fleeting finish gives a settled and regal sake. Very cool and easy to like.
Yoshinogawa is available through several restaurants across Australia. Being a local to Queensland I can only vouch for sure of it’s availability at Ferry Rd Beer and Wine in Southport and Cru Bar Cellars in Brisbane. If you spot it, don’t be shy of giving it a try, Yoshinogawa is unlikely to disappoint even the most hesitant of new sake drinkers.
I’m writing today’s post with a bit of a spring in my step. Australia’s sake market is still very young and as such there still isn’t a huge range of sake available here, retail or in restaurants. But the good news is the ones we are getting are of a pretty high standard and you can’t get much higher than Dewazakura from Yamagata prefecture.
Dewazakura is a very popular brewery as shown in its number eight ranking on the popular sake consumer site Sake Monogatari (sake stories) but is also famous for its promotion of the local rice variety Dewasansan.
Firstly, the name. Dewa comes from the name for the Yamagata region used in the 7th century: Dewakuni (Dewa country) and zakura (or sakura) meaning cherry blossom. Dewazakura have been brewing sake since 1892 and are firmly in place as industry leaders. The sake I have today is one of their flagship brews, the Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo Commemorative Nama.
A bit of a mouthful but an amazing sake. 20 odd years ago the brewers of Yamagata got together and decided they needed to do something to raise the level of Yamagata sake and get it out in the forefront. All sorts of research were undertaken, new yeasts were cultivated, techniques refined. But the big development after eleven years was the birth of Dewasansan rice. Again the name comes from the old regional name of Dewa combined with a bit of word play. Stick with me here….Yamagata is surrounded by lots of mountains of varying heights. 33 of those mountains reach the 1400m height. 33 in Japanese is sanjusan or if you just say 3 twice, sansan. Which is why sometimes you’ll see it written as 出羽33 It’s also a play on the word for “mountainous”, yamayama written as 山々. However due to the unbelievable complications that is the Japanese language that character could also be read as sansan. The discoverers of this rice variety decided they wanted to give the rice a name with a bit of flair so they came up with 燦々 meaning brilliant or bright which also reads as sansan. Giving us,出羽燦々 So, there you have three interpretations of how they got the sansan part of the name. Whether my explanation makes any sense or if it was worth it, I’ll leave up to you.
Since its inception Dewasansan has become the pride of Yamagata with plenty of breweries picking it up and producing soft elegant brews. The other interesting twist to the Dewasansan story is the creation of a sort of appellation controlee clause decreed by the Yamagata Pure Brewing Inspectors. This stipulates that if a sake is made under the set conditions it may bear the official Dewasansan sticker:
*100% use of Dewasansan
*Must be of Junmai Ginjo level (no added alcohol allowed)
*Rice milling rate must be less than 55%
*Must use yeast and koji of Yamagata origin.
And if you thought they couldn’t take this any more seriously, they even have a theme song. Yessir, a Dewasansan theme song. Click on this link and scroll to the bottom MP3 link to hear it in iTunes. Inspiring stuff.
All of this brings us to Dewazakura’s Junmai Ginjo bearing the approved Dewasansan sticker. As I mentioned at the top of this post I’m in a bit of a good mood because quite honestly I think this is one of the best sake available in Australia. A big call maybe but I’ll stand by it. Being unpasteurized, it shows those big unrestrained aromas of pear, hints of cocoa, and the nama (unpasteurized) character of white rind cheese. Then take a sip and it seduces your palate entirely. Umami deliciousness, balanced, tight acid and fullness that covers every corner of the mouth. For me this is why I love sake. Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo is out and about in restaurants and maybe a couple of retailers. If you spot it around make sure it’s been stored in the fridge before you fork over your hard-earned because for unpasteurized sake room temperature or even worse, an Australian summer can be detrimental to the sake. Remember, sake has no preservatives so care must be taken with storage. Keeping that in mind, by all means hunt about and if you can’t find it hassle your local bottle-shop or restaurant to get it in, coz if you aren’t a sake fan yet a couple of sips of Dewazakura and you will be.
Dewazakura Junmai Ginjo Dewasansan Tanjo Kinen 出羽桜純米吟醸出羽燦々誕生記念
Yamagata Prefecture Dewasansan Rice
Seiamaibuai: 50% Yamagata Yeast
Two years on and I still encounter quite a few people who are a little hesitant about sake due to the tragic events of March 2011. While many consumers initial reaction following the earthquake and following tsunami that hit the Northern Japan region of Tokoku was to go out and buy sake from the affected regions in a show of support, that support slowed right down following the explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Panic set in and folks were concerned sake from those regions may be tainted or worse contaminated with radioactivity.
While I don’t wish to play down the severity of what happened in 2011, some of the reactions were based on panic rather than facts. To clarify, Tohoku is the name for the North Eastern part of the main island of Japan. It is made up of Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, Yamagata, Akita and Aomori prefectures.
Firstly, for the rest of 2011 and a good part of 2012 the sake from these regions had already been brewed and and much was even already bottled. March is around the end of the brewing season so all the rice and water that went into 2011 sake had already been harvested and sourced. Sake breweries are sturdy buildings many with thick concrete walls to prevent against temperature fluctuations and sake that was being stored in breweries was quite safe (from radiation-not the floods, a lot of stock was lost). This of course meant the “risk” lay more in sake being brewed in late 2011 early 2012. The first harvests of 2011 were not used in sake brewing as the Japanese Agricultural Co-Op was inspecting and testing the rice. Breweries from the Tohoku region used rice from Western Japan and other regions as many of them do anyway, quite removed from the explosion zone. All rice in Tohoku is being tested with the rice from Fukushima and the immediate surrounding areas being tested up to four times more vigorously. As most of these tests are spot checks breweries are conducting their own tests once they have purchased their brewing rice. It’s important to remember the sake industry in Japan is not exactly booming, the last thing these breweries want to do is put the final nail in the coffin by selling contaminated sake.
Another point is when rice is used for sake brewing it is milled down from its original size by as much 70%. Those outer layers are milled away and are used for such things as feed for farm animals, pickles and even to make cosmetic products. And again this rice refuse (called nuka) is also tested for radiation by the National Agricultural Co-Op. If the levels of the outer 50% or so of the rice is safe you could expect the inner centre of the rice grain to be equally safe and testing has proven that cesium does not penetrate that deeply into unmilled brown rice.. Sake is also being tested in its final production stages (roughly three months after production start). So far there have been no incidents of rice used in sake exceeding the accepted cesium levels or incidents of contaminated sake itself. What about water I hear you ask? Water used for brewing is usually sourced from wells deep underground. The radiation fortunately hasn’t penetrated that far into the earth and for the most part water even in Fukushima (and more importantly the water used for brewing) has been declared safe. Breweries are doing all this testing voluntarily, as I said no one wants to compromise the quality and reputation of Japanese sake or harm a populace to avoid losing business.
Last year at the National New Sake Awards sake from Fukushima cleaned up with 22 gold medals. And for you cynics out there, this is a blind tasting competition so there was no sympathy vote for Fukushima. The quality of sake is not suffering, these guys are putting it on the line and churning out quality sake that is safe to drink against everything nature threw at them two years ago. I’m not going to get into the conspiracy theories or exaggerated journalism that’s been prevalent for the last two years and of course the decision on whether or not to trust sake from the Tohoku region will ultimately come down to the consumer but personally, I’m behind them all the way. Drink Tohoku!
And on that note, one of the most easily recognizable sake labels,
Urakasumi‘s Junma Ginjo Zen is a gorgeous palate cleansing brew. Aromas of cedar (though no cedar barrel contact), chestnut, melon and poached pear. Ample bodied mouthfeel with some plump, rice driven characters. Urakasumi recommends this sake with oysters and I couldn’t agree more!
Urakasumi Junmai Ginjo Zen
Seimaibuai 50% Toyonishiki, Yamadanishiki Rice
Cosmopolitan, multicultural, funky and a little bit hipster, it’s probably fair to say that when it comes to restaurants and bars Melbourne is leading the way in this country. The first city to (finally!) catch on to the merits of small bars and boasting hundreds of interesting restaurants minus the pretensions that can be found in some other big cities it’s simply a great place to be for those that like a good meal and maybe a little something to drink. Fortunately Sake hasn’t been left behind, finding its way onto more than a few wine lists and bar menus as a number of venues take up the charge to bring nihonshu to the wider audience it deserves.
Among these one gent in a particular has done a bit more than others. Andre Bishop has earned himself a bit of a name as the go-to guy when it comes to sake. Andre had an interest in all things Japan from an early age in particular the anime and manga driven pop-culture of Japan. In later years this interest grew into something bigger thanks to a backpacking tour of Japan and he decided that Japan was the place for him. However things don’t always go as planned and family life saw Andre remain in Australia. With the idea that if he couldn’t go to Japan he’d bring Japan here, Andre set about starting his own Japanese sub-culture in the city of Melbourne.
Since his first venture with Robot Izakaya and now armed with an Advanced Sake Professional Certificate from the SakeEducation Council, Andre runs a mini sake empire of three Japanese themed venues around Melbourne. Serving as the flagship is Kumo Izakaya a chic take on the rustic izakaya you normally find in Japan, Kumo offers a mix of traditional Japanese food with a few Australian-centric twists and also boasts probably Australia’s largest sake menu. Izakaya Chuji is more of a nod to the rustic style with a casual atmosphere and a more home style cooking kind of menu with a formidable sushi counter. Chuji is actually one of the older Japanese restaurants in Melbourne, Andre took over the licence a number of years ago. Next door you’ll find Nihonshu Bar, a funky drinking hole dedicated to sake, shochu and some tastefully selected Japanese whisky and Awamori. Regular sake events, tastings and dinners are held at Kumo so if you’re a Melbournite keep an eye out.
Having a drink and a chat with Andre one of the things that shines through is his genuine love for sake. It would be fair to say there are a couple of bandwagon jumpers out there that have latched onto sake as “the next big thing” and see it as a selling point or commodity but Andre is the real deal. He makes regular visits to Japan to check out breweries and keep up with what’s going on, often sourcing some nifty little tidbits while he’s at it. Andre can be often found at any of his establishments happy to chat and ready with any recommendations, so if you’re thinking about taking the step into the sake world and having a peek, pop in and I’m sure Andre will be happy to show you around.
I have to admit it’s been a while since I had a daiginjo. Despite their status at the top of the sake totem pole, I tend to go for more of the regular drinkin styles of sake rather than the high flying elegance of the daiginjo. Don’t get me wrong, I love daiginjo but I kind of think of them as a sake for special occasions rather than everyday drinking.
Which is why it was kind of ironic that I was at a casual dinner drinking several different sake in a lively environment when I first came across Onna Nakase Junmai Daiginjo. Although the sake on offer that evening were all of different styles and grades, there was something about this particular sake and its clean, fresh flavour that seemed to wake my palate with each sip drawing me back. Fast forward a couple of years and it was on a recent trip to Japan that I happened to spot it in a bottle shop and the memories came flooding back. So, of course I grabbed a bottle.
Onna Nakase translates as “make the girls cry”. Makers Oomuraya Brewery in Shizuoka (south-west of Tokyo by the sea, home of Mt Fuji!) have a bit of a knack for coming up with memorable names for their sake. Their Wakatake Onikoroshi Junmai (Demon Slayer) is an immensely popular sake in North America and Japan that I recently spotted on the list at O-Sushi prompting me to check up on the bottle of Onna Nakase I had stashed away. (Incidentally, there are quite a few sake in Japan that bear the Onikoroshi name. Since years gone by it has been popular as a name for sake so dry and easy to drink it would kill a demon. There is at least one other available in Australia from Kyoto brewery Kizakura).
Oomuraya have been brewing since 1832 and source their soft-water from the Southern Alps of Shizuoka. Proudly Shizuoka, about half of the rice used in production is grown locally as well as using yeast strains developed by Shizuoka breweries.
While I’m careful not to make too broad a generalisation, I find there is something summery about Shizuoka sake I can’t quite put my finger on but it is often clean, light and well suited to light foods. Upon revisiting this sake it’s easy to remember why it stood out so much that evening. Quite a show-stopper; flamboyant aromas of melon, pine, banana, watermelon are all over the place. On the palate it hits with a bold, fresh slap; there’s considerable body behind it and obvious koji presence. Umami laden, this would be fantastic with sea urchin or maybe eggplant grilled with white miso. As I said, I don’t think of daiginjo as everyday drinking style of sake and Onna Nakase proves the theory. Quite lavish and over the top, a couple of glasses and I’m wearing out. Not from the alcohol but from the decadent richness.
I’m yet to confirm that Onna Nakase is available in Australia, but the fact that Wakatake Onikoroshi is here is a good sign that we might see it soon.
Onna Nakase おんな泣かせJunmai Daiginjo
Seimaibuai: 50% Rice: Gohyakumangoku (Shizuoka) Yamadanishiki (Hyogo)
Niigata sake. Who doesn’t like Niigata sake? I mean really.
If you didn’t know already, Niigata is pounding out some of the best and most consistent sake around. Located on the Western Coast of Japan’s main island, Niigata’s climate is perfectly suited to sake brewing with very cool winters and a widely envied supply of crisp, pure water that trickles from the snow-capped mountains to the underground well supply.
A sake I still don’t know much about but enjoyed tremendously from Niigata is Koshi no Kanchubai (Mid-winter Plum of Niigata). This particular one is a Ginjo Nama (unpasteurized). Namazake gives a fantastic bright zippiness to the sake which makes it great for summer and gives a lively vibe you don’t always get from pasteurized sake.
This Koshi no Kanchubai has all that fresh nama zip and a refreshing yeasty aroma driven by strawberries and melon. Mild acidity and a nice weight balance it out very nicely. A good solid textbook nama rich with umami that would’ve been great with some scallops but alas I have none, so I just drank it on its own. Lonely, but delish! Sake from Niigata, you rarely go wrong.