Summer is in full swing and while that usually means fatigue inducing humidity, a constant state of damp sweatiness, and an exorbitant electricity bill due to the round the clock pumping of the AC there is an upside. Summer sake!
This year has been no different with a plethora of brightly labelled, fruity, light and refreshing sake hitting the fridges across the country. Unlike graded sake or other seasonal offerings such as Hiyaoroshi or Shiboritate there is no technical definition for natsuzake (summer sake) so it’s pretty much up to the brewers’ interpretation as to what makes a sake suitable for summer marketing. Generally the sake offered around this time of year is not so much about depth or complexity but simply about easy drinking fresh sake that goes down easy as a quencher to the ridiculous Japanese summer heat. Many varieties are nama, or once pasteurized to give that fresh zip and the fragrant ginjo style also often lends itself nicely to the theme but of course none of these are requirements as such.
One of the more interesting summer sake to come on the scene this year was from Wakayama brewery Saika 雑賀. Their junmai ginjo appropriately named “Cool Down” gained a fair bit of attention this year. Low-alcohol ginjo styles are fairly common this time of year and of course the easiest way to make a low-alcohol sake is dilute it down with water. However Cool Down is actually a genshu with an alcohol content of 12%. This leaves us with something of an oxymoron as genshu of course means there was no dilution involved as is normally the process for most sake and especially for low-alcohol content sake. Genshu on a label will usually put a sake at somewhere between 17-20%. How Saika achieved this alcohol content is pretty much open for speculation as the brewery isn’t revealing how they pulled it off. Personally, I’d guess it had something to do with halting the fermentation process early before the alcohol content climbed to high as there is still quite a bit of residual sugar evident on the palate which normally would have been chewed up if fermentation was allowed to carry on longer. Profile-wise the sweetness actually goes a little against the concept of refreshing summery sake which to me evokes images of dry, crisp sake. However it does deliver a fruity punch which more than wakes up the senses and would have been a great “by the pool” drinking sake. Alas, I have no pool…..
In the somewhat more “traditional” summer category (if there is such a thing) Shizuoka prefecture brewery Kaiun 開運 presented a lovely tokubetsu junmai full of soft fruit salad aromas and a light fleeting mouth-feel that actually went very well on a steamy summer evening with a bowl of salted watermelon.
Finally, possibly my pick of the season was an old favorite from Kochi prefecture, Akitora 安芸虎. An unpasteurized junmai ginjo pressed by fune (as per all their sake) tonnes of character, brightness melon and apple aromas with a crispy acidic finish and that exquisite summery freshness that cooled and satisfied in a way that’d give your favorite beer a run for its money.
Summer’s not over yet and we’ve still got a few more weeks before the serious business hits and we see this year’s Hiyaoroshi sake (although there are apparently a couple of early birds out there) so till then it’s a matter of persevering with the humidity, sweat and lethargy. Although the summer sake helps!
Usually “never judge a book by its cover” would be considered sound advice. Whether buying wine, beer or of course sake, choosing something solely on the attractiveness of the label can be a bit of a gamble. However in the case of Miyoshikiku, their bright, comic-esque, wild and occasionally humorous labels give the impression that the sake within is also wild, unconventional and vivid. And indeed it is.
Located in the sleepy town of Ikeda in Tokushima prefecture on the island of Shikoku off the eastern coast of Japan’s main island Miyoshikiku Shuzo is a tiny brewery with a staff of three producing around 650 koku (65,00 litres) a year. Despite the small output they are in fact the third largest brewery in Tokushima giving an indication of how small the overall output is of the area despite having 30 breweries. Around thirteen years ago current kuramoto 5th generation Mamiya-san decided to (in an all too familiar tale) dispense with the Toji system and take on the brewing himself. What he has since brought to the table is simply some of the most exciting, modern and funky sake going around.
As I mentioned earlier the first thing anyone thinks of when they think of Miyoshikiku is the labels. Influences of manga, pop-art and Mamiya-san’s love of classic glam rock (he plays guitar in a band doing David Bowie and Velvet Underground covers) abound in a colorful, eye-catching portfolio. Interestingly some of the labels are designed by an old artist friend of Mamiya-san who makes his living as a cop of all things!
But make no mistake this is no case of style over substance. After all it’s what’s in the bottle that matters most right? “Sake for people that don’t like sake” is a phrase I’ve heard used to describe their sake before but I feel that undermines their appeal to folks who do know their stuff and appreciate sake of all types. It just may not be sake that grand-dad likes as evidenced by the reason behind some of their sake being in somewhat nontraditional blue bottles. Mamiya-san explained it is a conscious effort to be unappealing to some of their local drinkers of old school sake that are put off by the the bright, fruity flavors Miyoshikiku is more recently known for. For the old school local market they do actually still make some old school style sake with less obvious labeling. Miyoshikuku is lively, bright, extravagant even. Although I’ve been a fan for years it was at a recent tasting I was lucky enough to get an up close and personal look at a wider selection of their range. The common thread throughout the range is aromatics. Miyoshikiku jumps out of the glass.
The Wild Side Tokubetsu Junmai (muroka nama genshu) was bursting with pineapple, mango and fruit salad aromas and hit the palate with a kiss of sweetness while maintaining an elegance possibly attributable to the shizuku-style pressing.
From their interesting range of sake made with ungraded Yamadanishiki rice (therefore ungraded under tokuteimeishoshu regulations) from Hyogo, the Another View muroka nama genshu was a revelation of soft, fleeting florals followed by a sweet, sexy profile hinting at its 55% seimaibuai. But far from being a one trick pony the ungraded Awa Oga* made with local organic koshihikari (table rice) milled to 80% was an umami-rich, chewy, rice driven workhorse with only background licks of floral aromas. Then it was back to Awa Yamadanishiki Origarami (semi-nigori) a pretty, feminine style with notes of ripe melon; soft and supple.
Like several other breweries Miyoshikiku have also had a stab at the wine yeast game with their intriguing Marionette, slightly nutty with lemon rind flavors and shades of tea, slightly reminiscent of an aged Hunter Valley Semillon.
While I said before I’m not a fan of the “sake for people who don’t like sake” moniker, I’d agree that for anyone who thinks they’ve tried sake and didn’t think much of it Miyoshikiku could well be an eye-opener. Equally for those that think they know what sake is all about Miyoshikiku is a fresh look at how rice, yeast, koji and water can produce vastly different results depending on who and where it comes from.
* Awa 阿波 is the name of the area in northern Tokushima where the rice is sourced
I love hearing the success stories of breweries that re-invented themselves to take on the new world. Many of the sake brands you see on the shelves and on menus were not around 10, 20 years ago. The breweries were, but the label may not have been. A lot of breweries put aside their old monikers and rebranded at the same time they decided to change strategy, in terms of marketing as well as production. One story that stands out is the success of Tochigi brewery Senkin.
Established in 1806, Senkin are actually the oldest brewers in Tochigi. However, it was the forward thinking of the 11th generation Usui brothers that saw them shift into a the cult brewery they are today. Around 11 years ago Kazuki Usui decided that if Senkin were to survive into the new era they needed to change tact in a drastic way. And change they did. With something of a re-launch in 2008 Senkin hit the market with their unique, stand-alone sake of full-bodied sweetness and high acidity marketed to match well with cuisines other than Japanese. To further distinguish themselves from other sake they decided to completely shun the ubiquitous sake rice king Yamada Nishiki, instead opting for the more peculiar Kame no O, Omachi and Aiyama, now even going so far as cultivating a lot of the rice themselves. They are also one of only a handful of breweries that doesn’t dilute their sake with water (genshu). Usually that would be a warming bell of a high-octane alcohol bomb but in the case of Senkin it is about tapering off the brewing process at just the right moment to achieve the desired alcohol content which also provides the natural sought after sweetness of Senkin’s style. If that wasn’t enough, as of 2011 Senkin decided to do away with Tokuteimeishoshu (special designation) labelling. According to the brothers, the labelling of Ginjo, Junmai, Tokubetsu, Daiginjo etc. succeeded in nothing more than confusing the consumer. If a sake is made with rice milled to 50%, in theory, it could be Daiginjo or Tokubetsu or even Junmai. They figured they’d just tell people what’s in the bottle, how they made it and forget about grades. A very interesting and refreshing approach. Personally, I think they could be onto something…
Naturally, when sake with high acidity is the goal, Yamahai and Kimoto style sake feature quite prominently in the Senkin line-up. The prevalence of naturally occurring bacteria in the brewing process of these styles are known for resulting in tangy, acidic flavour profiles. Also all brewing is conducted using wooden tanks as opposed to the common use of enamel tanks to give something of an “old-world” feel that paradoxically sets them apart as new age “slow” brewers.
A great place to start with Senkin is their “Classic” series. A selection of sake of various seimaibuai, rice varieties and style with the purpose of showcasing the rice variety and or the style eg. kimoto/yamahai.
仙禽 山廃クラシック Senkin Classic Yamahai
Rice: Kame no OThe Classic Yamahai brewed with Kame no O rice at a rugged 80% seimaibuai is simply one of my favourite sake. Best at either room temperature or slightly warmed, the classic yamahai shows voluptuous aromas of caramel, black cherry, and marron. On the palate it delivers a chewy, umami-rich, rice sweetness balanced with that trademark Senkin tang. I’ve made no secret of my love for Kame no O rice and this is the perfect kind of vehicle to show the depth of character this rice can show.
The balance of traditional methods with practical approach and the unwillingness to compromise has placed Senkin on stage as one of the true rock stars of the sake world. An act worth following.
Any industry whether it be movies, music, wine or art gives birth to a few creations that garner a cult-following. The sake world is no different. In fact, the small size of most sake breweries and the lack of national (and of course international) distribution of many sake further fuels the cult-like following for these sake. I’m talking about those sake unicorns that inspire fanatical devotion where drinkers clamor over themselves to track down a sip of this sake they’ve heard about through mass media, instagram tweets or bar room chat. Likewise, the establishments that get their hands on these white-whales often waste no time in letting all and sundry know that they have procured a bottle or two of these mysterious elixirs providing them with a solid claim to being a credible sake bar along with a juicy carrot to dangle in front of prospective customers. Indeed, there are a few of these cult-sake however few have reached the status of the revered Juyondai.
Located in northern Japan in Yamagata prefecture, brewery Takagi Shuzo was established in 1615, so although they’ve been around quite a while it’s only in the last few years or so that they’ve hit their dizzying heights as Juyondai. In fact when their last toji (head brewer) retired 18 years ago the brewery faced uncertainty as there was no one to take over the reigns. Like most breweries, the toji was a hired gun who would come to the brewery in the winter brewing season and return to his home once the season was done. In what seems to be a fairly common tale lately, with a lack of successors to the toji the responsibility was picked up by a member of the breweries’ family. In this case the president’s son Akitsuna Takagi, at the time a 21 year old agriculture student. Takagi-san took the somewhat unprecedented move of brewing sans toji. Learning from others around him and studying as much as he could about the technicalities as well as the intangible aspects of sake brewing, Takagi turned Juyondai around in a way few could have foreseen. What seemed a gamble at the time became a masterstroke that saw the brewery’s future guaranteed . In a time when the tanrei karakuchi (light and dry) style of Niigata was all the rage, Takagi-san introduced their new range of bold fruit driven sake. Even these days Takagi Shuzo only brews around 2000 koku (koku 石 is the measuring unit for brewed sake. 1 koku equals about 100 x 1800ml bottles) meaning roughly 200,000 or so bottles. Which for a sake in such demand really isn’t much especially considering some of their 20 different sake including their often experimental limited brews aren’t even available outside of Yamagata prefecture. However, this small production sees demand remain high and seemingly guarantees sold out stocks every year. Today, Juyondai is the kind of sake fans travel for. Although there might be a dozen sake bars closer, drinkers will travel that extra distance to get their hands on some Juyondai.
I’ve tried Juyondai quite a few times and have always been well impressed so when the offer came to attend a special dinner which would see an unrivaled selection of 13 Juyondai sake open on the table it was too much for my inner (and outer) sake geek to resist. The line-up did a wonderful job of cementing the image that Juyondai are producers of outstanding sake. I’ve resisted the urge to bore you with my tasting notes on all the sake so I’ll just comment on the ones that really stood out for me, bearing in mind that there honestly wasn’t a dud in the bunch. As follows:
Funatare Origarami Junmai Ginjo Nama(3 yr aged) 槽垂れ おり絡み 純米吟醸
Slightly cloudy. Spritzy, gentle sweetness and highly acidic. I originally assumed this had been made with a white wine yeast as it was so reminiscent of New Zealand Pinot Gris. As usual I was wrong however. Most Juyondai is brewed using locally cultivated Yamagata yeast and occasionally Association Yeast No.15.
Junmai Ginjo Yamadanishiki & Dewasansan blend Nama 純米吟醸 山田錦・出羽燦々 生
Junmai Muroka (unfiltered) Naka-dori Nama 純米無濾過 中取り 生
Junmai Muroka Naka-dori Pasteurised 純米無濾過 中取り 火入れ
Exactly the same as the above sake but pasteurized and this made all the difference. While nama sake can be fun, the overt aromas and cloying flavours can be well tamed by a bit of heat treatment. This sake showed an impeccable balance of melon and stone fruit aromas with some soft floral notes. Surprisingly bright and expressive for a junmai. Smooth, low-key but well-balanced.
Ryu no Otoshiko Junmai Ginjo 龍の落とし子 純米吟醸 火入れ
This threw me as it was significantly earthier than the other sake with less fruit aromas and more rice driven grit despite the ginjo grading. Umami rich and moreish.
Junmai Ginjo Yamada Nishiki 純米吟醸 山田錦 火入れ
Junmai Ginjo Omachi 純米 雄町 火入れ
Ginsen Daiginjo Type 吟選 大吟醸タイプ 火入れ
Junmai Daiginjo 40% Hyogo Toku A Yamada Nishiki 純米大吟醸40％ 兵庫特A山田錦 火入れ
Ryugetsu Junmai Daiginjo Hyogo Toku A Yamada Nishiki 龍月 純米大吟醸 兵庫特A山田錦 火入れ
The Toku A refers to highest grade of Yamada Nishiki money can buy from Hyogo. Powerful but elegant floral aromas punch out hints of aniseed. Impossibly smooth and delicate. Just exquisite. Falsely rumored to be blended with the sake they submit to the National New Sake Competition.
Honmaru Ginjo Type Gohyakumangoku Nama 本丸吟醸タイプ 生 五百万石
Tensen Asahitaka 天泉朝日鷹 火入れ
Only available in Yamagata. This is their everyman/workhorse tokubetsu honjozo. A sturdy, earthy, mushroom and rice driven sake that worked nicely slightly warmed and even room temperature. Not labelled as Juyondai.
Kuronawa Daiginjo 35% 黒縄 大吟醸 火入れ
Also only available in Yamagata. This was a gorgeous representation. Soft and fleeting. Bright with tingling acidity and lovely fresh pineapple and melon flavours this proved to be a crowd favourite.
Interestingly, most of the sake was from the previous brewing season. Most Juyondai sake, even their unpasteurized nama are rested for a maturation. Juyondai are reluctant to reveal the details of their maturation methods but it’s believed to be around a year. Also their pressing methods are for some reason kept under wraps. However after seeing a broad range like the other night it’s probably fair to guess they use all three of the standard types; Yabuta pressing, Fune-Shibori and Shizuku drip-pressing. But who knows, they may have another trick up their sleeve. Despite Juyondai’s popularity it can be difficult to find out much about them as they don’t have a website (who needs one when your sake sells itself?) and brewery tours are strictly off-limits. Even if one were to attempt a visit, there is no road signage directing to the brewery and even then the brewery itself bears no signage indicating it is indeed the home of Juyondai.
I like to consider myself impervious to trends and hype but make no mistake, Juyondai produce seriously wonderful sake. In this cynical world there will always be those to cry that it isn’t worth the hype (or the price) and that there are better sake makers out there if you’re willing to look. True, there are plenty of sake brands out there thoroughly deserving of the plaudits breweries like Juyondai receive and I wouldn’t go so far as to say you haven’t tried good sake till you’ve tried Juyondai or even that it’s my favourite sake but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the sake in the bottle. The line up I saw the other night was a master-class in style, balance and quality.
Would I recommend trying Juyondai if given the opportunity? In a heartbeat.
If there’s any brewery giving modern day sake a bit of nouveau class, a bit of bling if you will, it has to be Katsuyama Shuzo. Hailing from the highly regarded rice growing region of Sendai in Miyagi, northern Japan these guys are part of a the new breed of breweries dragging nihonshu kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Although a brewery with a rich 320 year history, it was only recently in 2008 that Katsuyama cut their portfolio from 35 sake down to just four sub-categories and decided to concentrate on high-quality expressive sake that could show the true potential of nihonshu as a social dinner beverage for all cuisines while exhibiting the terroir of Sendai. It is this theory that inspires their mantra of the “Modern Shudo” (sake path).
Interestingly, despite the call for sake to be on the dinner table for all and any occasion Katsuyama sake can tend to be on the expensive side. Most of their Daiginjo are probably some of the more expensive sake around draining the wallet of upwards of 10,000 yen (around $100) for a 720ml bottle with a couple of their higher-end sake such as the Diamond Lei, made with the finest Hyogo produced Yamadanishiki money can buy hitting up to $500(!) a bottle. Having said that, the Katsuyama Tokubetsu Junmai “En” is one of the best bargains you could hope to find.
Like all Katsuyama sake one of the first things you notice is the strikingly sexy etched bottles used. After all, we drink with the eyes first! Made using the locally grown popular eating rice variety Hitomebore, this is a truly expressive sake that punches well above it’s weight, and manages to represent all that Katsuyama is about without requiring you to sell a kidney to buy a bottle. Using table rice to make sake isn’t necessarily all that uncommon, many breweries use it to make cheaper grades of sake as table rice generally lacks the starch content desirable for brewing and contains more unwanted fats and protein. However, in the right hands table rice can produce sake every bit as rich, expressive and tasty as that brewed with sake rice. For optimum terroir expression, along with the local rice an indigenous Miyagi yeast strain is used with soft water sourced from water flowing from popular ski-resort mountain Izumigatake for a very “Miyagi” inspired representation. In keeping with Katsuyama’s extravagant brewing methods, even this “entry-level” sake is pressed using the time-consuming shizuku drip-pressing method where the unrefined sake (lees and all) is poured into canvas sacks and hung so the sake drips under its own weight ever so slowly producing a light, delicate sake. Pasteurisation is quick to maintain freshness, the sake is then matured at minus 5 degrees to round out the flavours.
Bursting with aromas of melon, pineapple and hard candy, Katsuyama Tokubetsu Junmai follows on the palate with a hint of sweetness supported by a tight astringency a low acid profile and a short crisp finish. A revelation in balance of fruity sweetness and rice-driven umami. It’s not often I head back to my local sake shop to pick up the same bottle again so soon but I figured I was crazy not to grab another bottle while it was still on the shelf.
Katsuyama is being exported to selected foreign markets but even in Japan it’s not always easy to come by so wherever you are, if an opportunity to try some Katsuyama comes your way don’t let it pass.
Katsuyama Tokubetsu Junmai 勝山特別純米
As the Hiyaoroshi dust settles and it gets decidedly cooler here in Japan we see the sake calender flip over to the next stage of sake joy as the first sake of the 2013 season begin to appear in shops and bars. Most breweries (the ones that don’t brew year round) began brewing anywhere from early October to November and given that it takes roughly a couple of months to see the first fruits of their labours, now’s the time.
While Hiyaoroshi and Aki-agari are sake that have been laid down to mature for several months to round out before Autumn release, Shiboritate is at the other end of the spectrum as sake that has literally just been pressed and bottled with no maturation before release. Shiboritate has its fans with its brash, vibrant notes and youthful expression, often (but not always) unpasteurized this all adds up to a very lively type of sake. Along with shiboritate and shinshu (new sake of the season, not necessarily fresh off the press like shiboritate) comes the ubiquitous sugidama. Sugidamas are a decorative ball made of Japanese cedar (sugi) pins or leaves hung outside a breweries’entrance to signify that the new season sake is up and running. These days they are also fairly commonly spotted outside specialist sake pubs and stores too woo customers with promise of fresh sake.
I have to admit, while I love a bit of pomp and ceremony, I’m not usually a big fan of shiboritate. While I don’t necessarily dislike it, I rarely seek it out as I personally prefer sake a little more settled. Having said that I never actively avoid them either and this year I played my part in the shiboritate hype-up by popping in on one of my favourite breweries, Kotsuzumi.
Although Kotsuzumi are one of the aforementioned breweries that brew sake all year round, every year they release their Shoteshibori Junami Ginjo Nama 初手しぼり純米吟醸. The first sake out the gates brewed with local Gohyakumangoku rice from the 2013 harvest, fresh pressed shiboritate, unpasteurized. Here in Kansai where Kotuszumi is located it sells out fast every year with many fans making the trip out to the brewery in Tamba, Hyogo prefecture to pick up a few bottles and others pre-ordering with their trusted retailer. I jumped on board as well and picked up a bottle and was hugely impressed.
Whereas many shiboritate sake can show lively, brash characteristics that appeal to many, what they often lack is balance (although that seems to be the whole point, all flash!). Kotsuzumi’s offering however shows the brightness and youth of a shiboritate while managing to maintain some balance and finesse. Aromas are jumping out with peach and lychee along with hints of boiled lollies and a hit of alcohol heat. It’s not as sweet as the nose would lead you to believe as the acicity balances nicely to help it finish dry. Slick sweetness but not as cloying as many other shiboritate tend to be. A fresh, showy bottle of sunshine that I’m already looking forward to drinking again next year.
Kotsuzumi小鼓初手しぼり純米吟醸生 Shoteshibori Junmai Ginjo
One of the endlessly cool things about sake is the history. Like many ancient arts, sake brewing has been through countless ups and downs and inside outs which all have an impact on the sake we see today. Interestingly though for sake, despite a history of a couple of thousand years most of the serious developments that shape what’s in the bottle today occurred in the last 100 years or so. Arguably one of the most important developments was the discovery of the sokujo-moto (quick fermentation) method after years of the yama-oroshi/kimoto technique. But there was another method for getting the fermentation ball rolling that is often forgotten; the Bodai-moto.
Around the mid-700sAD Nara was the capital of Japan, knowledge of how to skilfully use koji had spread from China and the Shogunate/government at the time had begun to see sake as a serious means of taxable revenue (it had mostly been for ceremonial consumption up till that point). This meant setting up the first Imperial Sake Brewing facility. Sake was brewed by the local Nara monks in temples and it was from this period on that most of the foundations for sake brewing were discovered. Fast forward about 700 years to the Kamakura Period and many different types of sake were being developed and in particular the sake brewed by the Bodaisen monks gained a noticeably high reputation. The Bodaisen was brewed a little different in that it used a small portion of steamed rice thrown in with raw rice and water and left to the elements to create a ferment called “soyashi-mizu”, basically a lactic-acidic water. Lactic acid is desirable/essential in the early stages of brewing as lactic acid kills out other unwanted bacteria which can “turn” the sake. This lactic water was then used as the brewing water in the sake production process. This actually puts the Bodai-moto method closer to the current sokujo-moto in style as they both rely on lactic acid being present at the beginning stage of brewing whereas kimoto and yamahai allow various bacterias to propagate before being wiped out by naturally occurring lactic acid.
So if all that was as confusing for you as it was for me let’s look at it simply-
Sokujo (Quick Fermentation) Method: Lactic acid is manually added to the blend of steamed rice, koji, water and yeast to create the starter mash.
Yamahai/Kimoto Method: Lactic acid is created naturally by other bacteria in the steamed rice, yeast and water in order to create the starter mash.
Bodaimoto Method: Lactic acid is created with raw and steamed rice mixed with water. This lactic water is then mixed with koji, rice and yeast to create the starter mash.
Of course advances in brewing left this Bodai moto technique all but obsolete until a few years back when some of the breweries in Nara decided to revive the technique. Although far from common Bodai moto sake can be found if one looks hard enough. Takacho, brewed by Yucho Shuzo in Nara is probably the most prolific and is I believe also available in some foreign markets.
However another I came across recently was an offering from Gozenshu in Okayama. Okayama lays claim to fame as the home of the popular Omachi sake rice variety and none too surprisingly sees its use in this Hiyaoroshi version labelled simply Nine (after the nine members of brewery staff). Aromas are savoury and definitely rice-driven with background hints of earthiness and a niggling touch of shiitake mushroom. On the palate it’s spritely and fresh with a tangy acid profile reminiscent of a kimoto style sake. Again rice driven, this an umami rich brew that drys off slightly peppery in the finish. Balanced and sleek.
You’re not likely to come across many Bodai-moto brewed sake but if you do, they’re worth trying as a window into sake of days of old.
Gozenshu 御前酒 9 Bodai-moto Junmai Hiyaoroshi
I’ve always said it pays to keep on the good side of your local sake bar folk. I was recently lucky enough to sample a glass of a special sake from the utterly fabulous Toyobijin (Eastern Beauty) from Yamaguchi prefecture, their “Ikinonoktte kureta saketachi” (the sake that survived). In case you missed it in the news, a few months ago Japan had a little too much rain. Areas like Yamaguchi suffered some serious flooding and among the victims were local businesses including Sumikawa Shuzo, makers of Toyobijin.
Although the sake brewing season was over, the were still tanks of maturing sake in the brewery that toppled and were destroyed along with equipment and brewing records. Fans and friends from far and wide did what they could to help Sumikawa Shuzo get back on their feet especially the Fukuoka Brewers Association who helped clean up and even loaned then some equipment to filter, pasteurise, bottle and release the sake that was salvaged. Due to the lack of brewing records it’s not entirely clear what makes up the blend but they’re pretty sure it’s a blend of Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo and Daiginjo. Despite the high pedigree of the ingredients the lack of records mean they are unable to claim Special Designation status for the label.
But obviously this sake isn’t about technical specs, it’s more of a love letter from Toyobijin to their customers and friends who chipped in to help them get back on their feet after great adversity. Fortunately it also turned out to be a gorgeous, fragrant, rich sake that I was very pleased to try. Great to have them back.
At the risk of showing bias towards a particular region, yet another sake from Kochi prefecture. Ah, who am I kidding? No apologies, I love Kochi sake!
Akitora is made by a tiny kura by the name of Yuko Shuzo in the small seaside town of Aki City (the name of the sake derives from the name of the city, the tora part means tiger) sandwiched between mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean. Like many parts of the Shikoku island of which Kochi is a part of, fresh seafood is the claim to fame and often cited as the influence on the Kochi style of dry, solid sake.
Yuko Shuzo make only a small amount of sake and pride themselves on their hands-on approach. This includes their policy of only pressing via “fune”. These days many if not most breweries use a large machine resembling an oversized accordion called an assakuki to press their sake. Although very efficient, breweries often opt for one or both of the two other pressing methods for their high end sake. One of these methods is the sake fune. Basically, the sake mash is poured into cotton bags and then stacked on top of each other in a box. The bags are then slowly compressed from the top in a vice-like process gradually releasing the fermented sake. In this process the highly sought first and second runs of the mash can be separated from the “dregs” and then blended (if desired) to create the perfect consistency. A somewhat time consuming process, Yuko Shuzo spend up to 4-5 days pressing their sake this way.
The Akitora Junmai Ginjo Nama (unpasteurised) is very much a classic Kochi style of sake. While the nama side of the sake shows in the vibrant aromas of strawberry and white rind cheese it hits hard on the palate with a full, bone dry attack but finishes on a more mellow note of marshmallow and coco powder. The mild acidity works nicely with some hints of creamed rice. A great sake for straight up chilled drinking or would be a very flexible food partner. Of course most Kochi folk would recommend fresh seafood and I’d be loathe to argue.
Akitora 安芸虎 Junmai Ginjo
I won’t lie. I drink an awful lot of sake. I don’t mean in an “intervention required” type way but in that I get to drink many different types of sake. But despite drinking sake of all kinds of rice variety, brewing method, yeast propagation and style there’s something to be said for that sake that comes along once in a while and just puts you on your arse and reminds you what simply great sake tastes like. It’s like a re-calibration of your palate that reminds you to not get blasé about sake and to keep your eyes out for those sake unicorns.
My most recent encounter with such a sake was from that wonderful sake region that’s always in the news for all the wrong reasons, Fukushima. Yes, in case you weren’t sure Fukushima sake is open for business. Not that many of them were out for long. Fukushima is still consistently producing some of the finest sake in the country despite environmental hazards which I won’t comment any further on as there are far more qualified people out there to discuss the topic than I.
So what was this amazing sake that made me sit back and take stock of my sake-soaked life? Well, in continuing on from the current trend of Hiyaoroshi (Autumn seasonal sake) this particular Junmai Ginjo is also a seasonal release, this time from Miyaizumi Shuzo. Miyaizumi actually label all their sake that is sold in other areas of Japan outside of Fukushima as Sharaku (interestingly though the sake that makes to it to the overseas market is usually labelled Miyaizumi). The Sharaku Junmai Ginjo Nagoshizake (Nagoshizake meaning rested over summer) is traditionally released as the first of their autumn range in the Hiyaoroshi season.
In Japanese the expression “nomiyasui” (easy to drink) is somewhat overused but in the case of Sharaku Junmai Ginjo it’s spot on. Aromas of bubblegum and boiled lollies backed with a hit of steely alcohol lead to a beautifully soft palate. Clean, sleek and ever so slightly sweet, the way this sake seems to melt in your mouth just keeps drawing you back for more. And for me, that’s usually the sign of a great sake; one that keeps dragging you back for that one more sip. Coincidentally, I met one of the sales managers of Miyaizumi Shuzo at a tasting recently and he inferred that there are still many people wary of sake from Fukushima. However, he explained that due to the situation in Fukushima they are conducting more thorough tests more regularly than any other part of Japan with absolutely no signs of radioactive contamination in any sake to date. Which by way of the amount and detail of testing actually makes Fukushima sake possibly the safest in Japan.
Sharaku 寫楽 Nagoshizake Junmai Ginjo
Rice: Yume no Kaori & Yamadanishiki