Monthly Archives: August 2012

Drunken Whales and Kochi Sake

Oops, it’s been a while…
I’ve made no secret of my love for Tokubetsu style sake so I thought I’d continue on that road and take a look at a Tokubetsu from one of my favourite regions, Kochi.
Kochi prefecture is on the small island of Shikoku to the southern east of the main island of Japan. Not a particularly big place but Kochi is known for having one of the highest rates of sake consumption per capita in the country. And if you ever meet someone from Kochi they’ll probably slip that bit of trivia into the conversation, they’re rather proud of it.

Kochi is a relatively warm area so in years gone by it was a difficult region for brewing sake as brewing usually takes place in the winter months when fermentation is easier to control. But with the introduction of refrigeration Kochi is firmly on the map as a region capable of making good, consistent sake. Due to the unique conditions of the region it is also maintains it’s ties with the local brewing guild, Tosa (Tosa is the original name for Kochi) more than some other regions. Regional guilds were developed years ago where the brewers would trade secrets and techniques and work together to strive toward a sort of common goal as to how they wanted to define the sake of their region. As time has gone by, brewers are now spread all over the country taking the techniques of their guild with them and combining them with the ways of other areas. This is lamented by some as taking away from the once distinctive regional characteristics. But Tosa seems to be going stronger than others. As a result unlike many other regions it is safe to say there is a recognisable Kochi style. Dry, clean and sturdy without too much fruity aromatics* are the main features. That’s not to say you can spot them easily in a blind tasting but more of what you can expect if you stumble across a sake from Kochi.

Being surrounded by mountains and close by the sea, Suigei 酸鯨(written with the characters Drunken Whale) delights in its nature-rich environment and sees it as a major contributor to the character of their sake. Sake for putting in the middle of the dinner table and enjoying with friends rather than sake to pontificate over, Suigei are about down-to-earth sake for the everyman. My kind of sake!

The Tokubetsu Junmai follows Tosa suit showing muted aromatics but a fresh, dry palate with a crisp, cleansing finish that makes this a perfect sake for simply prepared seafood and plain old drinking.
As you may remember Tokubetsu means special and in order to be labelled Tokubetsu the brewer has to have done something specific to use this tag. In this case the rice used has been milled down to 55% effectively putting it into the Ginjo (premium) category but the brewery have decided to put in the middle and go with Tokubetsu.
Suigei Tokubetsu Junmai is available in Australia in various Japanese restaurants – if you spot it, it’s worth a go.

* A bit of a caveat; although Kochi sake is traditionally dry and not overly fruity, a recent discovery by the Kochi Industrial Research Centre resulted in a yeast strain called Cel 24 being used in a few breweries. This use of this particular strain produces sake with massively rich, candy-like aromatics. Sake using this yeast also tend to be on the sweeter side in consistence with the aroma. Kameizumi is a popular example. Often sake with this yeast will have it labelled so keep an eye out! It’s interesting if not to everyone’s tastes.

Warming Up With Koikawa

After looking at Kusumi Brewery’s Kiyoizumi Kame no O Tokubetsu Junmai it seemed only fair and balanced to give some props to Koikawa – the other brewery often lauded as the revivalists of the Kame no O rice variety. Not that this is a contest, far from it. As I said before I actually don’t really care which brewery was the first to bring Kame no O back, I just thought it’d be as good an excuse as any to look at another Kame no O sake.

Koikawa is located in Yamagata prefecture, just north of Niigata in the region known as Tohoku along with Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori, Akita and Fukushima. The Tohoku region is widely considered one of the powerhouse areas for quality sake. The cool winters and mountainous location provide some of the best conditions for sake brewing.

It’s pretty much impossible to talk about Koikawa without talking about Kame no O. Even their labels proclaim 亀の尾発祥地 “birthplace of Kame no O”. Koikawa are firm believers in the concept of of jizake (local sake). The most widely used rice variety, Yamadanishiki is predominantly grown in Western Hyogo so Koikawa proudly shuns it for their local Kame no O which they use for the majority of their sake. The Koikawa sake I’m enjoying today is their Kame Kijoujitsu Junmai Ginjo (bit of a mouthful). Firstly a bit of a caveat, the bottle I have is from 2010 so it’s not at it’s peak freshness by any means but I think it holds up well. First couple of glasses I had chilled (as I usually do with any Ginjo) and although it was good with some umami fullness and a soft smooth acidity I got that nagging feeling that warmed might be the go. Which incidentally is a good tip; If you ever come across a sake that isn’t quite doing it for you, give it a warm up and try it gradually as it cools to try and find its ideal drinking temperature. There really isn’t much bad sake out there in the Tokutei Meishoushu (Special Designation) level so don’t be too hasty in writing off a sake if it doesn’t grab you at first sip.
Sure enough after a few minutes on the stove I found a whole new sake. At the hot level the alcohol poked it’s head through a touch but as it dropped to around 40 degrees it showed some milky, chestnut aromas with a bit of poached pear. On the palate the balance came together beautifully. The fact that it was a coolish evening probably helped a bit but lets’s face it, warm sake on a cool night is awesome! Yeah, you could heat up some mulled wine or have big roasty stout on a winter night but you can’t beat o-kan. Even as it dropped to room temperature it held it’s balance much better than when it was chilled.
Kane no O is quite popular in Japan with serious drinkers and it’s probably fair to say that the breweries that bother to work with a rice variety not known for being as malleable as others are clearly doing it because they see something worthwhile and special in the variety and when the sake tastes this good I can see what attracts them to this mysterious rice.
Koikawa Kamejikoujitsu, Yamagata Prefecture
Seimaibuai 55% Kame no O rice