Category Archives: sake
Shochu: The Contender
Sake (nihonshu) is arguably Japan’s most famous drink but in recent years it has been usurped by an unlikely contender: Shochu.
Shochu is a distilled alcoholic beverage which has seen a huge growth in popularity in Japan and is also starting to make waves in Australia and other countries feeling the “Japanese Cuisine Boom”. While there are some similarities to sake, it is quite different in a number of ways. Shochu is essentially made with koji, yeast, water and then another ingredient that will define its character such as barley, potato, rice, buckwheat, brown sugar and dates. There are others but these are the main ones you’d come across, particularly barley and potato. Being a distilled spirit the alcohol level is higher than sake at around 25%. Many people refer to it as Japanese vodka but it differs strongly from vodka in that most shochu is only distilled once (in the case of honkaku shochu) to retain the essence and flavor of the ingredients whereas vodka will be distilled multiple times to produce a neutral, clean flavour .
So basically shochu starts similar to sake in that a koji mould (white in the case of shochu, yellow for sake) is used for saccharification ie. conversion of starch enzymes into sugars needed to convert into alcohol. The mould is cultivated onto washed and steamed rice (or occasionally barley) and kept in humid conditions so the mould will propagate on the rice. It is then combined with water and yeast in a tank for its first fermentation which will take around five days. While this is going on the “key ingredient” is being prepared by washing and steaming to remove raw, green flavours (particularly with ingredients like potato). This ingredient is added to the mash (moromi) along with some more water and left for two weeks. Next the mash will be distilled in a wooden still. This will bring the alcohol level to around 30%. Finally the shochu will be left to mature for a period of anywhere from 60 days on before being cut with water to bring the alcohol level down a bit and finally bottled.
A somewhat simplified explanation of shochu production but you get the gist.
In the early 2000’s shochu burst onto Japan’s drinking scene after years in exile as a poor-mans drink or something grand-dad drank. With new laws clearly defining “honkaku” (authentic-artisan) shochu, Honkaku shochu was all the rage as shochu dedicated bars popped up all over the place. In fact shochu actually surpassed sake in sales for the first time in 2003. It proved particularly popular with women because of shochu’s apparent low-calorie count. Shochu became the “healthy” alcoholic drink.
The cool thing about shochu is the different styles. Potato shochu (imo-jochu) tastes nothing like barley shochu (mugi-jochu) tastes nothing like rice shochu (kome-jochu). So it is kinda fun seeing if there is one you like. Many bars in Australia have picked up shochu as a new cocktail ingredient rather than let it shine in its natural state but hopefully drinkers will come round to see it for what it is rather than what it can be mixed with. You’ll find in Japan shochu is mostly drunk with water – cold or hot and with maybe a slice of lemon. It is also commonly mixed with oolong tea and also with fruit juices and/or fizzy soft drinks to make the popular chu-hai.
Interestingly, around 90% of shochu production takes place on the southern island of Kyushu. Being a little warmer than the rest of Japan, Kyushu was never an easy place to make sake as fermentation for sake requires cooler temperatures. Rather than struggle with making sake, producers found shochu production to be much more viable.
The shochu you’ll likely come across in Australia are all quite mainstream, well-known brands. I don’t claim to be a connoisseur by any means but I find them to be a pretty good representation. A few to keep an eye out for:
From Japan’s northern most island, Hokkaido. Tantakatan is ridiculously popular in Japan and can be found just about anywhere. Tantakatan is a barley based shochu infused with shiso (called perilla in English but I don’t find many people know what that is either!) a fragrant slightly bitter leaf. A clean style of shochu with a nice floral lift and some spiciness from the shiso. A refreshing style that works best cold on ice or with water.
One of the most popular brands in Japan. Iichiko can be found everywhere. Aged for a year in oak. Iichiko is an excellent textbook example of flavourful shochu with typical mugi character. Clean, somewhat neutral with grainy hints. Works chilled, warmed, soda, on the rocks. A versatile shochu perfect for beginners to the shochu world.
Kaido Iwai no Aka (celebratory red)
Celebratory red is dedicated to the explorers that dared to leave Japan for Europe when Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world in the late 1800s.A very popular imojochu (sweet potato shochu). Highly fragrant with imo nuttiness, smoke hints and some floral aromatics balanced with a medium plus body. A masculine style shochu. Works on ice, with water and hot water
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
Craft beer is making serious inroads as a proper alternative to the mass produced, bland lager parade we’re usually presented with at most pubs and restaurants, and Japan is increasingly stepping up as one of the leaders of quality beer. One of the things I love about Japan’s craft breweries is the way they embrace traditional Japanese ingredients to create new and exciting brews. A while ago we looked at Hitachino Nest’s Red Rice Ale, a uniquely Japanese beer and in that vein of uniquely Japanese beer we come to Baird Brewing.
Although located in Numazu, Shizuoka Japan, Baird’s obvious point of difference is that it’s owned and run by an American, Bryan Baird. Founded in 2000 Baird has gone from strength to strength as one of Japan’s leading craft beweries. The American influence comes through loud and clear in some of the regulars in the Baird line-up such as the Rising Sun US style pale ale, the aromatic hop-driven Teikoku IPA and the Sugura Bay Imperial IPA but influences from Belgium and Germany also seep through.
But it’s the Japanese influenced beers that really grab my attention. Last year a collaboration with American craft brewing giant Stone saw a Green Tea IPA brewed with proceeds going to disaster relief after the tsunami. Other seasonals include beers brewed with pumpkin, figs, yuzu (Japanese citrus) and apples. Love me a good fruit beer!
Sadly, we don’t have access to all of Baird’s beers here in Australia but a with a bit of hunting around you can get your hands on some of their main beers. A favourite of mine is the Carpenter’s Mikan Ale. Mikan being a mandarin basically. Not named after the brother-sister folk duo of the seventies (fortunately) the Carpenter part of the name refers to the tradition of craftsmanship highly regarded in Japan. Despite being the middle of winter, the summery flavours of a fresh mikan ale still go down well. The mikan flavour is not at all overpowering nor is this a particularly sweet beer which fruit beers often can be. Refreshing, and bright with a solid medium body it’s the kind of beer that appeals to anyone, beer lover or not.
If you’re looking for a bit of a winter-warmer style the Ganko Oyaji (stubborn old man) Barley Wine does the job nicely. Like most barley wines it has a big, sweet alcohol kick balanced with rich caramel malt, lingering bitterness and some fruity hop aromatics. This is a big beer and can be a bit of a shock if you haven’t tried this style of beer before. I usually like to sip at only a slightly chilled temperature from a brandy snifter. Decadent? Yes.
I’m yet to have a bad beer from these guys so if spot them around by all means give them a try. And if you find yourself in Japan, a visit to one of their taprooms (brewpubs) in Harajuku and Naka-Meguro (Tokyo) or nearby Yokohama and Numazu is a must.
Shinkame-The Godfather of Junmai
So to put to rest any doubts that I am a fan of junmai despite my post singing the praises of aruten, today I’m going to talk about a brewery that’s about as junmai obsessed as you can get. The curiously named Shinkame (holy turtle) is located in Saitama just next to Tokyo, a prefecture with quite a few breweries but not exactly the place people think of when talking about great brewing regions. However among these breweries Shinkame stands head and shoulders above the rest. These guys are known across Japan for brewing nothing but Junmai.
You’ll remember that up until WWII most sake was made in the junmai style of using rice, koji, yeast and water and nothing else. It was basic practice rather than passion for the style, in fact the term “junmai” wasn’t even used, it would have been a redundant moniker like say, “grape wine”. But rice shortages during WWII forced breweries to use alcohol and adjuncts to increase yields under laws handed down by the government. Breweries continued with the brewing practice of adding large amounts of alcohol to augment yields which didn’t do much for the general perceived quality of sake as being hot and sweet. Some believed, including Yoshimasa Ogawahara owner of Shinkame, that throwing back to sake of old and stopping the practice of adding alcohol was the future for sake. In 1967 Shinkame received a permit from the Taxation Office to begin brewing small batches of junmai sake. By 1975 Shinkame were the first brewery to begin making moves to restructure their entire portfolio to solely junmai sake. The translated article on Shinkame’s website details his struggle to become the first all-Junmai sake brewery in Japan which he achieved in 1987.
These days Shinkame has a solid reputation for making sturdy, structured sake that lets the rice sing rather than be overcome by pretty yeast aromatics. The Hikomago Junmai (aged 3 years) I had recently was all things Shinkame is renowned for; solid with a ricey grit and plenty of umami-rich body. Interestingly, it held up best at room temperature rather than chilled where it seemed to lose its balance. Warmed, it also gave a lovely tannic astringency lined nicely with low acidity and pleasant dryness. Shinkame is well-worth trying as a great example of the kind of sake junmai fanatics rave about. And it definitely is worth raving about.
Stats: Shinkame Hikomago Junmai, Saitama Prefecture
Seimaibuai: 55% Yamadanishiki rice.
Available online along with other Shinkame sake from Sakenet Australia
Good Vibrations at Houmei
Every brewery has it’s own superstitions, idiosyncrasies, quirks, their own way of doing things. On a trip to Japan I came across an interesting one from Houmei Shuzo. Surrounded by mountains in the cosy town of Sasayama, well-known for black soybeans and boar meat in Hyogo prefecture, Houmei are a small brewery selling most of their sake in the immediate surrounding areas. Although they have a history of making sake and shochu going back as far as 1797 under the name Nishioo they have only been known as Houmei since 1997. The original brewery is now set up as a museum/gift shop with very friendly staff happy to take guests on informative mini-tours. The main brewery is located a couple of kilometres away and it was here Houmei’s Toji (head brewer) Nakagawa-san took time out of his busy brewing day to show me what he was up to.
As we entered the main brewery one thing was obviously different from any other brewery I’d been to. Unlike Australian craft beer breweries or wineries where the workers often have music pumping away, the sake breweries I’ve been to tend to be almost morbidly quiet. However, as we approached the door of the brewery the sound of traditional Japanese Enka music blared from inside. Upon opening the door it was so loud you could barely have a conversation. “Wow, you guys really get into it don’t you?”, I remarked to Nakagawa-san. “Yeah, not quite, it’s all part of the process you see,” he replied. Apparently the President of Houmei Shuzo had the idea of adapting the concept of playing music to wine-grape vineyards to encourage growth to the fermentation process of brewing sake. Strap some speakers to the fermentation tank, crank up the volume and the vibrations stir and soothe the mash into a rhythmic ferment. Interesting, I thought. But does it work?
“Nah, it’s just a gimmick if you ask me,” replied Nakagawa-san turning down the volume, mumbling as he did. I couldn’t help but laugh as Nakagawa-san then backtracked saying “well, I’m sure it does something but that mash would ferment music or not. Good selling point though”. True, true.
The musical atmosphere of the brewery continued as Nakagawa-san insisted on singing me a couple of a capella Tanba toji songs. Back in the day the brewery workers would sing songs to pass time, keep rhythm to and also measure length of time to continue a task (let’s stir the mash for three verses etc.). Different brewing guilds would have different songs. These days the tradition is all but dead. Nakagawa-san however, has a group of old-school friends who get together and practice the songs of the Tanba Guild of brewers from the Hyogo region and even perform at the local community centre where toji assured me they are quite a hit with the ladies. Rock on! I even found a video of them on Youtube. That’s Nakagawa-san to the right of the lady busting out lead vocals. Keep watching for Nakagawa-san’s solo.
As for the sake, it’s very good indeed. Each of the sake from the Music Vibration Ferment Series is actually brewed using different songs from Mozart, Beethoven and the bottle I’ve got right now – Yume no Tobira (Door to Dreams) brewed to an old Sasayama folk song called “Dekansho Bushi”. A seimaibuai (rice milling rate) of 71% keeps this brew from the Special Designation Level of Honjozo but provides a great argument for the quality of sake that falls outside that designation. Drunk best at room temperature, light aromas of pear and apple lead into a tight crisp sake with a umami rich mouthfeel ripe for anytime drinking. Good vibes indeed.
Aruten is not a Dirty Word
A while ago I posted a bit about not getting too hung up on finding a specific type of sake that encompasses everything you want and just enjoying the different styles out there. This applies importantly to the hotly contested debate in the sake world over the merits of Junmai over Aruten.
To recap, Junmai means pure rice sake. Water, koji, yeast rice and no added alcohol. Aruten is short for arukooru (alcohol) tenka (addition), sake where alcohol is added before the pressing stage to dissolve some of the left over fermentables and draw out a more aromatic, lighter sake. The reason I bring this topic up is because as sake reaches a larger audience here in Australia I am seeing more and more articles, interviews with wine sommeliers, restaurateurs and suppliers spouting that junmai is the pinnacle of sake because it is the “pure” sake, giving the impression that aruten has been tarnished with its alcohol addition. Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions so here’s mine:
First of all let’s get some facts straight and some myths busted.
The bad name that aruten has with some seems to come from the story of how during WWII when rice was becoming scarce strict regulations from the government made brewers add alcohol to their sake to reduce the amount of rice required. Once the war was over and rice production returned to healthy levels brewers were free to go back to making junmai styles. Thing is, they didn’t. Adding alcohol helped increase yields thus profitability. This practice continues today in the production of futsu-shu (regular sake) where alcohol additions can triple a yield. This type of sake makes up something like 80% of all sake sold. Put simply, it’s a major part of the industry just the same way cask wine is a major part of the Australian wine industry – keeping it afloat.
But this is a bit of a red herring. No one is denying that a junmai sake is going to taste arguably better than some cheap futsu-shu made with other sugar and acid additions in grossly large amounts. But when we’re talking about tokutei meishoshu (special designation sake); honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo have small amounts of alcohol added as a means of making a more aromatic sake. It does not fortify the sake. At the end of the brewing process the sake is till cut with water to reduce the alcohol level to around 15-17% as usual. And it is small amounts. The amount of alcohol added cannot exceed 25% of the total alcohol content so this is hardly going to increase yields. So in other words, take a 720ml bottle of honjozo with an alcohol content of 16% – no more than 4% of that sake can be added alcohol. Do you really think you can taste that 4%? Also worth taking into account that as we go up in grade to ginjo and daiginjo, even less alcohol is used. You may be able to taste the stylistic differences between junmai and aruten but I don’t believe you can taste the added alcohol. As for the idea that aruten is not traditional; adding alcohol to sake to bring out flavours and aroma as a technique goes back at least 400 years. So how much history does something need to be considered traditional? Incidentally after WWII it took about 15 years for anyone to start brewing junmai again. Up until that point the term “junmai” wasn’t even used!
Then there is the apparent moral issue with adding alcohol as if it’s cheating or cutting corners. But if you think about all the techniques available to wine makers: using wood staves instead of barrels, tannin powder additions, acid adjustments etc. it seems a little contradictory to be so strict when it comes to sake brewing. By the way, I have no beef with the brewers who shun the aruten method. They brew the sake they want to brew using the techniques they want to use. It would be boring if everyone brewed the same and I love a junmai as much as the next guy.
All this is not to say you can’t be a junmai purist. But when someone claims to be a card-carrying junmai fanatic I like to think they’ve tried a few honjozo, non-junmai gingjo and non-junmai daiginjo before they came to their stance. It’s important to make up your own mind on the issue with your taste buds. Make sure you know what you’re missing out on before you let someone dictate to you what you should or shouldn’t be drinking based on their own beliefs.
Try enough sake and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of aruten that taste pretty damn good.
Goshun Keeps it Old School
Nihonshu has a rich and long history. The sake we know today is not the same as the sake that would’ve been drunk hundreds of years ago nor is sake being made in the same way or even in the same places.
These days when people think of popular sake brewing regions they are likely to think of Niigata, Iwate and Yamagata; breweries from the Tohoku region to the north of the Japan’s main island. The Kansai region, in the west is often regarded as an area of volume. After all, around 1/3 of all sake comes from Nada in Hyogo and Fushimi in Kyoto. Of course, a lot of quality sake comes from these regions too, but they don’t seem to be quite as “hip” as they once were. Just outside of Hyogo in Osaka there is the small town of Ikeda, a once pumping sake town boasting 38 kura (breweries). A huge amount of breweries for such a small town. To put that in perspective, these days the whole of Osaka only has 16 breweries in total.
Sadly, as a reflection of the decline of sake’s popularity in Japan, of those 38 breweries in Ikeda only one remains: the inimitable Goshun. Named after an artist of the Edo Period, Goshun have been brewing sake since the early 1700’s and they definitely represent the “old school”. One of the first things you notice about a bottle of Goshun Daiginjo is they don’t have “daiginjo” anywhere on the label. This can be traced back to 1943 when a system known as the Nihonshu Kyubetsu Seido or Nihonshu Classification system was put in place by the government. Sake breweries would submit their sake for tasting and would be awarded a classification of Special Class (Tokkyu), First Class (Ikkyu) or Second Class (Nikyu) according to the perceived quality of the sake. Sake was then sold with prices (and taxes) to go with their given grade. However many breweries believed it to be a flawed system as these things are always subject to interpretation. As a result many breweries thumbed their noses at the government and decided not to submit their sake for the classification. This then resulted in many high quality sake sitting out on the shelves at bargain prices because they didn’t have a government awarded classification. In 1990 the laws defining tokutei meishoshu (Special Designation Sake) came in defining the categories we know today and by 1992 the Nihonshu Classification System was a thing of the past.
But the folks at Goshun aren’t too big on moving with the times. They only make three sake: a daiginjo labelled as Toku (special class), then a honjozo and a futsu-shu labelled as Ikeda-Shu. They only bottle their sake in the traditional 1800ml bottle (isshobin). They don’t have a website, e-mail and don’t even deliver. Every year when their sake is ready the shops and restaurants of Osaka fax their orders in, Goshun divies up the allocation and then the restaurants and shop owners have to come get the sake themselves – it sells out every year without fail. Brewery tours or visits are definitely off limits. And the sake rocks!
Sticking to the Osaka motto: “just becuase it’s cheap doesn’t mean it should taste bad”, these guys make very good sake for the price. Goshun is solid, working man’s sake. It’s sake for drinking, not for pontificating. Find yourself eating out in an izakaya in downtown Osaka chowing on good, local food? Goshun is for you. Literally. Because you’ll be hard pressed to find Goshun anywhere but Osaka. They make it for the local market and the locals lap it up leaving precious little for anyone else.
I must admit I spent quite a few years living in Osaka and have some ties to Ikeda so I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Goshun and everytime I go back to Osaka I find myself drinking plenty of it – but I aint complaining.
Seimaibuai: 50 % Seki-ban Omachi Rice
Steely, minerally aromas don’t give too much away but on the palate it’s a lesson in balance. Not overly dry and not sweet, right in the middle. Sturdy yet round and plush with hints of aniseed and a tight finish. It has a fresh elegance but is not a petite, delicate style of daiginjo. Goshun works as a foil to just about any kind of food and drinks brilliantly on its own. Never pass up an opportunity to try some Goshun.
And if you ever find yourself wandering the streets of Osaka, remember the Osaka Strut-
The Cloudy World of Nigori
“Lets Clear Something Up”
“I Can See Clearly Now”
“Obscured By Clouds”
Ah, I’ve got tons of cheesy titles to head a bit on nigori-zake but sadly they mostly suck.
Okay, anyway so nigori means “cloudy” or “hazy” and in this context it refers to loosely pressed sake that has a cloudy appearance.
Note that cloudy sake is called nigori-zake in Japanese, where the “s” in “sake” becomes a “z”. This is just a pronunciation thing. Try saying “nigorisake”, easier to say”nigorizake” right? Weird huh?
As for what makes it cloudy? This where things get…cloudy. Nigori-zake is often referred to as unfiltered sake. A bit of a misnomer as the cloudiness isn’t from the filtering stage but actually the pressing stage of the sake making process.
With regular sake, after the fermentation process has been completed the mash is pressed with a machine that looks kind of like a giant accordion(called assaku-ki in Japanese). After the sake is pumped in to the machine, rubber balloon type bags are inflated which press the sake up against mesh plates, pumping the sake out and leaving behind all the undissolved rice chunks known as “kasu”. (There are other ways of pressing sake but this is the most common. I’ll leave the others for another day so as not to “cloud” the issue. Ha! Another bad pun).
What this leaves us with is a thick, milky looking sake quite different from the clean, pristine sake we know and love. Obviously, nigori-zake lacks the finesse, fine aromas and delicate mouthfeel of ginjo sake. Quite often they are on the sweet side and sometimes even spritzy or straight-up fizzy. Of course they are also a lot thicker than refined sake to the point where some are downright chunky. As for where nigori-zake fits in to the sake world; sadly its often thought of as the”gateway” sake for westerners ie. the best way to introduce sake to the uninitiated. Reason being the novelty of the appearance and the sweet flavour profile make it more approachable than other sake. I say sadly because I often feel that thrusting nigori-zake onto the western drinker is a bit condescending as if we aren’t sophisticated enough to “get” refined sake.
You’ll find in most sake bars in Japan they may have a couple of nigori-zake at the back of the fridge but they aren’t big sellers. On the flip-side most Japanese restaurants in America and increasingly Australia, plough through the stuff.
While nigori-zake has its place, it certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all of the sake world. By all means check them out if you spot them, if nothing else they offer an interesting window into what the sake of old would have been like before the pressing techniques of today were available. They’re also probably the best foil for spicy food. Usually sake struggles against hot spicy foods but nigori-zake fares better than most.
Another version of nigori that you might spot is usunigori-zake. This is ‘thin’ nigori-zake; pressed a little more than regular nigori and thus not as thick; more hazy than cloudy.
Natsuko No Sake & Kame No O
So, we know there are many different kinds of rice used in sake making called sakamai (酒米). Basically, these differ from regular table rice in that they are larger in grain and stalk size and have a higher starch content. Sake rice are all pretty much hybrids ie. varieties that have been cross-bred to create superior rice styles suitable for sake brewing-economically or practically.
But there are a few exceptions. Omachi is a fairly common rice that is a pure-bred variety. A rather distinctive rice that often has chestnut aromas and an earthy flavour. The other main pure bred rice is called Kame no O (亀の尾translates to Turtles Tail for what it’s worth. Comes from the appearance of the shoots).
Kame no O has been around for a very long time, at least since the 1800’s. It was used originally for eating as well as sake but fell out of favour to other cheaper, easier to grow economical rice. But it didn’t disappear completely. In 1980 the president of Niigata Prefecture brewery Kusumi, makers of Kiyoizumi, decided he wanted to brew a sake using the fabled Kame no O rice after hearing stories from his head brewer about how good it was ‘back in the day’. He obtained some seeds (a measly 1500 grains) from the Niigata Agricultural Research Centre and began cultivating Kame no O. What seemed liked a gamble at first, started to turn heads when in 1983 they released Kame no Okina Daiginjo. The rest of the sake world began to take notice and these days there are more than fifty breweries using Kame no O. They even had a Kame no O Summit in 2001 for all the brewers using Kame no O to get together and basically sing its praises.
Now, the Japanese love an underdog story, so in the land where there is a manga comic dedicated to just about anything and everything it probably wasn’t surprising when the Kusumi story of reviving Kame no O was adapted to a manga under the name “Natsuko No Sake” (Natsuko’s Sake). Not a particularly faithful reproduction of the story, it tells the tale of a young copy writer named Natsuko who returns to the family business of sake brewing and against all odds follows the dream of her dead brother to brew great sake using a forgotten rice strain (called tatsunishiki in the story). If that doesn’t sound corny enough, they even made it into a twelve part TV drama series. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry you didn’t miss much. Pretty much the same formula as every Japanese drama series: main character has a dream that everyone around them says is impossible, main character struggles, cries a lot and almost gives up but comes through in the end, awkwardly kisses the obligatory love interest and all the doubters admit they were wrong to ever question the human spirit-*yawn*
Of course every time someone comes up with something “original”, there’s always another who says they came up with it first. This story is no exception…..
Up in Yamagata Prefecture a brewery by the name of Koikawa claims they were growing Kame no O in 1979. Because the source for their Kame no O seedlings were also different, they of course claim their Kame no O is the true Kame no O, and of course Kusumi disagrees. Me? I dunno, as long everyone’s making good sake I don’t really care.
Unfortunately I don’t have the famous Daiginjo, but I do have a bottle of Kiyoizumi Tokubetsu Junmai made with Kame no O. Not an overly aromatic sake, it gives light aromas of white flowers and vanilla. Very low in acid and a somewhat slick mouthfeel helps it slide down a little too easy (as if there is such a thing). Delicate flavours or apple and melon on the palate, it’s a very pretty sake.
Sadly, Kiyoizumi is not available in Australia however, their arch nemesis Koikawa is available online through Sakenet . Get some!