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