At some point in the discussion of sake with anyone with a passing interest, the name Philip Harper pops up eventually. For those that aren’t familiar, Philip Harper is Japan’s only non-Japanese toji (master brewer). An Englishman who developed a taste for the rice brew early on in a stint in Japan teaching English around twenty years ago. What started with a job helping out at a local brewery when time permitted eventually led to a full-time job which then led to work with some more breweries, further study and now his status as master brewer for Kinoshita Brewery in Kyoto.
While Mr Harper’s unique position as Japan’s only ever foreign toji is worthy of praise as a testament to his tenacity and determination to succeed in a profession steeped in a tradition not so open to outsiders, it isn’t defining. The sake Philip is producing is not the sake of a foreigner trying to change the rules or put his own British spin on things. Fortunately, it is the sake of someone who has obviously learnt the craft as any Japanese would have, resulting in sake of true quality, depth and style.
The Tamagawa Junmai Ginjo I’ve been ploughing my way through these last few days is an almost rustic brew. It doesn’t have the showy, fruity ginjo nose that can be apparent in some ginjos. Instead, it shows woody aromas, floral hints, touches of dry autumn leaves (don’t laugh, I know what I mean) and soft earthiness. On the palate its soft acidity make it a very smooth, elegant, easy drink quite rich in umami. This particular sake is made using Omachi rice. Not an uncommon rice variety, but not the most popular either. I find it often to be quite distinctive in that sake using this variety often have an almost chestnut-like aroma and taste. Not exclusive to omachi but for me, common.
Also interestingly, this sake fares well slightly warmed. Now, I know I may have said ginjo should be drunk chilled; and for the most part it should, but a little warmth softens the edges giving a feeling of a buzzed nirvana (too much?).
Philip Harper has been instrumental in getting sake out and about in the English speaking world, authoring a number of books well worth reading if you come across them (which can be difficult in Australia). In the meantime hunt down some Tamagawa sake and see what happens (or more correctly and thankfully doesn’t happen) when a non-Japanese brews it.
Stats: Tamagawa Junmai Ginjo Kyoto
Seimaibuai: 59% Omachi rice