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
Any time I make a trip to Japan I always try to squeeze in a brewery visit or two and on my last visit I was fortunate enough to visit one of my favourites in Nishiyama Shuzo makers of Kotsuzumi from Hyogo prefecture. I first came across Kotsuzumi when I received a bottle of their flagship sake Tanko Junmai Ginjo as a souvenir from a friend but at the time knew little about them. It was an amazing sake that soon became one of my go-to sake whenever I visited Japan. So I was doubly excited when they warmly invited me take a look around the brewery.
Established in 1849 Nishiyama Shuzo is in a beautiful, mountainous location in Tanba City in the middle of nowhere, Hyogo. Many breweries are located in difficult to get to countryside areas so as to have access to good water, and Nishiyama is no exception. Like many breweries their water is their pride and the folks at Kotsuzumi wasted no time in telling me their famous soft-water from the Takeda River which they pump from wells on site had been featured in the famous gourmet manga-comic Oishinbo where it was described as “plump, round with a surprisingly quick, fleeting finish. Truly a pure, bold water”. High praise indeed! The fact that the local water is soft-water is also noteworthy as most Hyogo sake comes from the Nada region famously for its particularly hard water.
One of the first things you notice about a bottle of Kotsuzumi is the striking labels. All their Labels are designed by respected artist Hirosuke Watanuki. It was nice to see the motifs on the labels reflected throughout the brewery, all the signage and even the outside garbage bin bore a design from Watanuki-san which gives a unique feeling of continuity and consistency which also reflects in their approach to brewing. As Kotsuzumi’s Toji Yashima-san explained, they brew in small batches all year round to maintain consistency and freshness. Many breweries still follow the traditional style of doing all their brewing only in the cooler months and then spending the warmer months marketing and promoting (or even resting!). However at Kotsuzumi their year round brewing philosophy means if you spot a Kotsuzumi bottle on the shelves you can be sure it is only a few months old and unlikely to be from last year’s production. This “fresh is best” approach to brewing also means you won’t find any koshu or aged sake about. Again as Yashima-san explained, their small size and constant brewing system means they don’t have any tank or storage space even if they wanted to age their sake. But then again who needs it?
Nishiyama are very much a modern brewery and pride themselves on individuality. This is evident in their use of only locally grown rice including the familiar Yamadanishiki and Gohyakumangoku as well as the very local, organically grown Tajima-Goriki and Hyogo-kitanishiki. Also unusual is their almost exclusive use of Ogawa #10 yeast strain. A far from common or easy to work with yeast strain that Yashima-san finds rewards with light, delicate, elegant sake. Breaking further from tradition is the method of having all brewery workers (kurabito) involved in all aspects of brewing without the Toji, Yashima-san keeping any secrets to himself. It is common or traditional in breweries for the Toji to take full control and responsibility for many aspects of brewing without delegating tasks of high importance to other brewers until they’re too old to do it all themselves. This is why you often hear stories of Toji who spend the brewing months living on only a couple of hours of sleep a day and working up to six months straight without a day off. Admirable but not always practical. After all if the Toji were to become sick, production would ground to a halt. By making the techniques, brewing data and know-how of the Toji available to all the brewers consistency is guaranteed. A smart move in these fiscal times I’d say.
These days it’s hard for a brewery to make ends meet on just sake alone so mnay of them branch out with other products usually starting with Ume-shu, Yuzu infused liqueurs and often shochu. Nishiyama Shuzo is no exception producing all of these as well as grape liqueur, strawberry liqueur and even Amazake yoghurt. Amazake, if you’re not familiar is a sweet, non-alcoholic beverage made using koji and rice, often drunk warm. But beyond these I was most surprised to be shown their Grappa distillery(!). Yep, of all places to find Italian firewater, it’s being distilled out in the boondocks of Japan.
Of course on such a trip I was unlikely to leave without a couple of bottles and I couldn’t resist grabbing a “fresh-as-can-be” bottle of the Tanko Junmai Ginjo and Tokubetsu Junmai. But imagine my surprise when it was casually mentioned that some of the Kotsuzumi portfolio was available in Australia! What?? Since when? How did something like this get by a know-it-all like me? Nonetheless it is true that the Kotsuzumi Tokebetsu Junmai and the Kotsuzumi Junmai Ginjo Hanafubuki are in fact available through Sake Online. Grab some!
Kotsuzumi Tokubetsu Junmai Seiamibuai: 58%
Rice: Hyogo Kitanishiki
Slightly earthy aromas, blended with white chocolate, white flowers and hints of poached pear. Plush and full on the palate with a dollop of umami and a slightly spicy, grippy finish. Also recommended slightly warmed or room temperature.
If you find yourself in Japan with the chance to try the Tanko I highly recommend it as one of my all time favourite sake. Their Daiginjo are also nothing short of outstanding and interestingly keep to the brewery policy of not milling rice any lower than 45%. In this day and age of seeing who can go lowest with 35% becoming the norm for competition sake, I find that a breath of fresh air. Arguably, to go much lower than 45 or 40% the sake loses its umami and the whole exercise becomes more about bragging rights than sake quality.