Wednesday evening I was invited to the Japan Society to listen to a lecture on sake brewing technique, followed by a large-scale sake tasting from among Japan’s best breweries. Sake brewing is a 1700-year-old tradition in Japan, so what better way to respect it than sample the finest with the breweries themselves? Sampling 35 sakes appealed to me, as you might expect, and as the only sakes brought for our consumption were ginjo, the highest-quality classification of sakes made in Japan, the event promised to educate me on what quality sake should taste like and what to look for when purchasing sake in the city.
First up was a lecture, held in the same auditorium where The Feisty Foodie was featured last month on a Japanese game show. John Gauntner, recognized as one of the foremost authorities on sake not only in Japan but around the world, writer of venerated sake guides, spoke on the final steps of sake brewing, focusing on pateurization, but touching on filtration, storage, and aging. It was more involved than I could really get into here, but I can touch on the main topics. On aging, most sakes are best fresh, though exceptions are becoming more common; debate continues on whether to store, and even referment like champagne or craft beer, in the bottle, versus keeping the sake in the tanks. Almost all sake is pasteurized — and has been since at least the 16th century (sorry, Louis, but some cultures were doing it way before they understood the science) — allowing, in his words, for a lot of the subtleties of the sake to come forth rather than be muddled. The same holds true for filtration, and you’ll notice that almost every sake (at least the ginjo) is clear and transparent.
After a rousing question-and-answer session, we moved to the tasting. Thirteen sake breweries represented their best sakes, many of which aren’t available in the area but, encouragingly, many that can be found on the shelves at wine shops such as Astor Wines and Union Square Wines. These breweries brought a total of 35 sakes, of which my friend and I tasted all but two — not to worry, samples were well under an ounce, so even though a large number of the sakes contained north of 15% alcohol, inebriation was held in check. Some of the highlights:
Nanbubijin Daiginjo turned out to be a favorite – daiginjo is the top class of ginjo sake, using highly-milled rice and almost no pure distilled alcohol is added at this grade, letting the rice itself produce the complex flavors in the sake. This daiginjo had a classic cucumber aroma with notes of tropical fruits and pears, and while the alcohol, as with most sakes, was obvious, it was mellowed and rounded in this sample.
Akita Seishu brought some of the more flowery sakes I tasted that night. Pictured are the Seiden “Omachi 55” Junmai Ginjo (left) and Yamada Nishiki 50 Junmai Ginjo. Omachi 55 had a wonderfully lavender nose with a strong melon component, and tasted mainly of lavender; Yamada Nishiki 50 showcased more of an apples and pears nose and flavor, and was a little sharper and cleaner in the flavor. Not pictured is the Dewatsuru “Hihaku” Junmai Daiginjo, so floral (the cheat sheet says violets), even herbal in the nose, with hints of cantaloupe, and was one of the “brightest”, cleanest sakes I tried.
Tenju Shuzo poured its “Chokasian” Junmai Daiginjo, which uses yeast derived from the pink nadeshiko flower, giving not only a flowery aroma and flavor, but allowing the deep, rounded aroma of anise to burst forth, while the sake itself was light and airy and barely left a finish. This was another highlight of the evening.
Tentaka Sake Brewing Company poured a range of flavors in its sakes, from the very ricey, even bitter Junmai organic sake to the right, to the melon and strawberry aromas and flavors of the “Ginsho” Daiginjo sake in the middle, to the bradylike aroma, nearly pure rice flavor and very dry body of the Kuni Tokubetsu Junmai-shu (Hawk in the Heavens).
One of our favorite sakes of the evening. Sato no Homare Junmai Daiginjo, named “Kakunko” by its brewer, Sudo-Honke Inc., is a muroka (unfiltered), nama (unpasteurized) sake, with a big anise/fennel nose balanced by a slight cinnamon aroma. The sake feels very full in the mouth, with the fennel and cinnamon carrying over from the aroma and joined by a toasty, nutty flavor from the rice. I could see myself sipping this repeatedly, and for the reported price tag here in the city (upwards of $250 per 720ml bottle), I’d be doing so sparingly. But we certainly could pick the most expensive bottles.
Marumoto was quick to point out that the Happo Nihonshu “Houhou Shu” pictured at right wasn’t “true” sake. It’s a sparkling sake (refermented in the bottle), only 8% alcohol, and cloudy, with a very, very fruity, yogurt-y, bubblegum aroma, oranges and bubblegum dominating the flavor, with a kind of carbonated Sweet Tart essence to it. Intriguing, to say the least. The sake in the middle of the photo, the Chikurin “Fukamari” junmai-shu, was a much more straightforward, rice-focused sake, clean and crisp and solid.
Asahi’s three sakes ranged all over the map. Dassai “Migaki Niwari Sanbu” daiginjo smelled beautifully clean, with a lilac-flower aroma. 77% of each rice hull is milled away, by far the most-milled rice in any sake available that evening, leaving essentially a cleaner rice profile, and one that disappeared going into the finish. To its right, the Dassai “Junmai Ginjo 50” sported more of a Concord grape aroma, with a rich, rounded mouthfeel coupled with a pronounced alcohol bite. Finally, the Dasai “Junmai Nigori 39” Sparkling Nigori was just that, a sparkling sake, cloudy, very fruity with the standard fruit cocktail aromas, and came off as kind of dessert-winelike, a fact not lost on the brewer no doubt.
There were certainly other wonderful sakes enjoyed — Imada Sake Brewing Company’s “Biho” (aromas and flavors of rose, but clean and dry if a little rought) and “Suigetsu” (herbal absinthe with a touch of anise, sharp, with hints of flowers in the taste), and Okunomatsu’s Tokubetsu Junmai (perfumy aroma, soft, not crisp, with a floral, earthy aspect to the flavor and rounded finish) — jump out from my note-taking. Over all, however, there were very few sakes I just couldn’t get into. I suppose when you start with only th best sakes from excellent brewers, you limit the chaff.
Kudos to Japan Society for this long-running, popular event. I’ll definitely be back next year, when they promise to stage yet another new, interesting topic in sake brewing, and a new lineup of sakes to compare and enjoy.