Golden Masu Award!

Golden Masu Award!

The year 2011 is one I can assure you I will never forget. The March 11th Great East Japan Earthquake and it’s aftermath with stay with me forever. I was in Japan on that day and now that over 9 months have passed, I can see even more clearly how deeply it affected me.

I also spent several months of this year visiting Japan – more than ever before in my life. This allowed me to meet many wonderful people and learn more about sake and Japanese culture than I could have ever imagined.

For me, I’ve long known that sake is indeed ‘Japanese culture in a cup’. With that in mind, join me as I take a look back at 2011 and acknowledge those sakes that caught my fancy, tickled my taste buds or broadened my horizons.

Without further ado, I give you the 2011 Golden Masu Awards!

“Best Sake Under $25″



And the Masu goes to:
Seikyo Takehara Junmai

With everyone from European Governments to sake sippers from Saskatchewan adopting austerity budgets in 2011, this seems to be the year for belt tightening as never before. This doesn’t mean however, that you need to give up really good sake, even if your balance sheet comes up a little short. I discovered there are wonderful premium imported sakes out there that can be had for under $25 a pop. My favorite this year was Seikyo Takehara Junmai. This Sake retails for just under $25.00 a bottle and is worth every penny. Hailing from Hiroshima, this soft and balanced brew is easy to drink and easier on the wallet. Versatile, food friendly and delicious, my advice is to stock up on this brew and ride out any further market gyrations with a glass of Seikyo Junmai in hand!

“Most Elegant Plum Sake”



And the Masu goes to:
Daishichi Umeshu

Plum Sake don’t get no respect. Called “Umeshu” in Japanese, plum sake can unfortunately be a hard sell as people sometimes confuse plum sake with the unsophisticated and overly sweet plum wines on the market. Things are changing however and high quality Umeshu is taking it’s rightful place at the premium sake table. One remarkable standout in the plum sake category is Daishichi Umeshu. This sake is a masterful study of elegance and restraint in creating a sake with plum. Smooth as velvet and using only premium Nankou plums from Wakayama, you’ll be dazzled by how subtle and refined the plum taste is on the palate. By downplaying any overt sweetness, Daishichi lets the true plum flavor shine through. After one sip, you’ll know plum sake is not just for dessert anymore.

“Best Futsushu”



And the Masu goes to:
Hakkaisan Futsushu

Most Americans don’t know that the vast majority of sake sold in Japan is the type classified as “futsushu“, which can be translated as “regular sake” or “table sake”. Yes, we’re talking about non-premium brews here. People just getting started with sake tasting often swoon and wax poetic at the complex floral aromas and smooth-as-silk body you can enjoy with a fine Junmai Daiginjo. But, as it’s such a huge part of the Japanese market, there is something to be said for the other end of the sake spectrum, too. One “regular sake” that rises above the rest is Hakkaisan Futsushu. The Brewery President Jiro Nagumo told me that one of his company’s goals is to make good quality sake available to everyone. To do that, they keep their most inexpensive futsushu quality high – for example, it has a milling rate of 60%! This combined with a slow and cold brewing period keep their Hakkaisan Futsushu sake tasting clean, dry and delicious. Whether you serve it chilled or warm, this is one “table sake” you’ll want to ensure you have at your table.

“Most Inspiring Junmai Ginjo”



And the Masu goes to:
Hakurakusei Junmai Ginjo

2011 will always be tied in our memories to the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake. I had the distinct honor to volunteer for a week in September of this year at Niizawa Brewery in Miyagi (see blog post here). During that time, I gained such respect for Mr. Niizawa and his entire staff and family who carried on with sake making despite a brewery building damaged beyond repair, continuing aftershocks and an uncertain future. After a week of hard work at the Brewery, Mr. Niizawa took us out for dinner at a local Izakaya and poured us his magnificent Hakurakusei Junmai Ginjo. After one delicious sip, I had a flash of understanding in my mind. All the sake brewers, in Miyagi and beyond who are working so hard – sometimes quite against the odds – and laboring tirelessly for the recovery of the sake industry are honest-to-goodness heros. With that one sip, I came to a new understanding of just how inspiring a glass of sake could be. I hope you’ll join me in 2012 and beyond to continue to support Hakurakusei and, indeed all Tohoku sake breweries in their on-going recovery.

“Best New Junmai Import”



And the Masu goes to:
Shichida Junmai

New sake imports arrive on our shores regularly. This is a wonderful thing, as more variety selection can help grow the sake market year over year. But every once in a while, a new sake just jumps out at you and makes you say “Wow“! For me, one such sake this year was the standout Shichida Junmai from Tenzan Sake Brewery in Saga. This sake is so completely enjoyable with a nice play of self-assured boldness on the palate and a clean, easygoing finish, it’s hard not to fall in love. Whatever they’re doing down there in Saga, it’s working! If you try it, Shichida Junmai may become a new favorite for you, as it has for me. Welcome to Wow!

“Best in Show”



And the Masu goes to:
Tatenokawa 18 Nakadori Junmai Daiginjo

Lots of people in the U.S. still think that fermented grape juice is the end-all be-all when it comes to elegant imbibing. Those among us who’ve tasted superior premium sake know differently. One sake I had this year that is easily going to win over hearts and minds to Team Sake is Tatenokawa 18 Nakadori Junmai Daiginjo. This gracious, exquisite and masterful sake is really a wonder that deserves our attention. The brewers at Tatenokawa in Yamagata start by milling their sake rice to an astounding 18% remaining. This tiny nugget of pure rice starch is then transformed, with loving attention to detail, into something so smooth, elegant, deep and complex – it will leave you speechless, as it did me. Available for sale soon in the U.S., you’ll want to invest in a bottle of Tatenokawa 18 Junmai Daiginjo to enjoy for a special occasion, celebratory toast or to pair with a fine meal. Sit back, relax and enjoy the new world of elegant imbibing. Score one for Team Sake.

So there you have it! Congratulations and Kanpai to all the winners! After all the struggle and uncertainty of 2011, I am looking forward to next year as a new era for sake at home and abroad. Let’s raise a masu to celebrate all we have accomplished and the wonderful sake days ahead. Kanpai and Happy New Year to everyone!

See Previous Golden Masu winners here:

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