January’s Fun Elements of Sake Class

Elements of Sake

Elements of Sake

Last night was my first sake teaching gig of the new year and we had a really fun Elements of Sake class at Astor Center. We were sold out to capacity and the weather was damp and drizzly, but students arrived excited and happy to learn more about sake.

As I introduced myself to students before class, I learned that for at least 3 couples attending, one spouse had given the class to the other spouse as a holiday present! How fun is that? Whenever I start my class, I take a quick survey and ask students how much exposure they have had to sake. As is usual, the majority of students responded by saying, they really love good sake when they try it, but don’t know much about sake in general. My ideal students!

Popular Wakatake

Popular Wakatake

This class we tried 7 sakes to give everyone a survey of basic sake types. Here is what we tried last night.

Of the above Sakes, Wakatake Junmai Daiginjo and the Norutotai Ginjo Nama Genshu were both well liked by the students. The Wakatake had a few more fans and came out on top as class favorite in the final voting. This class was a sharp group and asked some fantastic questions when we discussed sake ingredients and the sake production process.

I had a blast teaching and this really got my New Year off to a great sakelicious start. We enjoyed some fantastic sake together and had some fun along the way. If you would like to attend a Sake class at Astor Center for yourself (or as a gift for your spouse!), please book early to ensure your spot. Please visit either the Elements of Sake Level I or Elements of Sake Level II page to enroll. I look forward to meeting you in a future class! Kanpai!

Sake Blogger Summit ’09!

With Ted & Etsuko

With Ted & Etsuko

What do you get when you mix Tokyo Foodcast Sake Bloggers Ted and Etsuko, Jocelyn and Carlos from the You, madam, are no Ambrose Bierce blog, Bloggers Rick and Hiroko from New York’s SAKAYA Sake Shop, Scott and yours truly from UrbanSake, along with wonderful friends and family? Well, obviously, the first Sake Blogger Summit of 2009!

A wonderful reason to get together for Ted and Etsuko’s visit to the NYC area, we enjoyed a fun dinner at a stellar restaurant, Aburia Kinnosuke. Of course, sake was on my mind and we enjoyed some wonderful stuff.

To get the ball rolling, I ordered us a bottle of the delicious Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo. Umami-laden, savory and smooth, this is a sake you can really sink your teeth into. In short, a supreme pleasure to drink and I find it perfectly positioned between elegance and casual.

Hiroko-san with Senchu Hassaku

Hiroko-san with Senchu Hassaku

Next, to go along with some fantastic sashimi and Aburia’s famous tsukune chicken meatball, several tokkuri of lovely Masumi Karakuchi Ki-Ippon Junmai Ginjo hit the table. Known as the “Mirror of Truth”, this sake tells no lies. Dry, smooth and delicious, the clean edge of this sake was a perfect counterpart to our delicious food.

As our evening was drawing to a close, I winked to Hiroko-san and suggested we order one last bottle… and happened upon one of our favorites, Tsukasabotan Senchu Hasaku Tokubetsu Junmai. This sake is dry, but has a well-rounded depth of flavor. It’s impressive and understandably a favorite! I enjoyed every sip.

It was wonderful to see Etsuko-san again, this time in New York. I also really enjoyed meeting Ted-san and all my new friends! I hope we all have another chance to get together again and enjoy sake in the U.S. or Japan sometime soon!

New Year’s Eve 2008 at Sakagura

Nanbu Bijin Junami Nama

Nanbu Bijin Junami Nama

I love New Year’s Eve traditions… but I really love a New Year’s Eve traditions that involve sake! No problem for me, as I’ve got one!

Scott and I have made it our tradition to head to Sakagura Restaurant each New Year’s eve to celebrate in true style and luckily for me, this year was no exception! From the moment we sat down, Sakagura manager Mr. Kadoi made sure that we were well taken care of. He personally helped us select our sakes for the evening and he’s got one of the best palates in the city, so I knew we were in good hands.

Sougen Chilled vs Sougen Warmed

Sougen Chilled vs Sougen Warmed

I wanted something fresh and interesting to start off with and after a few samples of alluring Kubota sakes, we decided on the delicious Nanbu Bijin Junmai Nama. This Namazake from Iwate Prefecture was supple, and spoke to me of soft fresh fruit. I enjoyed the gentle nama flavor profiles, and was so happy to be reminded of this sake’s specific charms. It has such a nice, pleasant level of nama juiciness without being overwhelming or brassy. Nanbu Bijin Nama went down easy and was the perfect brew to let one’s mind wonder to the sky high hopes for the new year. Alongside the nama, we feasted on a sashimi platter that was darn near perfect.

Mr. Kadoi at Sakagura

Mr. Kadoi at Sakagura

Once we hit our stride, I ordered a wonderful treat: Sougen Junmai. Kadoi-san let us sample Sougen chilled and warmed side by side. This was really facinating. The chilled sougen was more clean and easy drinking, while the warmed Sougen (warmed to the perfect nurukan temperature by Kadoi-san) came across as richer and rounder on the palate, and of course perfect for a cold New Year’s eve. Both were extremely enjoyable and it just goes to show you, sake is the most versatile booze around. (Yeah, don’t try this nurukan trick with your prized Pinot, ok?)

After a lovely meal and these fantastic sakes, it was time to head out into the night to welcome the new year. I can’t think of a better place to get 2009 off to a fantastic start. Special thanks to Kadoi-san and all the wonderful folks at Sakagura for the wonderful evening. …and it goes without saying that dinner and drinks at Sakagura beats out New Year’s Rockin’ Eve on TV. um, Seacrest out!

2008 Golden Masu Awards

golden_masu_1With 2008 coming to a close it’s only natural to want to look back and ponder the best sakes of the year. In other words, it’s time to announce the 2008 UrbanSake.com Golden Masu Awards! Let’s honor those sakes that stood out from the pack and made 2008 the best year for sake yet.


“Best Nama”

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Born Muroka

Born

And the Masu goes to: Born Muroka Nama Genshu Junmai Daiginjo

This year, pure decadence won out over the usual delights that most sweet and fruit-driven namas have to offer. Born Nama is a rich and compelling sake. It is aged for a year, giving it a greater complexity that speaks volumes on your palate. Being unpasteurized, this brew gives that fresh wake up call to your taste buds that only a nama can deliver, however, this sake sings a sultry ballad and not a sugar sweet pop song. Enjoy with someone you love, in a place you love, with some food that you love and you’ll love it – I promise.


“Best One Cup in the U.S.”

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Funaguchi

Funaguchi

And the Masu goes to: Kikusui Funaguchi Shibori Honzojo Nama Genshu

I have a special place in my heart for sake sold in the “one cup” size. These tiny servings are wonders of engineering, not to mention portion control! The supply of sake sold in the one cup size is limited in the U.S., but of what you can get, Kikusui Funaguchi is far and away my favorite! The taste is full and strong and fruit-forward. Also, being a genshu, this sake is undiluted and can have a lot of impact, but in a good way. It’s a delicious tidbit to drink at a picnic or just on the go. I always try to have a few in the fridge ready to jet off on adventures when I am.


“Best Sake under $20”

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Kurosawa

Kurosawa

And the Masu goes to: Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto

It’s just great the the papers are finally telling us we’ve “technically” been in an economic recession for the past year. While everyone loves to turn to booze when times are tough, expensive sakes can sometimes be just out of reach. What’s a sake lover,who has been socked in the wallet, to do? I recommend Kurosawa Kimoto Junmai as a very affordable drinking sake that happens to taste spectacular, too. You’ll get all the flavor and quality of higher priced brews, in a delicious package that retails for under $20. If that makes it a little more affordable to choose a sake to drown your sorrows, my work here is done.


“Coolest Label”

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KuroObi

KuroObi

And the Masu goes to: Kuro Obi Do Do Yamahai Junmai

Fukumitsuya Brewery has style, no doubt about it. If you’re in Ginza or Kanazawa, a trip to their retail shop is all the proof you need that these folks understand design. This extends to the stunning packaging for their latest import, the delicious Kuro Obi Do Do or “black belt” in english. The gorgeous abstracted Kanji on the label stand out in silver relief against the black background. The best news of all is that the yamahai sake inside the bottle is as snazzy as the label. The depth of flavor will pair well with many foods, but I match this brew with cheese in particular. Black Belt is the new black.


“Most Deserving of a 99 Rating from the Wine World”

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masuizumi

Masuizumi

And the Masu goes to: Masuizumi Junmai Daiginjo

Oh, all those vaunted wine experts are just crazy for their numeric wine ratings! That little number can make or break the fortunes of any wine. Luckily, we’re not so bound by this system in the world of sake. However, I can’t help feeling that every now and again, this rating system could be used as a bridge to convert some wine enthusiasts into fervent disciples of sake. Enter scrumptious Masumizumi Junmai Daiginjo. This sake strikes me as tailor-made to get a magical rating of 99 from the biggest names in the wine biz and also as the perfect brew to ease wine lovers into sipping on some sake. As I know all too well, it only takes that one magical taste to get hooked on nihon-shu permanently.


“Most Umami”

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Iroha

Iroha

And the Masu goes to:
Sawanoi “Kioke Jikomi Iroha Kimoto Junmai

All the foodies I know really connect with those sakes that may strike some as, well… funky. Sawanoi Iroha is the perfect example of a sake that can stand up to a foodie’s favorite flavors. In a word, “Umami”. This is considered the mysterious “fifth taste” that is often translated as ‘savoriness’. In a world of sake filled with those light and fruity Junmai Daiginjos, a little savory can go a long way to perk up your palate. My “a-ha” moment with this sake came the instant I paired it with shitake mushroom. The two together created pure foodie magic and made me a believer in Umami ever more.


“Best in Show”

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Dassai

Dassai

And the Masu goes to: Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjo

Oh Dassai 23… How do I love thee? Let me count the ways… um, 23 ways? Well, 23 of course stands for the ultra low milling rate of the rice used to make this dreamy sake. 77% of each grain is ground away prior to brewing, an astounding feat in and of itself, but what does that do to the taste? Dassai 23 has a smoothness on the palate that is hard to match, yet with the unmistakable characteristics and consistency of a sake that has been lovingly hand-crafted in small batches. This brew can be a real splurge but it’s worth every penny and it will restore your faith in the power of pure, delicious flavor to elevate the soul.

Well, there you have it. Congratulations to all the winners and I’ll be on the look out in ‘09 for any new sake stars on the horizon… Kanpai and Happy New Year!

Top 5 Sparkling Sakes for New Year’s Eve

Okunomatsu Sparking Formula Nippon

Okunomatsu Sparking Formula Nippon

Are you a little tired of the same old shoddy champagne? Well, kick that brut to the curb and this year, try something new to tickle your nose as you ring in the New Year. Sake seems to be the eternal up and coming underdog, but to be honest, the selection of sparkling sake available in the USA has never been better. Referred to in Japanese as “happo-shu”, sparkling sake undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle, just as champagne does, so you won’t miss a single bubble with the switch from grapes to sake.

Sparkling Sake is usually low in alcohol, so expect a light and breezy alcohol content of 5-8%. Also, note that most sparkling sake is sold in small bottles (180ml – 300ml) to facilitate a quick consumption, for as with other sparkling tipples, the fizz will fade relatively quickly after opening. So, to keep the sparkle alive, drink early and drink often! Let’s take a look at my top 5 picks for the best in New Year’s Eve Sparkling Sake!

Okunomatsu Formula Nippon Junmai Daiginjo Sparkling. Let’s start at the top! This sparkling sake is amazing! Interestingly, it was originally brewed specifically to allow the Formula Nippon race car drivers to spray Junmai Daiginjo Sparkling sake instead of champagne at the winners circle. However, if you don’t even own a car, you can still enjoy all the luxury this sake has to offer. I had a chance to taste it at a 2008 Japan Society event and it was smooth and bubbly on the palate with enchanting fruit notes in the aroma. A masterpiece well worth the price, this sake can be enjoyed for any important celebration. If there is any equivalent to the very finest champagne in the sake world, this is it!

Hou Hou Shu

Hou Hou Shu

Chikurin Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Junmai. The quintessential sparkling sake, this delight can go toe to toe with champagne any day. There is a wisp of nigori in this low alcohol brew with a delightful sparkle on the palate. I find it has a great balance of sweetness and acidity! Enjoy Hou Hou Shu as a perfect way to start a meal or as a way to celebrate!

This sake comes from the celebrated Chikurin Brewery in Okayama Prefecture in Japan. Their attention to every detail makes this a sure fire winner.

Hana Hou Hou Shu

Hana Hou Hou Shu

Chikurin Hana Hou Hou Shu Sparking Junmai. This sake is a sister brew to the Hou Hou Shu above. It’s a low alcohol nihon-shu infused with rose petal and hibiscus! Light and refreshing on the palate, this is an immensely popular sake in the USA.

Once people try the Hana Hou Hou Shu, they seem to come back to it again and again. It certainly stands out on a vast sake list you may find on a restaurant menu. Given the low alcohol and unique taste, this is a great sake for toasting that special event.

Dewazakura Tobiroku

Dewazakura Tobiroku

Dewazakura Tobiroku Sparkling Ginjo. Do you enjoy your New Year’s Eve drink a touch on the dry side? Thinking all these sakes may be too sweet? Check out Dewazakura Tobiroku! It’s a somewhat rare dry sparkling sake. This delightful brew is for those who like their sparkling sake on the crisp side. A touch of nigori adds a bit of texture, but this is foremost a light, brisk bubbly that is easy to enjoy.

The English name for this brew is “Festival of Stars”. If you’ve ever seen the firework festivals in Japan, it will give you a good idea of what they are after.

Harushika Tokeimeki

Harushika Tokeimeki

Harushika Tokimeki Sparkling Junmai. Quite full in sweetness, this sparkling sake balances that with a higher acidity. This sake is very, very refreshing and is a textbook example of a perfect aperitif for your evening meal. I have also paired this sake with fresh fruit in the past to great effect. Pairings with crisp apples seem to work best in bringing out the delicious fruity sweetness in this sake. It’s light and will tickle your nose for sure. Again, I can’t overstate the sweet fruit profile that comes across on the palate for this sake. This is a wonderful sake to demonstrate how unique and delicious sake can be.

So, there you have it. Take a walk on the wild side and give sparkling sake a try this Dec 31st at midnight. They say whatever you do on New Year’s Eve, you will do for the rest of the year… and if that happens to be drinking sparkling Nihon-shu, I can’t think of any better way to spend the year. Kanpai and happy 2009 to everyone!

Japan 2008: Tomita Brewery & Shichihonyari

Tomita Brewery

Tomita Brewery

Ok, Pop Quiz!!! Name one attraction of note in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture… Stumped? Well, I was too, until my visit to outstanding Tomita Brewery, located in the small town of Kinomoto, Shiga Prefecture.

Tomita Brewery is an exceptionally small brewery that has attained global reach when they began exporting their sake to the United States. From Kyoto I had to take 2 local trains to get deep into Shiga countryside and was met by Shichihonyari Executive Director, Mr. Yasunobu Tomita. Tomita-san is a young guy whose enthusiasm for sake is impressive. There is certainly no shortage of hard work for anyone running a sake brewery, but Tomita-san has taken on these challenges with self assurance and confidence.

shichihonyariThe “Seven Spearsmen” Brand
Tomita-san’s The flagship sake is Shichihonyari, which translates as the “seven spearsmen”. This name honors 7 samurai warriors who helped secure victory for the famous Japanese War Lord Hideyoshi in 1583. In the US today, we have access to two delicious Shichihonyari sakes. First is their most famous export the Shichihonyari Junmai. This sake uses locally grown Tamazakae sake rice. It’s fantastic both chilled and heated and offers a robust, truly artisan hand crafted sake experience. Not to be missed. Oh, and you can’t beat the cool Samurai design on the label.

Another sake we can get from Tomita-san is the Shichihonyari Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo. An exquisite Shizuku or “drip” sake, it’s an elegant treat of light fruits on the palate a wisp of crispness that gives it a grounded backbone and good balance.

Tomita-san with His Vintage Fune

Tomita-san with His Vintage Fune

Artisanal Spirit
The Brewery tour began with a walk through of the facility. One of the first things that I noticed was Tomita Shuzo was kickin’ it old school. They were not using the latest computer driven gizmos to make their sake, but had simple old fashioned tools that allow them to craft sake more by hand. One of my favorite examples of this is their “fune” or sake press. The Tomita family has a vintage wooden fune that is beautiful to look at and helps their sake keep a true artisanal spirit. It’s true… they make their sake the old fashioned way… they earn it.

shichi_signAfter a tour of his brewery facility Tomita-san took me out to lunch and for a visit to a nearby rice field. The day was spectacular and I got stunning views of beautiful Lake Biwa, circling hawks, and the low rolling hills of Shiga. Fantastic!

I can’t thank Tomita-san enough for hosting me on this wonderful day in Shiga. I won’t soon forget all his kindness. Also thank you to the entire Tomita family for such outstanding hospitality. I hope I can return someday, but until then, I’ll keep giving my pop quizzes about Shiga to help spread the word of the “Seven Spearsmen”. Kanpai!

Japan 2008: Tamanohikari Brewery

Mr. Ujita, Omachi Rice and me

Mr. Ujita, Omachi Rice and me

Arriving in Kyoto always brings back special memories for me. this was my original destination on my very first trip to Japan. It goes without saying that it’s a beautiful and historic city, but on this visit I was able to discover another aspect of Kyoto that endeared the city to me even more.

Today I was the guest of Mr. Hiroshi Ujita, the president of Tamanohikari Sake Brewery, located in the Fushimi district of Kyoto. Tamanohikari is translated as “brilliant jade” What’s in a name? “Tama” signifies the polished gem and the spirit of the sun goddess, and “Hikari” stands for “brilliance and prosperity”. This is a very well known brand in Japan and several of it’s sakes are also widely distributed here in the states.

Omachi Junmai Daiginjo

Omachi Junmai Daiginjo

Omachi
You can’t talk about Tamanohikari without a mention of Omachi sake rice. Omachi is sometimes called the “grandfather” sake rice as it was used in cross breeding a new and very popular strain called Yamada Nishiki. Omachi is not used extensively in a world dominated by Yamada Nishiki, however, the folks at Tamanohikari Brewery have a strong belief in the particular charms of Omachi rice and use it widely in their sakes. Omachi is more difficult to grow than other rices as it grows taller, but dedicated farmers keep the faith and continue to cultivate and Breweries like Tamanohikari continue to make distinctive and delicious sakes from Omachi rice.

Omachi is used in some of the wonderful Tamanohikari sakes that are for sale in the US. I’m thinking particularly of their flagship Tamanohikari Junmai Daiginjo Omachi, a bewitching and elegant, yet grounded junmai daiginjo. Another favorite is the Tamanohikari Yamahai Junmai Ginjo, which pairs beautifully with umami laden dishes and is a foodies best friend. delicious! In addition, the Tamanohikari Tokusen Pack Junmai Ginjo

Rice Milling Machine

Rice Milling Machine

Historial Yet Alive with Activity
Upon my arrival at Tamanokikari Brewery, I was warmly greeted by Mr. Ujita and their master Toji Tsuneo Ueda who both guided me on a tour of the Brewery facility. After we put on our lab coats and hair nets, we marched around the block through the residential neighborhood to the milling facility. Ujita-san showed me the many computer controlled milling machines that run around the clock and process large quantities of milled rice and rice flour every day. I learned a bit how to read the computerized control panel and monitor the target and current milling rate. A marvel of engineering!

After walking back to the main facility, we forged right ahead with the rest of the tour. The Beautiful brewery building was obviously historical, yet alive with activity and fully operational. The beautifully well worn wooden beams supporting the roof expecially caught my attention. One beam was what seemed to be a solid tree trunk. After inspecting the koji room, I got a rare treat as Ujita-san lead me to a magnafying glass to look closely at the koji mold growing on the rice. It was really astounding to see for myself what I’d so often seen in pictures, real hair like strands of mold growing on the rice! (um, You know you’re a sake geek when… you get excited by koji mold)

Carefully Tended Moto

Carefully Tended Moto

Hello, Moto
Next, I toured the room where the moto or yeast started was being made. The kurabito or brewery workers obviously lavished a lot of attention on this starter. it’s the genesis of the main mash and rightfully deserves a lot of attention. Tamanohikari uses buckets of ice lowered into the moto to control the temperature which is of utmost importance during the yeast cultivation.

In the brewing facility, I was invited to peer into the sake brewing tanks themselves. Both Ueda-san and Ujita-san explained about watching the bubbles produced by the mash as a way to read the progress of the brewing process. We looked at a tank that had a roaring foam and also a tank that had a few light bubbles each working as a road map of sorts for the Toji, helping him decide on next steps for every batch. The hefty aromas wafting up from the moromi (main mash) were quite startling. Ujita-san encouraged me to really take a big whiff. It smelled of ripe fruit salad with notes of cooked rice and rising bread.

Sake Mash

Peering Down into the Brewing Vat

After the tour, I luckily was invited to taste a range of Tamanohikari brews. Not only did the sakes taste fresh, but I felt I better understood “omachi” flavor and why Tamanohikari Brewery is so dedicated to this rice. It defines their signature flavor and gives a wonderful structure and grounded depth of flavor to all their delicious sakes. My deep and sincere thanks to Ujita-san for the the tour of his brewery and Kyoto, and for his dedication to helping people like me better understand sake. Also, special thanks to Ueda-san and all the workers at the brewery for making me feel so welcome.

I felt so honored to see the inner workings and living history of such an esteemed sake brewery such as I did today. Taking an in depth look at this one place not only expanded my appreciation for Tamanohikari, but also for Kyoto and for Sake itself. To paraphrase the Grinch, “…In Kyoto they say, his love for sake grew three sizes that day.”

TAMANOHIKARI Sake Brewing Co., Ltd.
545 Higashisakai – Machi Fushimi-ku Kyoto 612-8066 Japan
TEL: 81-75-611-5000 FAX: 81-75-601-0004
www.sake.com

Japan 2008: Marumoto Brewery and Chikurin

Beautiful Marumoto Brewery

Beautiful Marumoto Brewery

My first trip to visit Marumoto Brewery can only be described as spectacular. Makers of the famous Chikurin Brand of sake, Marumoto brewery is nestled beautifully in the low rolling hills of Okayama Prefecture.

Brewery President, Mr. Marumoto explained that the brewery was founded in 1867 at the end of Edo period and has been producing sake since then. However, this brewery isn’t just famous for it’s sake. The wooden framed brewery complex is registered as an “Important Cultural Property” by Japanese goverment, similar to the National Register of Historic Places here in the US.

Growing Your Own Rice

Marumoto-san Explains Sake Rice

Marumoto-san Explains Sake Rice

The vast majority of sake breweries in Japan buy their sake rice from farmers, but Marumoto brewery is going the extra step and growing its own. Sake really gets its start in the rice field, so Marumoto-san started our tour right there.

We visited several of his rice paddies around and toured some fields that had different levels of fertilzer, and some that were certified organic. The more I saw, the more I realized how dedicated Marumoto-san was to creating the perfect rice for his sake.

Sake Rice Steaming

Just Steamed Sake Rice

Just Steamed Sake Rice

After our tour of rice out in the field, it was time to hit the brewery and see what could be made with this the beautiful rice in a master’s hands. The buildings on the brewery compound are old with a stunning use of old wooden beams like you rarely see. This was a place where it is quite easy to envision what life at the brewery could have been like in the 19th century.

Rice Goes Into the Tank

Rice Goes Into the Tank

We started looking at the rice being washed, soaked and steamed. After steaming, the rice is lifted by hydraulics and scooped by a kurabito onto a cooling conveyor belt below. This cooling step is important. Rice needs to be cooled before going into the koji room or before going into the mash.

That is what was happening on the day I was at Marumoto Brewery. Once collected after this brief cooling, the rice is transported to the main mash vat. How do that do that? Like many other breweries, they use a flexible tube to blow the rice along. This tube gets stuck through the floor and right into the top of the vat on the floor below. After the rice addition, the mash gets stirred into the vat using a long pole. Maruomoto-san and his staff demonstrated how this mixing was done and I tried it myself, but I was a sorry excuse for a kurabito. Maybe after a few months of practice could I get it down pat.

In addition to the steaming and adding rice to the main mash, I also got to see the Koji room, the mash pressing area, the milling room and also the bottling and storage facility. It was especially interesting to see the large refrigerated room where the Chikurin Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Junmai sake undergoes its second fermentation in the bottle. A lot of New Year’s Eve toasting starts right here!

Dinner with a Surprise
A report on my visit to Chikurin wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the very special dinner Maruomoto-san invited us to. At the start of our meal, a rice paper screen opened at one end of the banquet room, and we were treated to a demonstration of “Shiki Hocho”, or the centries old and elaborate fish carving ritual that allows the chef to use a knife and chopsticks but not touch the fish directly.

Viewing the Rare Art of Shiki Hocho

Viewing the Rare Art of Shiki Hocho


All the guests at dinner sat in stunned silence as the ritual proceeded and every movement was deliberate and beautiful. Before I knew it, the sea bream on the table was carved into an elaborate shape of real beauty. This method of fish preparation was done for both the emperor and shogunate starting as early as 895 A.D. I was extremely impressed by the beauty of this and I felt so fortunate to have seen it myself. I know this is something that even few Japanese have seen in person. Am I a lucky guy, or what?!.

Chikurin Sakes

With Mr. Marumoto

With Mr. Marumoto

Okayama was impressive in so many ways and my time with Marumoto-san at Chikurin was even more so. I was able to see up close and in person where these fantastic sakes are made. From the bestselling and gently sweet Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Junmai mentioned above and the rose and hibiscus infused Hana Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Junmai to the incense inspired deep flavors of Chikurin Fukamari Junmai

From the once pasteurized, light and lovely Chikurin Karoyaka Junmai Ginjo to the rich and wonderfully silky smooth texture of the Chikurin Taoyaka Junmai Daiginjo, I saw first hand how these sakes are a true labor of love. I can’t thank Maruotomo-san enough for the wonderful hospitality and tremendous learning during my time at Chikurin. I had experiences I will always remember! Thank you!

Reflecting back on this time, I can’t help but think how much more enthusiasm and appreciation I have for sake with each brewery I visit. It’s magic what they do at places like Marumoto Brewery. Thanks for the magic you bring to all of us.

Chikurin at Dusk

Chikurin at Dusk

Japan 2008: Hakkaisan Brewery

Hakkaisan Brewery In Niigata

Hakkaisan Brewery In Niigata

My next stop on my Japan 2008 tour was a special one! I was headed for the birthplace of the sake that sparked my interest in Nihon-shu in the first place: Hakkaisan Brewery in Niigata.

Longtime readers of my site will know that it was Hakkaisan’s Junmai Ginjo sake that got me so addicted devoted to sake. Hakkaisan is a well known brand that is widely distributed in Japan and abroad, but still very much hand crafted with great attention to details and quality.

Hakkaisan Ginjo

Hakkaisan Ginjo

There are three main sakes to look out for, all of which are simply fantastic. One of my very favorite sakes in the whole world is the Hakkaisan Ginjo. This is an alcohol added sake that has just a touch of richness and delightful floral character in the aroma while still staying true to it’s lighter style Niigata heritage.

Hakkaisan Honjozo is another delicious brew. This sake is more hearty and can pair well with many foods and it also delightful when gently warmed. And of course, as I mentioned above, the Hakkaisan’s Junmai Ginjo is the first premium sake I ever had, and it caught my attention with good reason. It’s crisp and clean style is really elegant and a delight to drink anytime.

Needless to say I was totally jazzed about visiting this brewery and seeing how Hakkaisan did their thing. I took an early morning train into Niigata’s Urasa Station and was picked up and whisked off to Hakkaisan headquarters for a full day consisting of a tour of the brewery facilities lead by Hakkaisan’s Toji, a meeting with Hakkaisan Production staff and finally a lunch with Hakkaisan President Mr. Nagumo.

Hakkaisan Mountain

Hakkaisan Mountain

My first impression of this area was it’s astounding natural beauty. Everywhere I turned, I saw truly beautiful vistas of stunning Niigata mountains crowned by the sacred eight peaks of Mount Hakkai. I couldn’t help but envision the area covered in layers of snow as it is so often pictured in the winter months. This beautiful landscape is home to some beautiful sake and I was about to see how it was made!

Brewing Sake at Hakkaisan

Brewing Sake at Hakkaisan

The brewery tour of the Hakkaisan facility started in their new production facility which allowed visitors to watch the various stages of sake production through windows set up at strategic points along the process. I was lucky enough to see several stages of the brewing process right up close. Just as I had seen in other breweries, this one was built on a vertical concept with the upper floors being at the start of the process and with the rice and sake working it’s way down. For example, milling and steaming on the top floor, brewing on the next floor down and pressing on the floor below that. That way you are never fighting gravity to transport your rice or sake. Ingenious!

Koji Making Kurabito in Action!

Koji Making Kurabito in Action!

After visiting the large milling facility, I was taken to the area where the rice is washed and steamed. Next I saw the wood paneled koji room. Luckily when I was there, I got to see the kurabito in action. They swept into the koji room with the precision of a S.W.A.T. team and with seeming laser-guided acuity, proceeded to turn the rice by hand so that each grain had a chance to get exposure to the koji mold being propagated here. They played it cool, but I think they may have been just as surprised to see a gaijin peering into the koji room window as I was to see them.

After the brewery tour, I had a wonderful sit down meeting with the production staff. We were able to exchange ideas and I explained the current state of the sake market in the US. After some wonderful questions back and forth, it was off to meet Hakkaisan President Mr. Nagumo.

With Mr. Nagumo, President of Hakkaisan

With Mr. Nagumo, President of Hakkaisan

Nagumo-san greeted me warmly in his home and I found him to be young and energetic with a lot of charisma. His beautiful mother prepared a lavish luncheon of local dishes that was simply delicious. I was bowled over by the spread and was even more surprised to learn we would be drinking the Hakkaisan competition sake to go along with the food. This is not sold to the public, so this was a rare honor indeed. Needless to stay I enjoyed every minute of it. We spent the afternoon talking sake and culture and about New York and the USA. I really had a wonderful time. But before I knew it, the train was calling and I was needing to head back to the station. I can’t thank Nagumo-san enough for hosting me and to everyone at Hakkaisan for their hospitality. Also, a special word of thanks to Makiko-san for helping all day with translations which made my stay that much more meaningful.

I won’t soon forget my fantastic day at Hakkaisan. Visiting this place kind of brought my whole experience in the sake world full circle. I was able to see for myself where the sake that first sparked my interest in Nihon-shu, was actually made. After seeing the beautiful countryside of this region and the beautiful people who lovingly craft this sake, it’s no mystery to me why I fell head over heels for Hakkaisan all those years ago.

Japan 2008: Asahi Shuzo

Asahi Shuzo Brewery in Nagaoka City,  Niigata

Asahi Shuzo Brewery in Nagaoka Niigata

Next on my whirlwind trip to Niigata was a visit to Asahi Shuzo, makers of the world renowned Kubota Brand of Sakes. I was given a tour of the brewery by Mr. Masamichi Sanjo, who is in the export sales division at Asahi Shuzo.

Kubota Facility

Kubota Facility

Sanjo-san met me at the Nakaoka station in Niigata and drove me to the brewery for a tour. The outside of the Asahi Brewery was solid and seemed like the “Fortress of Solitude”. The walls were tall and smooth concrete. It really seemed like the Fort Knox of sake, secure, stable and solid. You won’t be getting in unless invited. Luckily, I was invited! With the beautiful low mountains of Niigata as the back drop, this was impressive to say the least.

Inside, I could see that the Brewery was clean, efficient and beautiful. Not just the facility itself, but also the size was impressive. As Sanjo-san gave me the tour, from start to finish, I got the sense that this place as run like clockwork and had a tremendous scale of operation.

First, I got to take an up close look at the moto (yeast starter) and even got to try my hand at mixing the moto! Yes, please note the hairnet and coat. It’s a really good look for me!

Mixing the Moto

Mixing the Moto

Moto tanks were smaller in scale but still a sight to behold. The Moto is also known as the “yeast Starter” and is one of the corner stones of the sake production process. A small batch of sake is made at this point under exacting temperature control with an incredibly high yeast content.

This is the incubation chamber of sake and it is understandably lavished a lot of attention. This yeast starter ends up in the main tank and kicks off the brewing process giving the yeast a fighting chance to survive and create lots of alcohol in the main mash.

Brewing Room Tanks

Brewing Room Tanks

Especially impressive was the view of the brewing tanks. Each silver lid you see is the cap to a large brewing tank that holds fermenting sake. All the tanks were monitored daily with specific instructions and observations written about each batch. A wonderful attention to detail that reflects itself in their delicious sake.

Speaking of their sake, Kubota makes some heavenly sake that is available for sale both in Restaurants and retail in The USA. After our tour, Sanjo-san took me out to expore Nagaoka and for a wonderful dinner to taste local food with delicious sake.

Enjoying Kubota Sake with Sanjo-san

Enjoying Kubota Sake with Sanjo-san

Now the Kubota brand is incredibly well known in Japan and is a flagship brand of sake if ever there was one! Starting with Kubota Senju Tokubetsu Honjozo, we have a delicious and well crafted honjozo that is a dream to pair with grilled fish and the like. Next I enjoyed the fantastic Kubota Hekiju Junmai Daiginjo. With a halo of lightness and delicious fruits on the palate, this sake is a treasure and oh so easy to enjoy. Last but not least, I marveled at the superior and delicious Kubota Manju Junmai Daiginjo. Manju is really a crown jewel of the kubota line and a top of the line product in Japan and the USA.

What a day! As I headed back to my hotel, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face! I had such a fantastic experience and felt so lucky to have seen Asahi Shuzo. My sincere thanks to Sanjo-san and family for the wonderful day in Nagaoka! The tour and hospitality were simply amazing. I can’t wait to return and see more of beautiful Asahi Shuzo and Nagaoka!

Japan 2008: Kikusui Sake Rice Harvest

With Mr. Endo of Kikusui

With Mr. Endo of Kikusui

My next stop on the Japan 2008 tour was taking me by Shinkansen to northern Niigata Perfecture, specifically to Shibata city, home of Kikusui Brewery. As you may know, Kikusui imports the much loved Kikusui Funaguchi Honjozo and the delicious Kikusui Junmai Ginjo.

I was met at the train station by Mr. Takeshi Endo, Export Salesman for Kikusui. Mr. Endo would be my guide for a fun filled day at Kikusui! Let me just say that my tour of Kikusui turned out to be more than I expected. As fate would have it, Kikusui Brewery was putting on a yearly Sake Rice Harvest festival for the local community on the day of my visit. Not only was I able to visit this fantastic brewery, but I also got the chance to harvest organic sake rice… by hand!

Beautiful Organic Kikusui Sake Rice Field

Beautiful Organic Kikusui Sake Rice Field

The day started with a welcome for the families and community members who came to the event from Brewery President Mr. Takasawa, who I met in January at Sakaya. We were then given a quick tutorial on cutting and binding rice stalks by hand using a deadly looking hand-held sickle. Next, we had some hilarious calisthenics that were lead by the youngest Kikusui office workers. Then it was time for the main event! Endo-san got me a sickle and then off to the rice paddy!

Kikusui Rice Harvest in Full Swing

Kikusui Rice Harvest in Full Swing

Let me tell you right now, harvesting rice by hand is hard work – and true to the “lazy American” stereotype, I pooped out long before anyone else including many kindergarten age kids running around collecting rice bundles with gusto and having a blast.

In about two hours, the entire rice paddy was harvested! phew, time for a break. Kikusui arranged for a fantastic concert by the Pataya Beach Boys. They were great and I even found a clip of them playing on YouTube if you want to give a listen! The crowd at Kikusui loved it and even chanted for an encore.

Beautiful Vintage Masu on Display at the Kikusui Sake Museum

Beautiful Vintage Masu on Display at the Kikusui Sake Museum

After the concert, Endo-san gave me a tour of the Kikusui brewery and museum. They have several brewery buildings and I was lucky enough to tour the organic brewery facility. It was a beautiful building newly constructed to strict earth-friendly standards. The museum was a vast and beautiful collection of Sake paraphernalia that made the ebay collector in me swoon just a little.

Next is was time to eat! Our hosts at Kikusui whipped up a wonderful lunch topped off by something new to me… I got to try hand pounded fresh mochi for the first time!

Pounding Rice Into Delicious Mochi

Pounding Rice Into Delicious Mochi

If you’ve never seen mochi being made, it’s a quasi dangerous process of pounding rice using wooden mallets until the rice becomes a delicious glutenous paste.

So there I was, in the middle of the Niigata countryside, eating fresh sake-rice mochi, drinking fantastic kikusui Sake – I was in 7th heaven! I am so grateful to Mr. Takasawa-san for hosting me and certainly also to Mr. Endo who took such good care of me and showed me around all day long. Without a doubt, this is a day I will remember for the rest of my life. Now, please pass the mochi.

Japan 2008: Fukumitsuya Brewery

Beautifully preserved samurai houses in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa-Ken

Beautifully preserved samurai houses in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa-Ken

Day 5 in Japan started early with a trip out of Tokyo. I met Fukumitusya Brewery export salesman Mr. Yageta at Tokyo Station and we boarded the train for Ishikawa Prefecture. Although he’s usually stationed in Tokyo, he was kind enough to travel with me all the way to Ishikawa.

Fukumitsuya Brewery is located in Kanazawa City. This small town on the sea of Japan is sometimes known as “little Kyoto” because of the number of historical attractions found here. Given it’s proximity to the sea, Kanazawa is known for it’s fish and our first stop upon arriving was for lunch and we had some of the freshest sashimi i’ve ever tasted. This town blossomed in the Edo period and was the center for many traditional japanese artisan work such as kimono, lacquer and gold leaf. The beautiful streets of romantic samurai houses attracts Tourist from all over the world.

With this tradition as it’s backdrop, Fukumitsuya is a large and well known brewery in Japan making 8 different BRANDS of sake:

Fukumitsuya produces five different brands of sake in Japan:

With Mr. Toshio Kawaguchi Outside the Brewery

With Mr. Toshio Kawaguchi Outside the Fukumitsuya Brewery

Upon arriving at the Brewery, I was introduced to Mr. Toshio Kawaguchi, VP of the Brewery. I got a hairnet, lab coat and special boots to wear for the tour. Hey- it’s a look!

Before we even got inside, Kawaguchi-san stopped and have me a taste of the Brewery’s “Hundred Year Water” which flowed freely in a fountain outside the Brewery entrance.

The idea behind this is that as water melts from nearby Hakusan Mountain, it takes 100 years to slowly trickle through the land to reach the Fukumitsuya well, getting necessary minerals along the way. I was able to taste this water and it’s delicious. They even bottle it for sale. Evian – watch out!

100 Year Water

100 Year Water

The brewery tour of Fukumitsuya was impressive. Designed in a vertical set up over several floors, the sake making started on the top floor with the yeast starter, then went down through the floor to the brewing tanks and then down another floor for pressing. Makes perfect sense!

I was especially impressed with the brewing tanks. Kawaguchi-san pointed out that the bottom of the brewing tanks was curved, not flat. This allowed for better circulation of the mash during brewing. You gotta keep that yeast and koji moving! These tanks also had a water cooled jacket wrapped around them to allow the Toji to precisely control the temperature.

Fukumitsuya is a large scale brewery to be sure, but it doesn’t lose the sense of being hand crafted. This brewery is run as what is known as a “Junmai-gura” or Brewery that only produces Junami-shu. No alcohol added to anything. In their opinion “pure rice” is the way to go. Junmai vs Honjozo is a debate for the ages, but Fukumitsuya makes a compelling, and delicious case for Junmai-shu.

Fermentation Tanks Curve at the Bottom to Allow for Circulation

Fermentation Tanks Curve at the Bottom to Allow for Circulation

There are four of these Junmai-shu sakes that are currently available for sale in the U.S. Let’s take a look:

After the Brewery tour we had a tasting and then a visit to the gorgeous Fukumitsuya retail shop and tasting bar. The retail shop was stunningly beautiful. Sake and sake serving sets were on display and a tasting bar was in the back if you wanted a sample.

My visit to kanazawa and Fukumitsuya was just beautiful. I felt like the luckiest sake blogger in the world! I can’t thank my hosts enough for the beautiful visit to Kanazawa. Yageta-san, Sakai-san, Shinano-san and Kawaguchi-san, I’ll never forget your hospitality. Thank you so much!

Stunning Fukumitsuya Sake Shop in Kanazawa

Stunning Fukumitsuya Sake Shop in Kanazawa

Japan 2008: Wataribune Brewery

yamauchi.jpgDay 4 of my Japan trip takes me on another sake adventure. This 2008 sake tour is starting to pick up speed and the shinkansen has left the station.

This time, I’m headed to Ishioka city in Ibaraki Prefecture to visit Takaaki Yamauchi, the president of Huchu Homare Brewery, makers of the much loved Wataribune and Taiheikai brands of sake. I was lucky enough to get my Sake Sibling Melinda to join me for one more sake escapade!

milling.jpgTravelling out of Ueno station in northern Tokyo, Melinda and I met in the morning and headed out into the countryside on the local train for our one hour trip to Ibaraki Prefecture. The view outside my window slowly morphed from city congestion into rural openness and I began to feel myself relax.

Huchu Homare Shuzo President Mr. Yamauchi met us at the station and we were soon pulling I to the courtyard of his beautiful brewery compound. After arriving, we were welcomed into the historic main building and were served a welcoming tea and sweet by Mr. Yamauchi’s delightful mother.

We proceeded to discuss sake in a wonderful mish-mash of japanglish that gave both Yamauchi-san and myself opportunities to practice speaking each others native languages. However, I was happy to have Melinda there as a helpful translator when the conversation got more complex! (thanks Mel!)

sensei.jpgThen it was on to the Brewery tour! One of the things that struck me about this place was its wonderful beauty. To me the buildings seemed centuries old and the turn of every corner afforded a new photo op. With a gorgeous day as our backdrop, Melinda and I were brought first to the milling area. The milling machine was impressive and Yamauchi-san could read it’s needs like a master. Like a formula one race car driver, he adjusted the knobs and wheels to keep the rice flowing at optimal speed. The one thing was that the milling room was dusty. No fear, they had the perfect solution. A quick blast with a high pressure air hose gun by the exit left us free of any stray rice flour. And it was kinda fun, too.

Our next stop was the rice processing area where the wataribune sake rice was soaked and steamed. Kurabito were already at work at this when we arrived. An overhead flexible tube used vacuum power to suck the rice from the steaming area directly into the brewing tank. pretty neat! Yamauchi-san began to explain the brewing process in English using a wonderful metaphor of progressing through school. The yeast, rice koji were brought through Kindergarten, Elementary, Jr. High and High School. It seems Yamauchi-san is a born teacher. He lead us through the entire production process with an addition lesson in sake chemistry, where he showed us the lab where samples from each sake batch are analyzed.

Wataribune does indeed brew some sublime sake. Here is a quick look as some of their best offerings:

Wataribune Junmai Daiginjo
Wataribune 55 Junmai Ginjo
Wataribune Junmai Daiginjo Nama
Taiheikai Tokubetsu Junmai

soba.jpgAfter the fantastic tour, we all “graduated” to a wonderful lunch in the rolling foothills of Ibaraki. Yamauchi-san took us the the most delightful soba restaurant run by a husband and wife team. The food was magnificent and the view out the window was stunning. I really enjoyed this trip to Ibaraki and can’t tell you how much I appreciate Yamauchi-san taking the time to give us such a wonderful day. Since his Brewery is so close to Tokyo, Yamauchi-san often jokes with New Yorkers to visit his brewery by jumping out of their plane with a parachute 10 mins before landing in Tokyo to visit his Shuzo. Well, after this visit, Yamauchi-san should look up every now and then… I may just take him up on the offer!

Japan 2008 Sake Summit, Act II: Kumpai

kumpai.jpgAfter a lovely morning sake tasting and tour at Oomuraya Brewery, the intrepid Shizuoka tour guide extraordinaire, Robert-Gilles led Melinda, Etsuko and myself onward to another Shizuoka sake maker.

Kumpai Brewery is a small sake brewery with a big heart. It’s located in Shizuoka City and we got there by cab from the Shizuoka train station. This tiny operation is run by a father and son team: Senji and Shigetoshi Ichikawa.

ichikawa.jpgThe entire camera-wielding sake blogger summit crew descended on Kumpai Shuzo with a thousand questions and snapping a thousand pictures. Despite this mini invasion, Ichikawa-san Sr. and Jr. were enthusiastic and incredibly welcoming.

After a detailed tour of the brewery facility, we were invited to taste! We had a wonderful sake that Melinda and Etsuko promptly ordered for themselves! This particular sake was the Kumpai Momiji Junmai Ginjo Hiyaoroshi. The Ichikawas served this lyrical fall nama with the perfect autumn pairing, momiji.jpgnamely Ginan or roasted ginko nuts. Ginko nuts never held that much appeal to my American palate, but I really turned a corner when eating them with this lovely Hiyaoroshi. I’m now a believer so bring it, Ginko!

Momiji Junmai Ginjo Hiyaoroshi is a sake that tastes hand crafted, soft and luscious. And after having the privilege of seeing the brewery, I understand just how hand crafted it really is. Indeed, even the bottle labels are produced Shigetoshi-san on his computer! This dedication to making fantastic sake even on a small scale is really impressive.

A Special thanks to Robert Gilles for arranging this visit to Kumpai. I was so happy to be able to see a smaller brewery making fantastic stuff and I know I would never have the chance to taste this in the States. A great opportunity! It also doesn’t hurt that Robert-Gilles gifted me a Kumpai One cup! I brought this back to the U.S. and can’t bring myself to drink it because it is so special and rare. RG- thanks a million and I’ll let you know when I crack open that Kumpai One Cup!

To see more about Kumpai don’t miss Melinda’s Kumpai Post, and of course Robert-Gilles’ Shizuoka Sake blog is a treasure trove. So, what’s left to say? well, let’s hear a big KANPAI for Kumpai! (sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

Japan 2008 Sake Summit, Act I: Wakatake

wakatake.jpgMy next day in Japan was too full to fit into one blog post, so here is Act I! Of course, I’m referring to the 2008 Sake Blogger’s Summit held this year in beautiful Shizuoka Prefecture. Forget the G8, we’re talking about the Sake 4: Etsuko from Tokyo Foodcast, Melinda from Tokyo Through the Drinking Glass, our Sake Summit host, Robert-Gilles of Shizuoka Sake, and yours truly.

wakatake_bottling.jpgEtsuko, Melinda and I all met in Tokyo and took the Shinkansen to Shizuoka. Robert Gilles met us on the platform and we jumped into the local train and headed off to our first stop of an action packed day: Oomura Brewery, the makers of the well regarded Wakatake brand. Arriving at Oomuraya brewery, we met the 6th Generation President, Mr. Matsunaga and the Brewmaster, Mr. Hibino. Hibino-san then started us out with a tour of the brewery facility.

We were first shown the rice milling area – Oomuraya Brewery takes great pride in the milling of their own rice as this allows them to be meticulous about quality. All the buildings at this facility were historical and I could just picture sake being made here for centuries.

In addition to the milling facility, we saw the areas for yeast starter, steaming, pressing brewing and storing sake. One interesting little room with lace curtains was off the main brewing area. hibino.jpg Much to my surprise, I was told by Hibino-san that this small room is used for sleeping! Brewery workers must monitor the koji making process overnight and need to bunk down in the brewery regularly!

After the fantastic brewery tour, we were invited back for a tasting. This was a unique opportunity to taste all the major Oomuraya sakes side by side. It’s a beautiful lot and here is what we tasted:

I was ecstatic to try this line up as I have had a few of these that made it to New York, but I was in Japan now! The Junmai Daiginjo is a sake I know well and it was as clean and easy drinking as ever. The Honjozo Genshu and Junmai Genshu side by side was quite an experience. I found the Junmai to have wonderful balance and a clean taste. The Honjozo conveyed a nice sense of umami on the palate with a mild aroma. * “Sake Rock” was a full-bore full-alcohol genshu that had the coolest label ever! I would drink this one on the rocks, but we can’t get it in the states.

Mr. Matsunaga was incredibly gracious and welcoming. I came away understanding more deeply than ever before that for Mr. Matsunaga and everyone at Oomuraya, brewing sake is more than just making a beverage but it is continuing an ancient Japanese cultural tradition. Also, it was clear that as they reach to export their sake to the US and elsewhere, they still remain a local brewery and cherish the local community. The trip to Oomuraya was fun and exciting and… at this point in the day it was barely Noon! More from Shizuoka in the 2008 Sake Bloggers Summit Act II…

Japan 2008: Sake Club Okanaga

*Membership Has It’s Privileges“, or at least that is what Amex says. You know, I’ve gotten through life pretty well without being a member… and I don’t just mean Amex. I’m talking no Fraternity, no food co-op and I’ve never even owned a Member’s Only jacket! However, on my second day in Japan, the wonderful folks at Prestige Sake extended an invitation I was not about to miss: a private sake tasting at their Member’s Only sake club in Tokyo, Club Okanaga.

They arranged for Melinda and I to meet with Prestige Sake Sensei Mr. Mori and also Mr. Takatsu who helped me out with Japanese translation. I was thoroughly expecting a secret knock or special handshake to get entrance to the club, but Melinda and I were greeted at the door and brought to our table. After meeting our hosts we sat down for what would be, little did I know, a very significant sake tasting.

When all was said and done we tasted over 14 sakes on their own and with food pairings. It was quite a ride on the leading edge of sake with the emphasis on Kimoto, yamahai, Koshu and sparkling.

Just take a look at this list!

morisan.jpgOur first duty was to taste these sakes on their own. We all soon had a gaggle of sake filled wine glasses in front of us. I worked hard to keep all of the glasses straight, but was rewarded with a unique and wonderful experience… the ability to taste so many sakes side by side. It was a joy to learn from Mr. Mori and discuss sake and get his personal take on some of our selections.

Some of the sakes really stood out in my mind.

Hanahato.png1) Harushika Tokimeiki Sparking: Sparkling sake with full sweetness and high acidity. This will tickle your nose! A wonderful aperitif for your evening meal. This sake is also refreshingly low in alcohol.

2) Hiraizumi Yamahai Junmai: This sake has light grapefruit on the nose and full complexity on the palate. Lactic acid come thru strong on this one. excellent with food and excellent for warming.

3) Hanahato Kijoshu: Smokey, rich and sherry-like, this aged sake is special. I serve this as a topping over vanilla ice cream or with chocolate. The brewing method of Kijoshu is very unique because pure rice sake is added at the final stage instead of water and aged in wood for eight years.

The Sakes were all interesting and unique and totally fun to taste. I have never had so much yamahai, kimoto or koshu in one sitting. My sincere thanks to everyone at Prestige for such a fun and educational evening. So, I guess I enjoyed being a member and belonging to the club… even if it was only for one night.

Japan 2008: One Cup Wonder – Sake Bar Buri

one_cup.jpgI was a man on a mission. This was only my second trip to Japan, and I had my priorities clearly defined. What was my number one top priority upon arriving in Japan? Catch up with friends? Eat Sushi at Tsukiji Market? Commune with nature at an ancient shrine? ….um, none of the above… My primary concern was finding One Cup sake!

One cup sake is sake packaged in a single serving 180ml cup that is often attractively decorated. This cup sake movement has been something that fascinates me, but it is pretty hard to come by in the States, so I had to find it in Tokyo! Well then… who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters! You’re Sake Wonder Twin of course! My Sake Sibling Melinda was given marching orders to find me cup sake by the time I touched down at Narita.

wonder_twin.jpgLucky for me, Mel is totally down with the Tokyo cup sake underground and hooked me up with the fantastic Sake Bar Buri!

Buri was the site of some Tokyo sake meetups and I was anxious to give it a try. Mel warned me that the place was a “standing bar”… something that may not be best directly after a 13 hour flight from New York, but I summoned my Sake Samurai spirit and off we headed to Buri. The place seemed small, even for a cramped New Yorker like me. Everything was centered around a large circular bar with a kitchen in the back.

buri.jpgMel took the lead and ordered some of her favorite cups. Details are fuzzy, due to Jet Lag, of course, not inebriation. All I do remember is that it was fantastic to see Melinda and catch up with her and that everything was delicious including the skewers and yummy tidbits we got to eat.

Would I go back to Buri? In a heartbeat. Hey, it’s only 13 hours away. It was fun, relaxed and right up my alley. oh, and of course getting to keep your little cup as a souvenir doesn’t hurt either.

Japan 2008: Let the Journey Begin!

Watch this space for soon to be published Reports from my Recent trip to Japan! I visited many Breweries and rode the shinkansen from one end of Japan to the other (almost). There were a ton of new experiences for me… I harvested sake rice, helped stir moto, was served sake by maiko, toured 10 breweries, took a real Japanese bath, ate purple soba, and (finally) saw Mount Fuji! Stay Tuned!
heaven.jpg

Sake 101 for Anime Fans

room_1.jpgI had the distinct pleasure of giving a sake 101 lecture again this year at the New York Anime Festival. Faithful readers of UrbanSake.com will remember my big adventure last year at this event, where I was totally unprepared for the raucous crowds and energetic anime crowds. Well, all I can say is that this year I am older and wiser about anime!

tim_1.jpgThis year, I knew much better what to expect and even got into the cosplay spirit by wearing a real japanese mens’ kimono for the event. Figuring out men’s kimono was an education in and of itself but well worth the effort! This lecture consisted of my “Sake 101” talk which included sake ingredients, Sake production process and sake classifications. Since there are a lot of visitors from out of town for the anime festival, I also always include my recommendations for where to visit for all things sake in NYC!

This was a fun event! It was really fun to meet all the anime folks interested in Sake and to see all the crazy kids running around! to see more pics, check out the photos on flickr here!

Joy Joy Joy Of Sake 2008

Webster_hall_1.jpgThe annual Joy of Sake event is the mother lode of sake tastings brought right to our backyard. In the span of 3 hours, there is more sake, great food and enthusiastic drinkers than you can shake a stick at. Best of all, there are tons of sakes that are not for sale in the US. If you want to save yourself the round trip airfare, 26 hours cramped in coach, and a week and a half of jet lag – this is really your best bet.

crowd_1.jpgMy recent interview with Joy of Sake Organizer Chris Pearce gave me some new insight into this event, so check it out if you haven’t already. Also of note this year was the new location. Moving from the puck building to Webster Hall was quite a change, but I think a successful one. I started the evening up at the top floor with all the Junmai daiginjo and daiginjo sakes that are not available in the US. I thought that would be a good place to start tasting while my palate was still somewhat fresh. I wasn’t disappointed and tasted some super duper daiginjo-y treats up there. Among some of the luscious sakes I sampled were Gasanryu “Gokugetsu” Junmai Daiginjo (Shindo Shuzoten, Yamagata), Shizukuzake Daiginjo (Sakai Shuzo, Yamaguchi) and Tobindori Daiginjo (Kamisugi Shuzo, Aichi).

kudoki_bottle_1.jpgBack on the ground floor, I was happy to find a new sake that really turned my head. I’m talking about Kudoki Jozu Junmai Daiginjo (Kamenoi Shuzo, Yamagata). This delightful sake has an SMV of ±0 with a milling rate of 48%. Refreshing and elegant yet substantive, this sake was a shimmering delight. I hope they will import it soon here to the US!

Along with all the tasting, there was lots of socializing to be done, too! I ran into friends new and old and future and had a great time talking with everyone and comparing notes on sake reactions. Everyone had a favorite sake – and with hundreds to choose from, everyone could have their own.

This night is always a whirlwind and before I knew it, our three hours were up and the Joy of Sake 2008 was coming to a close. The only comfort that came to mind was that the Joy of Sake will be back next year delivering more fantastic and hard to find sakes right to our doorstep. Now that is a special delivery worth waiting for.

JFC New York Sake Expo ’08

denshin_1_1.jpg JFC is a well known importer of Sake and Japanese food stuffs and I was delighted to recently attend their Fall ’08 New York Sake Expo! As I traveled from table to table at the Expo, I met some very interesting people, and some very interesting sake.

First, I meet Mr. Kakutaro Kubo, Vice President of Ippongi Kubohonten Brewery, makers of Denshin. This sake is known for it’s luminescent packaging and it’s light and refined taste. Among the delicious Denshin options are the Denshin Yuki Junmai Ginjo, Denshin Rin Junmai Daiginjo, Denshin Ine Junmai. The taste on these sakes does indeed come across to me as light in style, which I really enjoy. In addition, people always remark on the Denshin Packaging. The bottle labels are made from rice paper with cut outs for the Kanji letters. When the bottle is held up to the light, the Kanji seems to glow. there is a different bottle color for each grade of sake making them easy to tell apart, and the junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo grades get a paper wrap and tassel at the cap. beautiful! These gems are hard to miss on the shelf, so check them out if you can!

daishichi_1.jpgNext, I had to distinct honor of talking to the President of the renowned Daishichi Sake Brewery, Mr. Hideharu Ohta. I met Mr Ohta once before, over two years ago at a Daishichi tasting at Sakagura, but this time Ohta-san had a few more sakes in his protfolio and some really interesting sake at that. Daishichi is very well known for being a Kimoto brewery only.

The Big news fro Daishichi was the arrival of some very unique kimoto sakes. The most interesting was their kimoto plum sake. That’s right… A kimoto Plum sake. It’s light and sweet with a touch of cream that just hints at it’s Kimoto origins. Very beautiful right down to the yellow label. I also enjoyed drinking the Daishichi Kimoto Nigori. It was creamy and rich without being too chunky and I found this nigori to have just the right touch of sweetness. Thank goodness Daishichi is so committed to Kimoto… it’s a blast to taste kimoto versions of many popular kinds of sake. Arigato Ohta-san!

cup_sake_1.jpgThe final bit of super exciting sake news was the arrival of Cup Sake! well… it’s not yet actually in New York, but word on the street is that it’s coming! Anyone who knows me knows about my not so secret obsession with cup sake. Ok then JFC… you read it here first! NYC is the perfect market for cup sake, so let’s bring it in! Think big!

These trade events are a lot of fun and I really enjoy getting a chance to meet the folks who make the sake. I hope they enjoy meeting their eager NYC sake bloggers just as much.

Winebow Importers Brings You Sake

ichishima_2.jpgWinebow is a importing company that focuses mostly on bringing great Italian Wines to the U.S. Of late, they have made a move into the world of sake! Currently importing two diverse portfolios, one from Akita and one from Niigata, more sake brought into the States is a win for everyone. I had a chance to taste both portfolios at their September “Vintner’s Harvest” event. Lucky for me, the sake table was right near the entrance. Let’s take a look at their offering…

sake_1.jpgIchishima Brewery from Niigata presented an impressive portfolio of sakes that give new meaning to the idea of “vertical tasting!” From soup to nuts you can try just about every type of sake from this one brewery. It’s a bold and welcome move. Here is a listing of all the sakes Ichishima-san is now importing:

From Ichishima Brewery: Futsu-shu, Honjozo, Junmai, Junmai “silk deluxe”, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Genshu, Daiginjo, Ginjo Koshu, Competition Daiginjo.

Of the above offering a few sakes in particular caught my attention. First, the standard Junmai was a real standout in my opinion. It was a classic junmai with structure and substance yet with a soft hand that is so indicative of Niigata goodness. Also, the Competition Daiginjo was certainly of note. It had all the presence and flourish you would expect from a competition brew. yet, this sake wasn’t overwhelming or too in your face. A great chance to try competition sake, which is often hard to come by. Speaking of hard to come by, Ichishima-san is also importing his brewery’s Futshu-shu. This type of sake is incredibly rare in the states as it is usually considered a ‘non-premium’ sake, but this hearty Ishishima brew makes me dream of pairing combinations with each sip. I know this one will be great with food! oh yeah.

linda_claudioWinebow also imports a range of sakes from Akita Prefecture.

This band of merry sake brewers is known as A.S.P.E.C. (Akita Sake Promotion & Export Council) with Linda Noel Kawabata working as Brand Manager. Our friend and Akita native Chizuko-san was also on hand in beautiful Kimono to help introduce these sakes.

Linda-san introduced me to some wonderful Akita sakes, some that I knew and some I’m having for the first time. Let’s take a look at the ASPEC offering…

Suzuki Shuzoten: Hideyoshi Namacho Honjozo, Hideyoshi Amakarapin Junmai, Hideyoshi Honjozo, Hideyoshi Akinota Junmai Ginjo, Hideyoshi Flying Pegasus Koshu Daiginjo.

Tenju Shuzo: Chokaisan junmai Daiginjo

Hinomaru Jozo: Manabita Kimoto Junmai Ginjo, Manabito Junmai Daiginjo.

Akita Seishu: Desatsuru Kimoto Junmai, Dewatsuru Habataki junmai Ginjo, Dewatsuru Matsukura Tokubetsu Junmai, Dewatsuru Hihaku junmai Daiginjo.

Naba Shoten: Minato “harbor” Tsuchizaki Yamahai Futsu-shu, Minato “harbor” Tuchizaki Yamahai Nama Genshu, Horoyoi Junmai Ginjo

chizuko_1.jpgEasily the Hideyoshi “Flying Pegasus” koshu Daiginjo made one of the biggest impressions. Suzuki Shuzoten brewery only makes about 300 bottles a year, so this is easily what you could call a “limited release”! The presentation of this sake begins with the bottle which is shaped like a simple old fashioned gourd tokkuri, but in this case with a golden sheen. The taste is impactful and precious with a strong nose and off dry palate. a lot to take in… I’d love to take a bottle home some day!

In addition, I loved seeing again the Dewatsuru Hihaku Junmai Dainginjo. This sake is elegant and lightly fruity… so easy to drink and very, very easy to enjoy.  I also enjoyed some sakes that I have had at previous Akita sake Club Events including Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo and The Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo and the Manabito Junmai Daiginjo, both with a touch of dryness that begs to be used in food pairing. fantastic!

All in all, this Winebow event was fantastic and so encouraging to see traditional wine importers branching out to include some of the world’s best sake in their portfolios! Keep the sakes coming and here is a big old Kanpai to that!

Viva Akita! Viva Genshu!

wild_for_akita_sake.jpgThe Akita Sake Club has come a long way, baby! The most recent event was held again at the Japan American Association offices in Midtown and was the Club’s 6th meeting that celebrates the sake from Japan’s Akita Prefecture.

In addition to the sake, The club also features the food and music of Akita. I’ve read that Akita ranks Highest for per capita sake consumption in Japan…and after this event I can believe it! I had a great time and wanted to share a couple of the real standout sakes that I had.

kariho_daiginjo3.jpgI really enjoyed a fantastic Kariho Daiginjo Genshu This sake was billed as “fragrant and silky” and boy did it deliver. I was really wowed the the ability of this sake to stand out from the crowd without shouting. I think I can best describe it as an elegant richness. very nice! Rice Polished down to 35% of it’s original size. this adds tremendously to it’s smooth as silk allure!

dewatsuru_daiginjo2.jpgNext I found myself drawn to another Daiginjo Genshu (anyone seeing a trend here??). I’m talking about Dewatsuru Daiginjo Genshu. This sake was another winner. I found the taste to have something scrumptious about it. I can’t really put my finger on it, but something in this sake compelled my arm, almost involuntarily, to raise the sake cup to my mouth… repeatedly. Seriously, this sake was just delicious, complex and commanding. I’m crushing on this brew big time!

Next I caught up with my friend Linda Kawabata who is helping introduce a new line of Akita sakes to the world. She started off by my introducing me to Mr. Sato, President of Hinomaru Brewery. Sato-san let me taste two of his sakes coming to the US this fall. They are are Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo and the Manabito Junmai Daiginjo. Linda pointed out that both of these sakes spend time being aged in the bottle before shipping. Once opened, they both blossom when they get a chance to breath. I love sakes that expand like this. they give you a chance to enjoy the changing aspects of a sake over the course of an evening.

manabito.jpgManabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo was a lovely kimoto sake coming across to me as softer and smoother than most Kimono i’ve tried. I think that is due to the fact that this was a Junmai ginjo grade and not just a junmai. This is one of those sakes you just want to pair with food! I would guess this sake is a fantastic pair with all the hearty foods of the Akita region. yum! Manabito Junmai Daiginjo also had a wonderfully soft touch! smooth and very drinkable. I really enjoyed this junmai daiginjo.

Last but not least, I headed over to the Joto Selections and tried Kacho Gesseki Junmai Daiginjo Genshu. OK, now there is definitely a trend!! This was another wonderful sake from Akita! The aromas on this sake were fantastic and bold. You pick up lost of tropical fruit on the palate. This sake is bold and full of melt in your mouth flavors. fantastic!

Well, another successful evening with the cool cats from the Akita Sake Club. I don’t know what was drawing me to all those daiginjo Genshus! whatever it was I was bowled over. I hope the drinking we did this night gets added to the per capita consumption stats of Akita Prefecture. They’ll be number one for a while. Kanpai!

Hokkaido Hits the Big Apple

kohiyama_san.JPGHokkaido is the northern most island of Japan, a huge place with lots of agriculture, open spaces and cold winters. It’s capital is Sapporo which calls to mind another certain alcoholic beverage more so than sake in the minds of most folks. However, one man is working to change all that.

His name is Mr. Shunsuke Kohiyama and he travels the world teaching about the special sake that comes from his brewery,taisetsu_junmai_ginjo.jpg the beautiful Takasago Sake Brewery in snowy Hokkaido. Kohiyama-san started his latest New York City tour at Sake Hana, where Manager Toshi-san hosted a fantastic pairing dinner and lecture evening. Kohiyama-san regaled the assembled sake disciples with stories about sake production, some history of Takasago brewery and lots of insider information on the workings of a brewery. Also, he answered lot of questions from the crowd and never lost his excitement for talking about sake! One of the biggest treats of the evening was the special competition sake from Takasago that we each got to sample. Fantastic! suuuuper smooth and just the right touch of richness.

I caught up with Kohiyama-san later in the weekend at a fun tasting event at Sakaya. This allowed for an in depth study of the two main sakes created by Takasago. First, I tried the Taisetsu “Big Snow” Junmai Ginjo. What makes this sake so interesting is that the brewery takes full advantage of the cold winter and actually builds an ice dome igloo where they age the sake at a stable temperature and protected from the elements. The taste is smooth and fragrant and you just can’t help but feel a delicious chill when you think of that ice igloo!

lecture.JPGThe next sake was a real stand out! We tasted the famous Takasago Ginga Shizuku “Divine Droplets” Junmai Daiginjo. Divine, indeed! This is a very well known and well respected Shizuku sake… that means instead of pressing the sake mash with a machine, they hang up bags and collect the free run sake that drips down by the force of gravity alone… all of course in the ice dome igloo! This “trickle sake” is highly prized as the creme de la creme of the sake world. It has a smoothness and wonderful complex fruitiness that must be experienced to be believed. Try it!

Reflecting now on Kohiyama-san’s lecture, I feel like I learned so much about Takasago! and I for one won’t be thinking about that “other brewed beverage” when I think about snowy Hokkaido! Ice dome sake all the way! Kanpai!

Sake Bars Featured in the New York Times

Compared to the coverage wine and beer get in the mainstream media, sake coverage often trails far behind. Every once in a while, though, sake gets its moment to shine. According to UrbanSake.com headquarter’s scientific calculations, sake mentions in the media are on a permanent upswing.

Case in point is the latest travel feature in the New York Times featuring a listing of sake bars of New York. In an article entitled “You Can Have Your Rice and Drink It, Too“, Reporter Seth Kugel outlines the sakes bars of note in the Big Apple. He features such hotspots and Sakagura, Decibel, Kasadela and Satsko’s. Now, if you’re a veteran NYC sake hound like myself, this is far from earth shattering news, however, for folks just getting into the Gotham sake scene, Seth’s recommendations are spot on. You could say they are all “required drinking” for first year students majoring in NYC Sake Studies.

I’m most happy that Seth didn’t divulge one of my very favorite hidden sake bar gems: Sake Bar Hagi’s!! That place is crowded enough. I guess I just divulged my favorite hidden sake bar gem… but that’s just between us, ok?

After you read the Times article and you want to kick it up a notch and discover more about sake in New York, check out our Interactive Sake Guide to New York City. With a little hard work and lots of field study research, you’ll be at the head of the New York City Sake class in no time.

Sakagura Hosts Joto Sake

New York City is crowded, loud, humid and dirty. Why on earth would anyone want to live here? For me, the answer is easy. Where else in the U.S. can I get such easy access to top notch sake tastings?! A recent event I went to was simply fantastic and reminded me why I do what I do! Not surprisingly, Sakagura and Joto Sake Importers were involved!

brewers.JPGThe evening was a fantastic exploration of the sakes from two sake brands: Wataribune from Ibaraki Prefecture and Kasumi Tsuru from Hyogo Prefecture.

The evening started with Joto Sake’s President, Henry Sidel Introducing Mr. Yoshio Fukumoto, president of Kasumi Tsuru Brewery. Fukumoto-san introduced Each of his sakes.

First we enjoyed our “welcome sake” from Hyogo, namely the Kasumi Tsuru Shiboritate Nama Genshu Honjozo. This sake is a favorite of mine mostly because of it’s full throttle nature. Nama Genshu by nature is flavor-forward and the Kasumi Tsuru is no exception! If you want to try something with a real charge, or make a big impression – give this sake a try.

fukumoto.JPGNext we moved on to the core of the Kasumi Tsuru line. These sakes make up the type of sake this brewery is known for: Flavorful, smoky and full of texture. The wonderful Kasumi Tsuru Yamahai Ginjo is a great example of this. Wondrefully layered yet solid, this brew is a delight for folks who like more complex flavors to their sakes. I also fully enjoyed the Kasumi Tsuru Shiboritate Yamahai Junmai. The Yamahai production method comes across loud and clear with this sake. You’ll enjoy the earthy body and complex smoky flavors with each sip!

Also, I really enjoyed the Kasumi Tsuru Extra Dry Junmai. For folks who like a real dry twinge to their nihonshu, this extra dry doesn’t disappoint. It’s dry without losing it’s ability to stand on it’s own. The Kasumi Tsuru brand offers a wonderful “Suite” of sakes that are all unique but harmonize wonderfully!

yamauchi.JPGNext, Henry introduced Mr. Takaaki Yamauchi, President of Huchu Homare sake brewery, makers of the Wataribune and Taiheikai Brands of sake. The Big Story with Yamauchi-san’s sake is of course his efforts to revitalize the WatariBune strain of sake rice. Yamauchi-san personally oversaw the restoration of this lost rice strain and uses it in all of his “wataribune” brand sakes.

After a kick off with a fantastic unpasteurized sake, “Wataribune Shiboritate Nama Ginjo“, I tasted one of the fantastic treats of the evening – namely the Wataribune Junmai Daiginjo Nama. This is one of those mega rare junmai daiginjo nama sakes. Wonderfully delicate nama fruits on the palate with a mild viscosity that made it very elegant and easy to drink. Next, for a quick comparison, I got to taste the Pasteurized version of the same sake, the Wataribune Junmai Daiginjo. This sake is a rich and fruity daiginjo. Look for peach and honeydew on the palate and a nice long finish that stays with you sip for sip. fantastic!

tennyo_toiki_angel.jpgWe moved on next to the fantastic Watribune Junami Ginjo 55 and in rapid succession to the Taiheikai Tokubetsu Junmai. This sake is named “Taiehikai” which means Pacific Ocean. This ties into Ibaraki’s location on the pacific ocean side of Japan’s main island. Next was “Taiheikai Tokubetsu Junmai Nigori“. This sake was another favorite of the evening. I found it layered and exhibiting a wonderful texture. Yamauchi-san was a fantastic representative of his brand and an enthusiastic ambassador for Ibaraki.

A final treat of the evening was a “special sake” brought from Kasumi Tsuru called “tennyo no Toiki” (roughly translated as “Angel’s breath”… correct me if I’m wrong!) This sake was special indeed, but quite the hammer at the end of such a vast sake tasting. This sake is very, very special and was clocked in at an astounding 25% alcohol. This was achieved through a method of freezing the sake and siphoning off the alcohol from the frozen sake, thereby concentrating the alcohol and flavor. it was super rich, delicious and very strong. As close to shochu as you can get without crossing the line… and much more delicious in my opinion!

The food at Sakagura was top notch, too! There was a food pairing for each and every course! Delicious to say the least… I think the soft shell crab karaage was my favorite. what doesn’t that pair well with?

This evening did indeed prove to me why I love New York so much! I love it because so many of the fantastic and varied flavors of Japanese sake come to me! If that isn’t proof of Angel’s Breath – I don’t know what is!

Prestige 2008 Summer Sake Tasting

takemura2.jpgPrestige Sake Association Importers had another wonderful tasting event to introduce sakes in New York. This time, the focus was on an array of summer nama sake along with two outstanding breweries in the Prestige portfolio: Umenishiki and Tsukasabotan.

I started tasting with the Tsukasabotan sakes and had the pleasure of meeting Tsukasabotan Brewery President Mr. Takemura, who was personally introducing his sake. I started with the glorious Tsukasabotan Senchu Hassaku Tokubetsu Junmai. tsukasabotan_fuin2.jpgThis sake is one I have poured for sake fans myself at my first Sake Samurai Tasting at Sakaya. Senchu Hassaku did not disappoint. I like to describe this sake as having an overall dry presence but with a depth and complexity you don’t usually find in dry junmai sake. And this sake has the coolest label you’ll see. safety orange always catches my eye.

Takemura-san also introduced me to some other fantastic sake. I tried the Tsukasabotan Fu-in Junmai Ginjo with great interest. Again here the packaging was unique! Fu-in exhibited a wonderfully balanced acidity and light fruits across the palate. It really lives up to it’s fancy pants packaging. Get out there and try it if you can find it.

I also tasted the mesmerizing Tsukasabotan Junmai Daiginjo sake, milled to an amazing 40% as well as the Tsukasabotan Junmai, which I found to be dry and structured, which I see pairing well with heartier foods. This Junmai also comes across with a hint of savory Umami, too.

Next I tried the sake of Umenishikicoming from Ehime Prefecture and was introduced to Brewery President Mr. Koichiro. He poured me his very best sake first and I found myself swept away by Umenishiki Junmai Daiginjo. I felt this sake was quite complex with perhaps a touch higher acidity you may find in other daiginjos. simply delicious… look for the red box with the gold kanji!

koichiro.JPGI also sampled two other Umenishiki standouts, the very dry Umenishiki Oh Kara Junmai as well as the well balanced but higher-in-alcohol Umenishiki Hitosuji Junmai Ginjo Genshu. I don’t know many sakes from Ehime, so this has to be my very favorite!

Last but not least I indulged in one of my favorite activities: savoring cold nama sake on a hot summer day. Prestige didn’t disappoint! I tried a number of fantastic namas including a rare crown jewel of the nama world… namely the Umenishiki Junmai Daiginjo Nama. umenishiki.jpgI love this sake! an ultra rare nama (unpasteurized) junmai daiginjo, the palate on this sake is alive with tropical fruits and melon. with the easy to enjoy smooth countenance you would expect from a ultra premium sake.

I also quiet enjoyed the easy to drink Ohyama Tokubetsu Junmai Nama as well as Otokoyama Sasaori Tokubetsu Junmai Nama, an intriguing, delightful sake. Quite fruity and more of a sweetness on the palate than an SMV +5 would lead you to believe. A whisper of nigori adds a fantastic subtle texture to this nama.

After I sampled just about everything, I glanced at my watch and saw I was due at my Japanese Language class. So I said my goodbyes and headed out into the summer afternoon to meet my tutor. I think the Tsukasa-botan, Umenishiki and summer nama sakes washing across my brain made me more fluent in Japanese than ever! Hey, I’d chose them over flashcards anytime.

Kanpai!

Edo’s Bravest Inspire Kagatobi Sake

kaga_tobi.jpgWhere’s the Fire? Well, for the coolest dudes in Edo-period Japan it was where ever you would find the Kaga-tobi, or the Kaga Clan Firemen. These firefighters were viewed by the general public as masculine and tough but above all they were greatly admired for their bravery at fighting fires in a time when Edo buildings were constructed mainly of wood, bamboo and rice paper, making them susceptible to devastating fires.

The mythos of the dashing firefighter survives to this day, and Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery located in Japan’s beautiful Ishikawa Prefecture, used this idea as an inspiration for their flagship product being imported into the US: “Kagatobi Sake

Kagatobi_junmai_daiginjo.jpgKabatobi brand sake is one of several brands produced by the Fukumitsuya Brewery. The Brand’s leader is the scrumptious Kagatobi Ai Junmai Daiginjo. Kagatobi Ai is a study in what puts the “dai” in “daiginjo”. I find this brew to really be a textbook example of what makes daiginjo near and dear to my heart. It’s smooth on the palate and the finish lingers, evocative of the soft essence of mild fruit. The taste is a testament to how well crafted this sake is. Light. Lovely. Luscious. Trust me.

Kagatobi_junmai_ginjo.jpgNext is Kagatobi Junmai Ginjo. The Junmai Ginjo grade in Kagatobi’s lineup is another study in capturing the essence of it’s class. It’s full frontal Junmai Ginjo. What I especially like about this one is that the brewers surfaced lovely hints of rice through in the nose and palate, balanced with a medium body and soft texture. Being neither too dry, nor too sweet Kagatobi is a good match for folks who like their sakes easy drinking and smooth. A bit more body than the lighter Diaginjo, this Junami Ginjo is a fan favorite!

kagatobi_junmai.JPGThe market for very dry sake is vast and I think many people gravitate to extra dry sake to push the envelope of their sake tastes. Kagatobi rises to the challenge with their entry into the “super dry” category: Kagatobi Cho Karakuchi Junmai Yamahai. This karakuchi wear’s it’s +12 SMV rating as a badge of honor. Also made using the traditional Yamahai method, the Cho Karakuchi is by far the most full bodied, broad and robust of the kagatobi sakes currently available in the US. Again, no punches get pulled with this sake – you wanted Super Dry Yamahai – you got it. An excellent example of the classification without being rough or insensitive. If you don’t think you like dry sake, or if you think dry is your only choice, give this selection a try and you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise. I think this sake would also take kindly to a gentle warming in the cold months.

I get the sense that the Kagatobi Brewers are exacting practitioners of their art. They seem to be aiming for purebred examples of each sake classification they produce, and by my estimation they succeed. For American consumers, this makes the Kagatobi portfolio an excellent line to study. And just as the people of Edo stood in admiration of the Kaga Firefighters of yore, you gotta give this brand it’s props! Oh, and a final fire safety tip for everyone: Always we aware of your nearest emergency exit… and be sure to grab your Kagatobi on the way out.

Sakagura Yuki No Bosha Tasting

henry.JPGI recently attended a small but spectacular tasting at my dear Sakagura restaurant. It was an evening dedicated to Sake from Saiya Sake Brewery, maker’s of Akita’s well regarded Yuki No Bosha brand.

Saiya Brewery President Kotaro Saito-san spoke at the beginning of the event to introduce Akita and his sake. Henry Seidel, President of Joto Sake, the Importer of Yuki No Bosha, spoke as well about the special nature of the “cabin in the snow” sake. We learned that Akita prefecutre is home to 51 breweries and ranks number 4 in total sake production. I took this chance to ask Saito-san about the rice shortage mania sweeping the globe and he assured us that bento.jpgsake rice was a specially produced crop and that the mass consumption global rice markets were on a different scale, so we won’t be running out of sake anytime soon. (phew!).

All in all, 6 sakes were served and a special Akita meal Bento box was prepared. I guess you could call it a gourmet Akita “happy meal” as it sure did make me happy.

yukinobosha_nama.jpgThe First sake I tasted of the evening was the Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo Nama. This nama sake is on the sweeter side and was poured first to greet guest as they arrived. No objection here! This nama sake is refreshing and sweet. Not as “in-your-face” zingy as other namas this season, but lovely to drink just the same. The packaging for this sake is a foil wrapper that reminds me kinda of a sake baked potato from outer space, which, of course, I absolutely adore. This sake is in very limited supply so grab a bottle if you can find it.

yukinobosha_nigori.jpgNext I tried my number one nigori, Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo Nigori. This Nigori is the lighter style of nigori that what you might find out there… In opposition to the super creamy Piña Colada style nigori, this nigori is whisper light with all the spectacular texture you expect from Nigori without the funky rice vibe you can sometimes get. This is a sake for Nigori haters and Nigori lovers both. If you don’t know Nigori, start here. Trust me.

A third sake of Note that I had the good fortune to try was the Yuki No Bosha Daiginjo. This sake is a real treasure. It’s got all the best qualities of a Daiginjo without being overbearing or heavy handed. Alcohol Added Daiginjos are less common in the US than their Junmai Daiginjo brethren so i never miss a chance to try one and wasn’t disappointed i the Yuki No Bosha Daiginjo.

Sake Sommelier Chizuko-san, an Akita native herself, was also on hand to help explain the Akita-ness of our food and drink for the evening. Akita sake means different things to different people, but I’m getting a sense of it’s unpretentious and homey nature. And in extravagant, hectic New York City, a little ‘unpretentious and homey’ in your masu can go a long way towards a great evening. Kanpai!