Sake Tasting at Astor Wines

Can you say Spur of the moment is sometimes best. Scott and I were headed out of town for an afternoon drive to mitsuwa. I realized that sake buddy KC alerted me to an Astor Wines sake tasting that very afternoon. Scottie was very sweet and agreed to stop by with me before our saturday afternoon escape.

I arrived at an Astor Wines transformed… This was not the Astor I remembered from my college years at NYU. The new space (just down the block from the original location) is simply amazing. The sake is in it’s own ALL refrigerated section. The selection was large and boasted plenty of old standbys as well as many brands new to me, that I hadn’t seen at the other retailers in town.

KC's recommended Sakés @ AstorKC even had a shelf of his very own recommended sakes – KC’s “Staff Picks”. If your just starting out with sake, head down to Astor and give one of these picks a try. You will have a lot to choose from and KC explains all the flavor nuances on the tag, so you’ll be sure to find something that suits you just fine.

The tasting area at Astor Wines has a super professional setup. We found Mr. KC himself pouring three artisanal sakes that were being featured today. The first thing you notice is the gigantic 60″ flat screen TV mounted on the wall right behind the tasting bar that displayed the sake names and prices.

Above the tasting bar - Saké in HDTVNow, not only did I have sake envy but also electronics envy, too!

There was a small line of folks ahead of us. Astor uses a divider, the kind you would see waiting in line at the bank or post office, to corral people into a line so that there is no mad crush from all directions to get to the sake. You get in line and you get your time in front of the goods and you have time to taste without being rushed, then you move on. Kinda like visiting the crown jewels, although they use a moving sidewalk to keep the crowd moving along. Luckily things weren’t that rushed at Astor.

KC was great and poured the first of the three sakes for me. The used real wine glasses which is great for taking in the nose of these sakes.

The three sakés featured at astorThe first sake was Otokoyama “Yukishibare” Tokubestsu Junmai Nama Sake. (Hokkaido Prefecture. SMV: +4 Acidity: 1.4 ) This was a unique sake that is a Nama (unpasteurized) sake, so it held it’s own with the essence of fresh-fruitiness but it had a distinct alcohol kick.

Next I tried the Gokyo Nama Junmai Sake (Yamaguchi Prefecture. SMV: +4
Acidity:1.9 ). This sake left less of an impression on me except that it was big and strong. Maybe it even strong armed me a little bit. moving on…

KC pours the Gokyo Junmai Saké.  Hey, that Jacket looks familiar....Last but not least was the Shirataki “Jozen Mizunogotoshio” Junmai Ginjo Sake (“Pure Flower” Niigata). The Pretty-in-Pink- could-be-a-perfume-bottle packaging and feminine name make it clear this sake is perhaps geared towards a woman consumer, however, this lovely brew does make you see the world through rose colored glasses regardless of gender! This sake was clean and balanced and really delightful. This is a sake I would imagine to be a real crowd pleaser because it’s middle of the road and not a “challenging” sake in someways, yet delightful and so drinkable. Since all these sakes were on sale, Pure Flower is the one I brought home with me. Hey, I’m man enough to be Pretty In Pink… all in the name of sake research, mind you.

Saké Stalker causes Happy Bride’s Heartache.

The Sakes featured at Today's tasting lined up for saleIf you keep your eyes and ears open, opportunities to learn about sake can arrive out of the blue. This happened this week as I got an email from Landmark Wine and Sake announcing a sake tasting for the next night. Luckily I ‘just happened’ to have no plans that evening (does this make me a sake geek?) and made a bee-line for Landmark after work.

The tasting was hosted by landmark but pouring the sakes was Keiko Sato from the World Sake Imports. I also saw some friendly faces I knew – Kaori who sat next to me a the Landmark Sake Seminar and Lefty and JD from the Sake Meetup group.

Keiko Sat from World Saké Imports answers a questionThere were 5 sakes set up for tasting. This is my kinda tasting! The main spotlight was on the Kamoizumi Brewery. Some of these sakes meshed with my taste and some others are perfect for other palates. Here is a run down of what we tasted and how I reacted to it.

Kamoizumi Junmai Daiginjo
Masumi Arabashiri
Tedorigawa Arabashiri
Kamoizumi Nigori Ginjo
Kamoizumi KomeKome

Pouring the Kamoizumi Junmai DaiginjoKamoizumi Junmai Daigino. This sake lead off the tasting. It certainly was a unique Daiginjo. There were distinct smokey & mushroomy overtones. I picture this sake being served at a cigar-puffing poker event or gentleman’s club. I don’t even know how to play poker, so I may pass on this one myself, but If you want to taste something unusual, give this one a try!

Next, I was served the sake that is “stalking” me!! Now, I’m not usually a paranoid person, but this Sake turns up everywhere I go: Masumi Arabashiri. The good news, this stalker is just delicious! As I’ve reported already, this sake is fresh, floral and young. A great example of how bold Nama (unpasteurized) sake can be. We’ll see where you turn up next!

Tedorigawa Nama Ginjo Another Arabashiri was next: Tedorigawa Arabashiri. Now, Arabashiri is a term I’ve come to understand means “First Pressing”. During the stage of sake making when the mash is pressed to squeeze out the sake, they do it in three phases. The Arabashiri is the first phase. This connotes freshness and goes well with a Nama’s identity. The Tedorigawa Arabashiri is a sake to take note of. It’s unmistakable calling card is natural carbonation. Let’s face it – there are times when only a little bubbly will do. If you’re a sake lover like me, this is a much more palatable way to toast that promotion! Who wants to drink something called “brute” anyway.

Next was the Nigori. This Sake’s texture was very very thick. I felt like a spread of fluffer-nutter had hit my tongue. The sake was quite creamy and tasted and smelled like the essence of brewed rice…. The tasting literature called this “Brimming with Exuberant Natural Flavor”. Make your own call on this one. If you love a ‘heavy cream’ nigori – this might be just the ticket for you.

The crowd at the Landmark's May '06 saké tastingFinally, the tasting ended with the dark horse. Kamoizumi “KomeKome”, translated into English, this sake is called “Happy Bride”. Well… It’s it’s important to remember, 50% of marriages do end in divorce… This sake was very, very sweet and compared to an ‘aperitif’ in the tasting literature. To me, this sake was sooo sweet it smacked a bit of soda pop! This is the perfect sake for somone out there. If you like your brides blushing, super sweet and low on alcohol- take KomeKome home with you! If not, I can’t gaurantee a happy union.

This Landmark Wine and Sake tasting was a real eye opener! So many new styles to taste – and a lot of interesting flavors. Thanks to Keiko Sato for all the interesting info about these brews and to Landmark for hosting. When all was said and done – I couldn’t resist – I had to bring my “stalker” home with me, and I left the Happy Bride crying at the altar.

Masumi Evening at Sakagura

First slide of the presentationI am always excited when I find an email from Sakagura in my inbox. This time it was a notice about a special tasting evening with Masumi Brewery. I find these evenings a great way to get to know a particular brewery. I invited my friend Aki to tag along and the reservation was made.

When we got there, the entire back room of the restaurant was sectioned off for the tasting. Under the watchful eye of a devilish looking giant kite hanging from the ceiling, the staff from Masumi Brewery, including Master Brewer Kenji Nasu, handed out samples of 6 wonderful examples of Masumi Sake.

Kenji Nasu answers a questionThe tasting evening was kinda set up kind of like you’d imagine a 1950’s cocktail party: Makeshift bar with drinks flowing, side table with hors d’oeuvres flowing, great conversation flowing, friendly faces smiling and even a photo slideshow from the host.

Keith Norum was the english-speaking brewery representative on hand to provide all kinds of helpful information as well as to help with translation for Mr. Nasu. I got to talk to Kevin briefly and asked him how he got such an awesome job. Well, I learned that speaking Japanese and actually living in Japan are great first steps as well as going to barbecues. Sign me up!

Keith Norum explains  a point about Masumi SakéThe first sake out of the gate was a wonderful Nama I was already acquainted with: Arabashiri Nama Ginjo (SMV=-1, Seimaibui=55% ALC=17.5%). This is one of the sakes we tasted at our April ’06 NYC sake meetup. It was as fresh and floral as ever and a real standout. It was quite a kick to see a sake again and then meet the brewer that actually made the sake! quite a trip. Kevin explained to everyone assembled about how a nama is produced and why it’s so important to drink them when they are fresh and young. Also keep refrigerated as they totally skip the step of pasteurization to retain that vibrant “draft” taste. I really enjoyed this sake and went back for a second taste or two over the evening.

Glasses lined up and ready for tastingNext Master brewer Nasu introduced a junmai: Okuden Kantsukuri (SMV=+3, Seimaibui=60% ALC=15%). He explained how this sake would be a candidate for heating if you were in the mood. How different temperatures bring out different flavor profiles. Kevin warned never to bring sake up to a piping hot temperature but rather simply gently warm it. Piping hot sake loses all nuance and texture and is really just a waste. Mr. Nasu went on to explain that this is a great casual sake for informal sharing, hanging out with friends and just enjoying with food. I agree. this Junmai was a treat – and a real discovery. I would call this the perfect “table sake”. Something to have on hand in a larger quantity to sip and enjoy with a lot of guest over a homemade dinner.

Kenji Nasu explains brewing sakéAt this point in the evening They started the slide show to explain about Masumi brewery and the brewing process.
This was a great presentation that explained where the brewery was located and all the steps in the brewing process: Water, Koji, rice, milling, yeast etc. Lefty and KC had several questions for Mr Nasu which he seemed happy to answer. As the very last slide, we also got to see a shot of the entire team at the brewery. Their outfits reminded me a little bit of the Mike Teevee "wonka-vision" scene from the first Willy Wonka Film, but regardless, you could tell they were proud of their work… and they should be!

Kenji Masu shows a slide of his whole team at Masumi BreweryThis is a good point to mention the hors d’oeuvres that Sakagura whipped up to compliment the Masumi sakes. Dishes included a shrimp salad, tofu with a yummy miso sauce, pan fried soft shell crab wrapped in cucumber slices (my favorite) and some type of pickled bean that Aki loved and knew from Japan, but I had never seen before. The food was just great! The only drawback was that I found it difficult to drink with one hand and eat the small delicious hors d’oeuvres with chopsticks. Well, I’m sure I’m not the first and won’t be the last cocktail party-goer to have this little problem. The good news was that if you did misplace your drink, nothing could be easier than getting a refill!

Yumedono DaiginjoNow that we had our appetites whetted and we were all informed about brewing, Masumi unleashed the big guns and had us now sample the Yumedono Daiginjo (SMV=+5, Seimaibui=40% ALC=17%). This was a really great daiginjo.

The final two sakes were Daiginjo Nanago (SMV=0, Seimaibui=45% ALC=16%) and Yamahai Ginjo (SMV=+2, Seimaibui=55% ALC=16%). Both of these sakes were clean and enjoyable. The Yamahai Ginjo is named for the Yamahai brewing method that is used to make it. It is also worth noting, as the Masumi folks explained, a special yeast was developed at Masumi brewery buy former master brewer Chisato Kubota. This yeast was called #7 yeast and this yeast has become a standard which is used by more than 60% of breweries across japan. This #7 yeast was used in both of these sakes.

I was a little sad when they announced the tasting was winding to a close, so I went in for one more taste. With a smile, Mr Nasu poured me a very full glass of my favorite Yumedono daiginjo.

Cool masumi Co. Jackets were worn by the staffAs I savored the final sips of this daiginjo, someone on staff reminded me of the regular cost per glass for this particular sake ($25). Well then -Cheers! This made the price of admission a bargain in retrospect. At the very end Mr. Nasu handed out a keepsake for all guests at the tasting. It was a beautiful hiragata sake cup in blue and white porcelain. Beautiful – thank you!

In every way, Sakagura is a class act! Top Drawer! The hospitality, service and Love Of Sake always shines through. I think this is the secret ingredient that makes Sakagura such a great place for tastings. And Masumi makes some awesome sake. This is the combo that made this swinging “cocktail party” one that would make even Donna Reed jealous. Kanpai, Daddy-o.

Mall+Discount= Sake?? Boston Part I

Welcome to Mall hits the road! This past weekend Scott and I took a weekend trip to Boston to visit with my sister Maddie. This was the perfect opportunity to see what was happening in Beantown in regards to all things sake.

So, here’s part I of what I saw on my little peek into the Boston underground sake scene…. a sake retailer.

Word on the street was that “Mall Discount Liquors & Wines” (202 Alewife Brook Pkwy Cambridge, MA 02138 (617) 864-7171 ) had a big sake selection for Boston standards, so off we went! From the outside, ‘Mall Discount’ lived up to it’s name.

Mall discount sake selectionStrip mall? check. Discounted Condition? check.
Once inside, Mall Discount turned more into “Cave Discount”.

The place was dark and a little cavernous with endless racks of wine and booze crammed close together into the large space. I had to wander around for a little while before Vic spotted the sake shelf. I have to say I was surprised with the number of sakes for sake. they did have an above average collection!

The offering was better than many run of the mill liquor stores in NYC.

TozaiUpon closer inspection I quickly noticed that quite a few of the sakes were either American made brands or Ozeki. To their credit, they did have many imported sakes.

I picked up three sakes I had never had tried… Tozai “well of wisdom”,Hakushika “fresh and light” and Hakutsuru.

When I was checking out, the clerk seemed amused to see me buying only sake. She took one look at the Hakutsuru bottle with the super cute sake-as-lid design and said admiringly “those Japanese are so Smaaart.” She also told me there was an amazing sake they sold for only $6.99 – it was the one in the green bottle. Well, There were a lot of green bottles in the sake aisle, so I just had to leave the follow up on exactly what she meant for another trip to Boston.

HakutsuruAll in all Mall discount was an OK ersatz for new York supply. Let’s put it this way – better than I expected! My only concern would be freshness. None of the sake was refrigerated and a few bottles had sake tinged yellower than I’d like.

However, freshness was not a concern with the one Boston sake that I’ve tried so far, the Tozai. I bought this one particularly because I saw the bottling date was Nov 05. nice! This sake didn’t disappoint.

I found the taste to be pleasant and chewy without losing it’s refinement. The texture of this sake cries out for some food as an accompaniment.

HakushikaSipping the sake on it’s own left me wanting for something to nibble on. You know, a salt for it’s pepper, a yin for it’s yang… If you’re planning a hearty meal with friends, I’d recommend this sake for the table. It’s uncomplicated and solid.

In my next post I’ll review the sake I tasted at a Boston Japanese restaurant. Stay tuned for more sake from Boston…

When Life gives you Lemons… Boston Part Deux

Douzo signMy Boston Sake Geek adventure continues! IF you missed part one of my sake adventure you can read it here.Maddie picked out a new Japanese restaurant called Douzo (131 Dartmouth St Boston, MA 02116 (617) 859-8886)
to try for our sake-centric dinner. This was a great call on her part as this place is new and stylish. Well, stylish on a beige-on-beige, taupe-on-taupe kind of way. The first thing you notice are the soaring 20 foot ceilings.

Looking over the sake menu, there were not a lot of surprises or things I hadn’t had. So, I went with my old “Japanese roulette” technique and ordered what I wasn’t familiar with and… Let’s put it this way – you can’t win every time.

Crazy Milk
The two Sakes I selected were: Crazy Milk Nigori (Oimatsu Brewery) and what they called Osakaya-Chobei Daiginjo (Ozeki Corp).This is alcoholic beverageNow, it should be obvious why I picked this Nigori to try. First, off Scott loves Nigoris. and second of all… Come on! “Crazy Milk”?!?! That is the most amazing name ever. My favorite part of the Crazy milk bottle was the little English disclaimer: “This is alcoholic beverage”. Um, yeah. I don’t think cafeteria’s across America will be serving crazy milk to increase calcium intake among young people.
The taste? The Nigori was rough around the edges and a little bit thick. I think they was going for ‘very creamy’ but it ended up with a slightly unwelcoming texture… I guess it’s what you could call a “crazy” texture.

Ozeki DaiginjoI selected the second sake thinking that the most expensive and only Daiginjo on the menu ($25 for 300ml) had to be worth looking into. When the dark bottle arrived at the table, I was a little deflated to recognized it immediately as a Ozeki product. well, I told me self – it was still a daiginjo and could very well be worth trying. So we poured and I took a sip. I’m not a huge fan of this sake. The best way to describe it was off balance / unharmonious. It wasn’t the subtle, elegant Daiginjo I am used to from other breweries.So there I was, trying to impress my family and friends with my vast sake knowledge and I ended up ordering two duds. We had each sipped about as much from each as we could from the two bottles and there was about a third of a bottle left of each. People – I was seriously thinking about just leaving the sake there – VERY unlike me to leave sake leftovers of any kind. That’s when my sister Maddie had a Stroke Of Genius.

Douzo windwoShe said: “You could try and mix them together.”Huh?! Wha? errr? I mean, Maddie was valedictorian of our high school, so I knew she was smart, but this takes the cake. Well, what do I have to lose? So I took the Ozeki and poured it into the Crazy milk bottle. gave it a shake and we all took a sip. The results were unanimous. These Sakes were better together! The daiginjo thinned out the unpleasant texture of the nigori and the Nigori somehow brought more balance to the taste of the rough daiginjo. Kanpai, indeed!

Not only that, but we invented a new kind of drink!! Not a Sake cocktail, where you mix Sake with juice or another alcohol. This was a sake-on-sake mixture which I’m calling a “Sake-Smashup”! We quickly realized the possibilities were endless. And why not?

Sake Glass at Douzo I see wines all the time that are mixed. for example wines made up of: 70 % merlot, 25 % cabernet franc and 5 % cabernet sauvignon . Why not try a blended sake? something to think about…As a final bon mot, Maddie noted that is was fitting that these sake-sake smashup unions were invented in Massachusetts, the one state in the country where ALL types of Marriages are legal! I’ll drink to that.

And the winner is…

CrowdsIf I had to be trampled at a sake tasting, I wouldn’t want it to happen anywhere other than Sakagura. Nihon-shu aficionados can be just like any other rabid fans out there: when the Star makes an appearance, everyone rushes the stage. So when the sake bottles were opened at the awesome Sakagura spring tasting event last Monday night, the crowd stormed the bar! One false move and I could have been sake road kill.

Whatever the risks, attending any Sakagura tasting event is not to be missed! There were 30, count ’em, 30 sakes to try! From sugary-sweet to gin-on-the-rocks dry; from mountain-spring-water clear to ultra-rich-velvety-floral: There was something here to please anyone’s palate.

Sake line up ready for tastingScott & I had a reservation for the 9:15 seating and the place was sold out. This is an Event! Here’s how it worked: The venue had two seatings for the evening. Once seated, you were given a sake chart for taking notes and a special limited menu of delicious food to compliment the sake. All of the sakes out for tasting were lined up along the bar with a Brewery rep or sommelier in charge of 3-4 bottles that they would pour you a tasting of upon request. So you would end up visiting the bar to sip a few new sakes, then sit down and enjoy some food – rinse and repeat.

Tamara and RobYour basic eat, drink and be merry! One thing I have come to love about sake tastings is how people really come together when the “Sake Magic” takes hold. For example, Scott and I had such a nice chat with our neighbors at the next table Rob and Tamara. Hi guys!

Since it would be really hard to taste and describe all 30 sakes, I have decided to highlight the best, boldest and weirdest brews by launching my very own award: The first-ever ‘Golden Masu’ Awards! Just like the Oscars! but only on my blog. And there’s no red carpet.

So here we go!

Most likely to convert Sake-Curious to Sake-Fan

KubotaGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Kubota Hekiju!
Kubota Hekiju (Junmai Daiginjo, Niigata Prefecture, SMV=+3.0, Seimaibuai=50%) is one of my all-time favorites. This sake is smooth and lovely. It was a joy to taste it again at the Sakagura tasting. This is one of those old favorites that feels like slipping on a much loved cashmere cardigan when you take a sip: Instantly familiar, soft, comfy, smooth and utterly delightful. This is also one of my favorite “conversion” tools. If a friend is “Sake-Curious” but a little wary, I may start off with a perfectly chilled glass of Kubota Daiginjo. One sip and a Sake-Fan is born!

Sexiest Label

Kokuryu DaiginjoGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Kokuryu!
When I tell people about my interest in sake, a lot of people respond by saying “those sake bottles are so beautiful”. They are! However, Kokuryu (Daiginjo, Fukui Prefecture, SMV=+4, ALC=15.5%) takes it too a whole new level. With Gold Glitter Kanji (!), and a dark chocolate background, it looks like this bottle just finished up a nite at Studio 54 and is on it’s way to the after party with Bianca and Liza. The very best surprise? Glitter Label is not all just flash. This sake tastes as good as it looks. It’s got a smooth clean taste, and to my palate, a slight hint of berry. Yum! I Loved it. This would be a great sake to order when you’re out with friends for a night on the town. The party will begin the moment this disco ball bottle hits the table.

Friendliest Alternative-Style Brew

Dassai NigoriGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Dassai Nigori!
Everyone who starts to learn about sake usually picks up the Junmai–>Ginjo–>Daiginjo concept pretty quickly… but then they learn there are variants out there. Aged Sake, Cedar-Tinged sake, Unpasteurized Sake, and then.. cloudy unfiltered sake with bits of rice swimming in it?? It can be a lot for a beginner to take in. Enter Dassai Nigori (Junmai Ginjo, Yamaguchi Prefecture, SMV=+3.0, Seimaibuai=50%) . This nigori is very friendly for the beginner – and it’s the sake I would use to introduce “alternative-style” brews to your friends. It is creamy with a wonderfully even texture – not chunky or to thick like other nigoris. And in the background is the wonderful Dassai attention to quality. One of my favorites!

Strongest Right Hook on a Nama

Kasumi Tsuru Shiboritate nama genshuGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Kasumi Tsuru Shiboritate!
Not every brewery could say, “My Sake could beat up your Sake.” but this one has got the chops. Kasumi Tsuru Shiboritate (Honjozo , Hyogo Prefecture) has a unique one-two punch. First, it’s a nama (unpasteurized), which gives a larger, more expansive taste, and second, it’s an genshu (sake not diluted after brewing), which gives the pow of a higher alcohol content. This type of sake is great on the rocks or when you want a real attention-getter. Just be careful not to drink to much or you really will be down for the count. Imported by Joto Sake.

Biggest Barbie Wannabe

KarenGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Karen!
Karen (Junmai, Niigata Prefecture, Ichishima Brewery) is one pink girl. The packaging designers got it right on this one. The über-pink bottle perfectly captures the taste: Think cotton candy, bubble gum, Malibu Barbie’s corvette. It’s an interesting niche in the sake world, though. It may not be my taste, but i haven’t seen a lot of brewers specialize in the much sweeter brews. This can be a great change of pace when only something sweet will do. If that’s your thing, be sure you have Karen’s number in your little black book. Just don’t call her Barbie by mistake – she hates that.

Best in Show

Ken DaiginjoGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Ken!
Speaking of Barbie, she knows better than anyone that Ken is a perfect Gentleman. This is true for the delightful and truly charming Ken Daiginjo (SMV=+4.0, ALC=15.5%). Again and again, i’ve been wowed by this sake. oh Ken… I wish I knew how to quit you!! The taste is clean, clear and smooth without being weak or watery. It’s got a taste I can only describe as the essence of “Sake-ness”. what the heck does that mean? it’s got the best aspects of many sakes I’ve had all rolled up into one, while still being elegant. It’s really something special, so I’ve called it here “best in show” although it really is impossible to pick a “best” at this tasting. Every person out there will find their own personal best. Congratulations to all the winners!

Well, all in all, it was an amazing evening! I’m looking forward to my next tasting at Sakagura – they really know how to put on a show. If you get the chance to attend, don’t miss it – and remember, it’s an honor just to be nominated.