the_sake_bottles.jpgFor the record, I wasn’t hungover from the Joy of Sake event last night… Maybe a touch dehydrated, but no worse for wear. Hmm… if i’m dehydrated I had better get some liquids in me right away.

Luckily, Landmark Wine and Sake had scheduled a sake tasting for that very afternoon! Instead of Hair of the Dog that Bit You – this was more Hair of the Dog that licked your face and brought you your slippers.

I was psyched about this tasting! something I’ve always wanted to do – to taste the same sake warmed and chilled side by side.

Serving at the tasting was Ms. Akiko Ito, representing Kariho Brewery from Akita Prefecture. Ms. Ito was very kind to chat with me for a bit about the sakes at hand and her experiences during sake week so far.

Ms_Akiko_Ito.jpgMr. Morita from Prestige Sake was also on hand. He kept an eye on the temperature of each warming sake.
The sakes slated for this tasting were set up most dry to least dry:

1) Kariho Namahage (“Devil’s Mask”, Akita Prefecture, SMV +8, Acidity 1.7) Namahage cannot be accused of false advertising. Their label says “EXTREMELY DRY” across the top in big gold letters …and that it was. Chilled this tasted very dry and quite bold on the palate. When warmed, this sake revealed it’s full alcohol flavor and nose.

2) Urakasumi (“Misty Bay”, Miyagi Prefecture, SMV +2 , Acidity 1.3) This sake was very much the middle of the road of the three. Chilled, it’s mild and easy drinking with a pretty good balance and light acidity.Warmed up, I tasted some spicy notes and that fuller taste of alcohol.

3) Nishinoseki (“Champ of the West”, Oita Prefecture, SMV -3, Acidity 1.5) Nishinoseki was the least dry and seemed to fit my palate the best. sake tasting set upWhen served chilled, I loved the flavor. It was smooth with just the smallest hint of floral notes – all the while never becoming too sweet. This sake warmed up faired the best but my favorite parts about it were diminished. The flavor was obviously less complex, but the warmth was comforting.

All in all, I enjoyed the chilled sakes more than the heated simply because there was more depth and complexity. However, there was just enough of a chill in the air today to hint at the coming winter and the pure joy of heated sake on an freezing cold day. So, check back with me in January and I may be humming a different tune.

joy_logo.pngI’ve been looking forward to the 2006 Joy of Saké event for a whole year! In a nutshell: I wasn’t disappointed. It was an awesome evening of great food, wonderful people and above all – a chance to taste scores of delicious and unique sakes!

The sheer number of sakes being offered (299) was a little overwhelming, but I decided to focus on what grabbed my attention.

I bumped into KC early on and we headed upstairs to the sakes that are not available in the US. Once, inside the door my first stop was at a table where we met Mr. Maegaki, President of Kamoizumi Shuzo. mr_maegaki.jpgI tasted their Nigori which was really quite good and their Daiginjo, too. All the folks from Kamoizumi were so nice, it was a pleasure to meet them.

Next I headed into the main room with table after table of beautiful sake bottles i’d never seen before.

This was very much a kid in a candy store feeling, but I proceeded at a steady pace and I found a few that drew my attention. First a word about how the tasting was presented. sake dropperEvery sake bottle was out on the table and the sake itself was poured into a small tasting cup with the traditional cobalt bullseye at the bottom. The tasting cup had a dropper that you could use to transfer the sake to your own cup for tasting. I wasn’t sure how this would work, but in the end I felt this worked very well indeed. You could taste a little or a lot.

field_of_dreams.jpg

Of all the sakes I tasted that are not available in the US, there were 3 that I felt deserved a mention.

Hinoshitamusou_tobindori.jpg1) Hinoshitamusou “Junmai Daiginjo Tobindori” (Yamaguchi Prefecture, Murashige brewery). This sake is unique – something you don’t see every day – a sparkling nigori daiginjo! The appearance of the sake itself was lightly cloudy, but the taste I found to be clean with a light effervescence. My notes on this sake say “Delightful!” Well, there you go. This is going on my list of ”someday” sakes – when I make that long awaited trip to japan.

watarai_daiginjo.jpg2) Watari “Daiginjo” (ALC 15.5%, SMV +4, Acidity 1.4, Seimaibuai 55%, Yamagata Prefecture, Watarai Honten) I wanted to mention this sake simply because the taste caught my fancy. It was one of the smoothest I remember tasting during the whole evening. The overall palate was soft and pillowy with a tremendous balance. The finish lingered slightly and left me wanting more. This is another Yamagata brew – after my evening at EN this week – it got me thinking – there must be something in the water in Yamagata that they make such soft and luscious sakes.

Shungaku.jpg3) “Shungaku” Ginjo (Fukui Prefecture, Asahi Shuzo) Ok, this sake I mention not for it’s elegance but for it’s funkiness. Sometimes it helps to stretch our palate, and this was a palate stretcher if I’ve ever had one. Just so unusual, I thought it deserved a note. Shungaku is dusky and earthy. The nose immediately called to mind wet leaves in the Fall. The overall impression of this sake was “dank”. It’s not my style, but I know there’s an earthy sake lover out there somewhere.

After I had my share of the sakes upstairs, I headed down to the main floor for a look at the Sakes for sale here in the US and also to meet and mingle with the sake crowd.

yuno.jpgAt the Joto Sake table I saw Yuno-san as well as Henry-san. Those Joto sakes are as good as ever. I tasted the Kasumi Tsuru and the Shichi Hon Yari. I could tell the crowd liked these sakes as the table was constantly mobbed.

Then I wandered over to the “Sake Sensei” table and finally got to meet Paul Tanguay of Sushi Samba and “Of Rice and Zen” fame. The sake sensei table was a brilliant idea Paul set up to give people a place to come with to get some answers to their sake related questions as well as basic background information. I saw Paul had a real gift for making the production process understandable to everyone. It was really great to meet Mr Tanguay and he really was the man of the hour just having won the New York Regional Kikisaké-shi (saké sommelier) Competition AND being one of the judges for the US sake appraisal. Congratulations again and good luck in Japan!

lined_up.jpg As I was making my way thru the ground floor section, I turned the corner and saw Mr. John Gaunter! So, I went up and introduced myself and he was just a really nice guy. We spoke for a bit about the emergence of sake blogs on the scene and I told him how much I enjoy his newsletter that I read every month. It was really fun to meet John – this guy literally wrote the book!
Then as I made my way over to the Kimoto sakes I finally met my new Sake friend Nell! We chatted for quite a bit and talked about the sake scene in NYC and how amazing the evening was.

stowaway.jpgSoon enough, they started to clear the tables, and the evening was winding down. What a most amazing night. I said my goodbyes and was off into the night feeling great.

When I got home, in my bag I found the little plastic sake cup i’d been carrying around, sipping from – and guarding like a hawk – for the entire evening. All night I was thinking – “I better not loose my cup!” and, well, here it was. I’ve placed it on my monitor to remind me of just how fun the evening was… and to always, always remember – you’re up a creek without your cup. Here’s to Joy of Sake 2007!

welcome_to_en.pngNYC Sake Week ’06 continues… for day 3 we’re off to Yamagata. Stunning En Japanese Brasserie hosted a beautifully curated tasting of 60 sakes all from the well known production region of Yamagata prefecture.

The lounge of EN was set up with tables lining the walls and about 60 sakes out on display for the tasting. The format was, grab a glass and dig in. sanga.jpgThe first sake I tasted was #1 on the list and it was very special. It was called Yamagata Sanga (ALC 16.9% Seimaibuai 37.5%) as was quite delicious. The Story of Sanga is interesting. It is a sake brand that was set up in 1985 by the governor of Yamagata to represent their Prefecture to the world and Yamagata brewers submit their sakes for consideration each year to produce under this label. Sounds like a fascinating concept. I circled back later in the evening to try some more and it was all gone. It’s not available in the States, but I’ll mark it down for my next trip to Yamagata.

mr_Aisawa.jpgAfter Sanga, I moved on to the next table. Almost all of these sakes used the world famous Dewasansan (dewa33) rice. The Dewasansan rice was developed in the recent past and it’s been a big hit. it’s one of the top sake rices now produced in Japan. Then I met the very like-able Mr. Masao Aisawa from Takenotsuyu Brewery (of course in Yamagata). Mr. Aisawa was very enthusiastic about all the sakes he was presenting and they were delicious. He was an excellent ambassador for Yamagata. What intrigued me the most was his offer for us to try a sip of the pure Yamagata mountain spring water he brought with him. It was crisp, clean and better than any evian i’ve ever had. What an amazing experience to taste the Mountain water side by side with the sake made with it. Amazing! Thank you Aisawa-san!

Mr_Kato.jpg At the next able I met Mr. Ariyoshi Kato from Fuji Sake Brewing Company His brand is called Glorious Mount Fuji. Kato-san’s pick was his Junmai Ginjo “Sinobukawa” (ALC 15.9%, Seimaibuai 50%, SMV +1, Acidity 1.4). This sake was smooth and clean and ohhhh so drinkable. Above all it had that balance of flavor and dryness that I just love. bravo! Mr. Kato was also very enthusiastic about the Yamagata sakes. I learned that Yamagata is known for it’s cold climate which delivers a lot of mountain snow which in turn creates wonderful mountain spring water for make making. They have a devoted group of brewers in that prefecture.

Yuki_mukae.jpgAs I was moving along down the line, the next sake I zeroed in on was a Junmai Ginjo called “Yuki Mukae Yiyaoroshi” (ALC 15.5%, Seimaibuai 50%, SMV +6.0, acidity 1.4). I got a loose translation of the name of this sake and it means something like Cold snow coming down from the Mountains” Again with those mountains. here I learned that Yamagata has 33 Mountains over 1400 meters high. that’s another reason The rice is called Dewa33. This sake in particular was very, very dry. This was the driest I had all night. For all you Dry sake fans near Yamagata, this sake has your name on it! The consistency was very full and the sake had good “legs” when swirled in my wine glass.

Toshi.jpgOne of the last sakes I had was one of the very best! That sake was a ginjo from Kamenoi Brewery called “Kudoki Jozu” (ALC 16.8%, Seimaibuai 50%, SMV 0, acidity 1.2). This sake was also a silver medal winner at the 2006 US National Sake Appraisal. Toshi-san was the representative we spoke to about this sake the most. The meaning of Kudoki Jozu in English was a subject of discussion for quite a while. I think if I give you the translations suggested, you’ll get an idea: “Good at Getting Someone’s Heart” or “Loverboy” or “Good with Courting and Compliments” or “Gigolo” or “The Flirt”. ok, I think you get the general drift? Regardless of the name this sake was awesome. It’s not yet available in the US, but hopefully at some point in the future. This sake is soft and lovely and really caresses the palate. This is a Flirty sake!. It’s tremendously balanced with tiny hints of apple-blossom sweetness. yamagata_sakes.jpgI think above all the softness come through. Kamenoi Brewery is also very dedicated to stay in touch with the natural surroundings in Yamagata. It’s a great example of terroir for sake. I can’t wait for Kudoki Jozu to be available in the states. It is one of my new favorites!

This was such an enjoyable event. En owner Reika Yo is to be commended for getting this event up and running, providing such wonderful food and for ensuring there was such good documentation of each sake. Such attention to detail really enhances the experience! If you can’t get to Yamagata any time soon to try some of these great sakes, check out En for the next best thing.

_Sake_hana_sign.jpgDay 2 of NYC Sake Week was all about Dassai! I was so happy to get an email from Toshi at Sake Hana informing me about a special Dassai event. I really like tastings that are targeted around a specific sake brand or region as it gives a wonderful focus that is missing at larger mega tastings.

Dassai means “Otter Festival”. The name comes from otters in the region of Yamaguchi prefecture parading around with fish they had caught like in a festival. Hmm. well, maybe an otter festival is something like a barrel of monkeys? Drinking Dassai is always fun, so I think it works.

Our Friend Mr. Sakurai brought some wonderful sakes from Japan that are not available in the US. Sakurai_san.jpgThis was an amazing opportunity to try the whole dassai brand offering. Except for a flight to Tokyo, there was no other way to make this happen. I also bumped into my sake friend KC who helped me a lot in understanding more about these wonderful sakes. Here’s what we tasted:

1) Dassai Sparkling Nigori: This charmer had a very slight nose but really tingled on the tongue. It’s definitely light with lots of tight small bubbles vs what you might see in champagne. The word that came to mind most with the Sparkling Nigori was “Crisp”!

Dassai_50.jpg2) Dassai Junmai Ginjo 50: The 50 of course refers to the rice polishing ratio of the rice. This sake is available in the US and it must be the most well known of all the sakes this brewery produces. For many it really is a gold standard against which other ginjos are judged. I just know that it’s a sure fire winner if I see it on the menu. “Yum”!

3) Dassai Junmai Ginjo 50 Nama: This sake reminded me a bit of Otokoyama Sasaori that I had at sake bar Hagi. It was slightly cloudy and had that extra dimension you get from alive namas. This sake is Unpasteurized, Unfiltered, Undiluted… “Unforgettable”!

dassai_39.jpg4) Dassai Junmai Daiginjo 39: This is my new favorite sake. period! How’s that for a bold statement?! This sake was such a delight – it had just enough character, substance and dimension like the dassai 50 and just enough of the elegance and refinement like the dassai 23. It’s the perfect marriage of the two and it’s really sake harmony in a bottle. Toshi’s excellent notes on this sake say: “Some of the Dassai enthusiastic fans prefer this to Dassai 23%.” I guess that’s me! “Perfection”!

dassai_23.jpg5) Dassai Junmai Daiginjo 23: This sake is a study in virtuosity. It’s a pinnacle of achievement and just plain amazing. The Yamadanishiki rice is ground down to a staggering 23% of it’s original size. KC and I agreed that they were serving this sake at the perfect temperature. The taste is refined, graceful and beyond smooth. It calls to mind the quiet yet powerful charm of the classic Chanel suit or the iconic Barcelona chair. “Elegant”!

6) Dassai Junmai Daiginjo 23 Centrifuge: This sake is produced using a centrifuge machine to separate the sake from the lees during the final stages of production. I guess this is kind of like a spin-cycle sake. I found it to taste a tad flatter than the regular Dassai 23, and with just a wisp of a nose.”High-Tech”!

at_the_bar.jpg7) Dassai Nigori: I’ve had the Dassai Nigori several times before and it’s always a treat. If you like nigori, you should give this one a try. “Unique”!

8) Dassai Warm 50: This is a dassai sake that is specially produced to be served warmed. It just goes to show you the level of dedication Dassai has to quality and interest in the art and science of sake production. I found this sake to have an expansive feel on the palate with hint of spice at the finish. Note that this was served only slightly warmed over. “Cozy”!

Phew! that was a lot of wonderful sake at a wonderful venue with wonderful people. Be sure to order one of these sakes your next time out and about. With the right attitude and a little Dassai in hand, any day can turn into Otter Festival.

roof_deck.jpgFor the next few days, Sushi Samba is offering their Sake-Centric spin on a traditional Chef’s choice “omakase” menu which they call “omaSaKe”. This Pairing menu was created in honor of Sake week here in NYC with Mr. Paul Tanguay selecting the sakes. Paul was also recently the winner of the New York Regional Kikisaké-shi (saké sommelier) Competition and has won a trip to Japan to represent the US in the World Kikisaké-shi Competition in Tokyo. Go Paul!

Last Monday, Scott and I sat upstairs at Sushi Samba on 7th Ave under the tent and enjoyed our 5 course meal quite a bit. Here’s the sake 411:

mantensei_bottle.jpg1) Heirloom tomato seviche paired with Mantensei Ginjo (“Star-Filled Sky”, Tottori prefecture, ALC 15.5%, SMV +3) The seviche had a distinct citrus tinge which worked well with the rich balance and touch of dryness of the Mantensei. Our sake server mentioned something about wet cardboard tones in the nose. well, I’d never heard that one before, but at least you’ll be getting your fiber, eh? Of all the sakes featured in this pairing, this was the only one I have not yet tasted. There were sweet notes that played off the overall dry silhouette. I found this respectable balance made for a good sake to get the evening off and running.

kura_no_hana.jpg2) Grilled shrimp with Japanese spinach paired with Kura No Hana Daiginjo (“Fair Maiden”, Myagi Prefecture, ALC 15.5%, SMV +0 ) By far, this was my favorite course, and favorite pairing of the evening. Unfortunately, it was the smallest in size! Given the recent Spinach hysteria, I was a brave sake soldier and chomped away. YUM! the sauce had a fruity citrus-yumminess that picked up on the first course and brought out the fruits in the Kura no Hana. that sauce made all the difference. Kura No Hana is really a wonderful treat and above all I picked up hints of orange liqueur. This is a wonderful drinking sake.

Masumi_Okuden_Kantsukuri.jpg3) Organic Pork ‘”Filet Mignon” paired with Masumi Okuden Kanzukuri Junmai (Nagano Prefecture, ALC 15%, SMV +3.0) From my tiny two little shrimps in the second course, the third course got “super-sized”. Out came a real Meat And Potatoes meal of delicious pork medallions with potato pancakes and candied figs. Our server brought us these humongous steak knives. They weren’t really needed as the pork was so tender and delicious…but, they were fun to wield. Masumi is a clear match to our meat and potatoes. For me the dry nature of this sake comes through. It’s a hearty Junmai and can stand up to this He-man’s meal. The sake itself was crystal clear and vibrant.

dewazakura_oka_bottle.jpg4) Sushi Platter paired with Dewazakura Oka Ginjo (“Cherry Bouquet”, Yamagata Prefecture, ALC 15.5%, SMV +5 ) Ok, after Meat and potatoes, i’m feeling a little full, so I once again needed to be a brave sake soldier and forge ahead with the sushi. Oka is a really delightful sake from Yamagata. It’s got strong fruit flavors and a plush mouth feel. The color is a slight yellow, especially noticeable compared side by side with the Masumi.

sake_glasses.jpg5) Coconut Panna Cotta paired with Harushika Tokimeki Junmai (“Palpitation of Sake” Nara Prefecture, ALC 6.5%, SMV –80) The dessert was delicious and I remember feeling really full at this point. However, the panna cotta was beckoning. It was smooth and very good with a scoop of coconut sorbet on top. Tokimeki is a sparkling sake. once poured it was a glass full of fizzy sweetness. I was grateful for the low alcohol content after so many sakes. ice_ice_baby.jpgAnd I was also happy for the sparkling bubbles to wake me up as my food coma was setting in. The bubbles in sparkling sake are quite different from champagne. The bubbles are small and tight. It’s refreshing!

Omasake at Sushi Samba 7 was a great way to kick off Sake Week here in New York City. It got me all ramped up and excited for a full week of sake fun and mayhem.

Stop by and enjoy Sushi Samba’s sake menu next chance you get – it’s wonderful.

display.jpg From the outside, Izakaya Izu (9 E. 13th St, NYC 10003) looks like a sake lover’s wet dream. The windows are stacked high with glowing sake bottles lit from below. The extensive sake menu is proudly displayed by the front door. Everything seems in order, but cracks in the surface of this sake wonderland start to show once you step inside.

Ace_hardware.jpgOk, Thai Food on the menu should have been the first warning sign that this place has a deep-seated identity crisis. Well, now that I think about it, any true Izakaya wouldn’t offer sushi either. Well, what about that great big expansive sake menu? You guessed it… for half the sakes the poor waitress had to say, “Sorry, we’re out of that one. we really should update our menu.” ugh!

They did have one nama in stock, so I thought that might turn things around. We ordered the the Hachitsuru Nama. I knew I’d had this sake recently, but the details escaped me. I was suprise to see the sake arrive in a $2 paint bucket like you would get at the hardware store. Also, the sake was served in boring old shot glasses.

After a few sips I realized the last time I tried Hachitsuru Junmai Nama, it was OK but didn’t knock my socks off. promises.jpgThis would be a good chance to try it again under different circumstances and gauge my reaction the second time around. Honestly, it was much the same. This is a junmai nama that leaves me a little flat. The tastes it does come at you with are a little milky and not balanced or nuanced.

Also, it doesn’t have that fresh-alive punch that you can get from Namas. Most namas are just sooo good, and there are so many good ones out there, it really doesn’t make sense to spend your time on a mediocre one.

Well, The stars just weren’t aligned for sake success last night. However, the evening wasn’t a total loss as i learned a valuable lesson. If I ever again find myself an Izakaya that serves Thai food – I’m out of there faster than you can say ‘peaunt sauce’.

The internet is quite a treasure trove. So much information right at your fingertips. Every once in a while, however, you stumble upon something that is, well, just plain special.

While doing my usual internet sake “research”, I came across some fun info at the Kiku-masamune sake website called “Manners for Sake Party“. Sounds fascinating. Let’s take a closer look…

Manners for Sake Party
How to Handle “Sake” Pitcher

pitcher_1.jpgWhen pouring sake into other people’s cups, hold the sake bottle in the middle of the body and try to use only one hand to pour.
Some people use both hands to serve sake in an attempt to show respect.
The correct way however, is to pour with one hand.*: For women, however, it looks more elegant to touch the left hand to the bottle when pouring sake into people’s cups.

When pouring from a bottle without a pouring lip, make sure the pattern or design on the bottle is on top and visible.


shake_bottle.gif Look into or shake the bottle ••• It is considered very bad manners in order to check if there is any sake left.Correct way ••• Just give the bottle a light shake.

Ok, ok… so I might have touched my left hand to the bottle when pouring, maybe once or twice, but that doesn’t make me less of a man. however – well – only one handed pouring from now on. And I keep my tokkuri shaking to a bare minimum, I swear! moving on…

Manners for Sake Party
How to hold “Sake” cup and the drinking way

ikkinomi.gifWhen drinking sake, pick up the cup, bring it toward you, pause slightly then moving the cup up parallel to your chest, bring it to your mouth and drink.

IKKINOMI ••• Emptying the cup in one gulp is both bad manners and bad for your health.

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cup_4.jpg Make sure to hold the cup when you are served sake; the same goes for when serving sake to other people.OKITSUGI ••• To pour sake into a cup set on the table, or to accept sake with your cup set on the table is bad manner.

Um, well, I can’t say I’ve never, ever ikkinomi-ed. BUT, now that I know how unhealthy it is, i’m quitting ikkinomi cold turkey. Also, I’m afraid I must admit that I Okitsugi quite often. whoops. Bad Bad Manners! I wonder what else there is…

Manners for Sake Party
How to serve “sake”: Offering and Returning

There are also additional manners for FORMAL BANQUETS

serve_1.jpg receiving Sake If a sake cup is preferred by an older person to a younger person, the cup must be accepted with both hands, and the words “CHODAI-SHIMASU” should be said in thanks.


serve_2.jpg When you would like a superior or someone older to offer their sake cup, say “ONAGARE-O-ITADAKIMASU”, and use both hands to receive the cup. Never hold your own cup out to a superior or someone older for it to be refilled.
serve_3.jpgReturning The Cup
If there isn’t, he should align his hands when returning the cup and say “ARIGATO-GOZAIMASU” or “thank you very much”. Using just one hand is also acceptable. When a person who accepts a cup of sake from a superior or someone older returns the cup, he should first clean the cup if there’s a washbowl nearby.

Note to self: avoid formal banquets if possible.

Well, I always thought if I simply avoided serving sake in disposable cups, I’d be able to sidestep any sake faux pas, but obviously, there is a lot to learn about “sake party manners”!

apricot.jpgOne of the true blessings of living in New York City is that there are so many, many places to drink sake and eat japanese food. One of the curses of living in New York City is that not all the many Sake bars and Japanese restaurants can measure up to the best.

Anzu is a perfect example of this. This is a place that’s been open in my neighborhood for about 3 months. It used to be a Korean restaurant, but the owners decided to try japanese and converted to Anzu.

At first blush, this was a true find. The lighting was low, the countertops were concrete and the interior was sleek. I dove nose first into the sake menu. Again, at first blush, a small but solid list – about 12 sakes, most listed as available by the “box”.

anzu_facade.jpgI was happily surprised to see the Umenishiki Nama Daiginjo on the menu. oooh Yeah! That would be the perfect start to this evening. I also noticed there was a Nigori for sale by the “box”.

The waiter came by to take our order and promptly informed me that — sorry! only 4 of the 12 sakes listed on the menu were in stock. Oh, they had the Nigori but only by the bottle. Then he said, “yeah, we really have to update our menu.” damn straight you do!

Well, of the few sakes they had, I just went ahead and got the Wakatake Ginjo. I think it was the best tasting of the few they did have in stock. The really ironic thing about the lack of Sake at Anzu was the oversized glass-enclosed walk-in sake/wine refrigerator that dominated the back wall of the space.Masu_Mini.jpg How could so much space be dedicated to keeping sake chilled and on display when there were only 4 sakes to be had? Cruelty I tell you!

The server arrived at the table with the masu on a plate and a giant bottle of the Wakatake Ginjo. He poured until about two drops spilled over onto the plate and then he was gone.

I took a closer look at the masu and realized something wasn’t quite right. the masu was, well, tiny… about 2 inches square and 1 inch deep. it looked really small. I took a sip and saw quickly that my sake would be gone very soon. shrunk_kids.jpgAny normal masu i’ve ever seen is at least 3 inches square.

The Wakatake Ginjo was just as delightful as ever, I have no complaints at all with the sake. But, the serving size was about 4 ounces. At Sakagura, they would label this a “tasting size”. The worst part about the incredible shrinking masu was the price: $14.00. Now I am not at all a dyed-in-the-wool bargain hunter when it’s comes to my Nihon-shu. I’m happy to pay for high quality service, presentation and taste. But Anzu’s efforts at “portion control” just left me feeling ripped off. As for the food, it was mixed. Some things were good, some strange, but again, tiny portions.

It seems that for this Korean restaurant, turning Japanese was not born out of their love of sake.

sake_tasting_full_swing.jpgTwo very well known sake brands were represented at the September ’06 Sake tasting at Astor Wines: Ichinokura and Wakatake. Astor has continued to impress me with their growing selection and impressive offering. Their efforts to bring in Sake importers and brewery reps just underscores their commitment to sake in NYC. yeah!

Ichinokura_nama_daiginjo.jpgI must admit, I was approaching this tasting with a touch of trepidation. I knew Ichinokura was going to be on hand. Several times, I’ve sampled their low alcohol “himenzen” junmai. It’s really sweet and mostly used as an aperitif. well, let’s just say, If I were stranded on a desert island and could only pick one sake to drink for the rest of my life, Himenzen wouldn’t be it. that was diplomatic, right? well, Himenzen aside, I didn’t know what else awaited me.

Here is the rundown of the sakes presented (click on bottle to see a larger image):

Ichi_nama.jpgIchinokura Nama. (pictured left) Mr. Asami poured me the Nama “draft” sake. I learned that this is a unique nama that produced year round and not just a seasonal offering. cool! Nice to know there are some namas you can get whenever you want! you don’t have to wait for summer. I love instant gratification. For me this was the big surprise of the tasting. This is a fresh tasting Nama (unpasteurized) sake. Crisp and alive with that nama spark. I ended up buying this one.

himezen.jpgIchinokura Himenzen. (pictured right. ”Princess Food”, Junmai, ALC 8%, SMV -65, Acidity 5.0, Miyagi Prefecture) Funny, but during the tasting, they didn’t offer me this sake, and I didn’t ask to try it. hmm. Maybe they knew? Again, not your best bet in the ‘stranded on a desert island’ scenario, but a very well known aperitif sake. Call on Himenzen when something light and sweet is in order!

Ichinokura_daiginjo.jpg Ichinokura Daiginjo. (pictured left) Ms. Yamazaki then poured the Daiginjo for me. The Ichinokura daiginjo was everything a Daiginjo should be: refreshing and clear as a bell with a fresh aroma. Very solid Daiginjo option. The color on this sake, as far as I could tell, was crystal clear – about as clear as I’ve seen. that’s always impressive.
It is really a lot of fun to taste different sakes from the same brewery side by side. can you taste the family resemblance?

wakatake_onigorosi.jpgMr_matsunaga_wakatake.jpgWakatake Ginjo. (pictured right. “demon slayer” SMV: +3 Acidity: 1.5 Shizouka Prefecture.) I made my way over to the Wakatake side of the tasting and was delighted to meet the very friendly Mr. Matsunaga. He showed me pictures of his offices in Shinzouka. There was a huge red figure of a demon over the front entrance t the building. The idea is the sake is soooo good, it would kill a demon. I guess you could say, it’s ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ for Japan?

In any case, The Wakatake brand is very, very well known as is this ginjo. Lucky for us, this is a brand you can find widely distributed in this country. The Ginjo is a smooth-rich type. I find it to be really enjoyable if less complex.

wakatake_daiginjo.jpgWakatake Daiginjo. (pictured left) If a sake were to be elected Most popular, Homecoming King AND most likely to succeed, this would be it. Wakatake Daiginjo (Let’s call it “Ãœber-Demon-Slayer”) is extremely popular and well regarded. It’s often recommended as a ‘starter’ sake for people who don’t know where to begin, and understandably so. It’s accessible and delicious. Take a sip of this and you may well be on your way down a slippery slope of life long sake cravings. I’m not naming names, but it’s happened before!
the_goods.jpgIn the end I went home with two sakes from the tasting. The Ichinokura Nama, which indulged my current passion for all things nama-y, and the Wakatake Daiginjo which I think should be a staple in everyone’s refrigerator – like milk.

The cool thing was, both bottles netted me a cool gift-with-purchase Masu! Check out the picture. that was such a great suprise! you can never have enough sake glasses! Each masu was inscribed with the name of the brewery in Kanji. Kinda like getting a beer mug with the Sam Adams logo when you buy a case. only, this was MUCH MUCH cooler!

This tasting at Astor was a blast. It’s a great opportunity to try some new sakes and get to know some old favorites all over again. And, who wouldn’t want to get in touch with their inner demon slayer?

sake_bar_sign.jpgThe phone in my office rang bright and early last week. It was Scott asking me “Did you see the Times?!?!” well, at that point in the morning I’m usually just staring down at my iced coffee, not the newspaper. Scott proceed to inform me that the coveted “$25.00 and under” food column in the times was indeed covering a sake bar. A NYC sake bar we’d never heard of.

sake_fridge.jpgNow that was news! Finding out about a new sake bar is akin to finding $50 bucks buried in the pocket of some jeans you haven’t worn in forever. It doesn’t happen often, but you sure are happy when it does. The bar in question was Sake bar Hagi (152 West 49th Street, lower level (212) 764-8549). The Times article talked about spaghetti with ketchup (yuk!) and no smoking allowed (duh!), but I knew the real story was sake!

Scott and I settled on a rainy night to head up to Times Square and try out Hagi. Now, Times Square is well known for it’s Family Friendly “theme” Mega-restaurants: ESPN Zone, Planet Hollywood, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. …Applebees. yikes! It’s enough to make any sane person run screaming. Could a taste of genuine Japanese izakaya really exist along side all this corporate artifice? We were about to go into the belly of the beast and find out.

sasaori_nama_chillin.jpgSeeing that Hagi was recently in the NYTimes, I wasn’t surprised that there was a wait for a table. We also arrived at prime time – around 8pm. (Things thinned out later in the night and they are open until 3am – every day!)

I didn’t mind the wait one bit, as their small entrance hallway was also home to their sake display refrigerator. The sign said clearly “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH” – not the most welcoming thing to see when you first step into a restaurant. but I understand. I wouldn’t want anyone manhandling my sake stash either.

So, I was obedient and didn’t ‘squeeze the charmin’ (aka touch the sake), but I did take a long look inside to get an idea of their offering. It was an interesting mix of old standbys and some stuff that was new to me too.

sasaori_bottle.jpgOnce we were seated, job #1 was picking a sake. The waitress was helpful and as soon as I displayed some knowledge about sake that went beyond “hot or cold”, she knew we were serious sake sippers. She disappeared for a second and returned to our table with 4 or 5 bottles of summer Nama from the sake stash fridge which she set up like a display on our table.

We chatted about each one and finally decided on something really unique and uniquely delicious.

sasaori_glass.jpgI ended up ordering a 500ml bottle of Otokoyama Sasaori (Junmai Nama Tokubetsu, Hokkaido Prefecture, SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.4).

As soon as Sasaori hit the table, I knew we had something unique. This sake is a bit of an enigma…

* It was a nama with a strong hints of tropical fruit in the nose and palate. I got banana and scott got Melon. A touch sweet, but well balanced.

* And, it was slightly cloudy – like a wisp of nigori.*And, it was a sparkling with a touch of draft carbonation.

*And, there was a solid 15% ALC under the hood to drive this Junmai. And all this in one bottle?

Donny_Marie.jpgIt made me think immediately of Donny and Marie. “I’m a little bit country… I’m a little bit rock’n’roll…”

A little bit of this and a little bit of that CAN add up to a real crowd pleaser.

Scott and I have tried to adopt the Japanese custom of always filling the glass of the other and never pouring for yourself. This works out sometimes, but I fear I may give poor Scott ‘sake elbow’ from pouring into my glass so much.

Let’s mark this one down as a pleasant surprise – both the venue and the sake. I still don’t like Times Square, but as long as Hagi stays ‘as is’ and doesn’t turn into the “Hagi-Disney© Japan-Experience® Bistro brought to you by Toyotaâ„¢”, I’ll be back again soon.

Can I get an Amen?! Who knew saké was so popular in the nation’s heartland? I predict Nihon-shu will be bigger than Nascar. Well, we all know that Saké can be a religious experience…
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p.s. Check out this site if you want to spread your own bit of Gospel.