Bring Your Own Sake

Nell_chao_i_timothy2.jpgAfter my friend Nell heard about all the fun we had at the International cyber-sake tasting, she suggested another event: an at-home B.Y.O.S. (bring your own sake) tasting.

Bring Your Own Sake events are such fun – you never know what the heck is going to show up! I mean Sake-wise, of course! I thought it was a great idea, so we booked Urban Sake Headquarters and Nell and I started planning the menu.

Gassan_junmai_ginjo.jpgSomehow I got the brilliant idea in my head that I should make homemade chicken yakitori meatballs. Nell came over to Urban Sake Headquarters before the event and pitched right in helping in the cooking and we had a grand old time. It would never have come together without Nell’s help, that’s for sure. But, when all was said and done, we had quite a spread! Shrimp Spring Rolls, seaweed salad, yakitori vegetables and meatballs.

When the guests started to arrive, so did the sake! Here’s an overview of who brought what and how the sake hit me.

matsunoi_wishingwell.jpgScott & I contributed a Gassan Junmai Ginjo (SMV +3.5, ALC 15.5%, Seimaibuai 50%, Yoshida Brewery, Shimane Prefecture) to share. This was our starter sake and I LOVED it! I’m not just saying that because this was my contribution, but it was really delightful. Just a gentle touch of fruit and a hint of balanced sweetness made this sake really sing!

shichihonyari_junmai.jpgNell brought Matsunoi “Wishing Well” Tokubetsu Honjozo (Niigata Prefecture, ALC 15.5 %, SMV +5, Acidity 1.3). This sake was fun and we heated it up to “Nurukan” (aka 104° F). To me it tasted full and hearty. The fact that this was a honjozo lent an expansive-ness to the sake I enjoyed. Luckily KC was on hand to help me with my first attempt at heating sake at home. I learned that you heat the pan of water to boiling, then turn the heat OFF, and then place the tokkuri in the water.

mutsu_hassen.jpgI totally geeked out and bought a digital thermometer to track the heating of the sake. It hit 104° F way faster than I expected, so I’m really glad I had it on hand however big a sake-geek it made me.

Staying with the theme of warmed sake, our Nihonshu-Wunderkind KC brought the perfect sake for heating:setsugetsubijin.jpgShichi Hon Yari Junmai (”The Seven Spearsmen” ALC 15.5%, SMV +4, Acidity 1.5, Seimaibuai 60%, Shiga Prefecture). There is something in this sake that makes it feel a little sinful when you drink it warmed. It really opens up and offers depth on the palate.

My friend Chao-I stopped by with a treasure that I really enjoyed. He brought us Mutsu Hassen Junmai Daiginjo (ALC 16%, Seimaibuai: 50%, SMV +2, Acidity: 1.4, Hachinohe Brewery, Aomori Prefecture). It’s got a fancy packaging and a fancy taste to match. Quite fruity on the palate yet balanced and complex.

Brad brought a sake that was a real mouthful: Setsugetsubijin Junmai Ginjo (ALC 14.5, Oimastsu Brewery, Oita Prefecture) This is a sake with a solid consistency and a sharp alcohol taste on the finish.

keiko_san_tim.jpgMy friend Julie brought Tenranzan Junmai Nigori (“Sake Romance”, Seimaibuai: 65%, Nihonshu-do: +2, Acidity: 1.4, Igarashi Brewery,) I ended up really enjoying this “sake romance”! It was a mild nigori with just a touch of rice-y fullness in the body, but not too much. I found it very easy to drink and quite sip-able!

Last, but not least, Keiko-san brought the Kamoizumi Shusen Junmai (“Three Dots” ALC 16%, SMV +1, Acidity 1.6 Seimaibuai 58%, Hiroshima Prefecture) This is a hearty drink that we also heated to “Nurukan”. Nell_tenranzan.jpgThis is a sake I last had at the Cha-an Warm Sake Seminar earlier this month. As I noted then, this sake is really a good fit with heating. It brings out the earthy notes and just tastes like a bundle of that cozy feeling that is just so good during winter-time. The other thing I like about “Three Dots” is that it’s easy to remember the name just by looking at the bottle!

When things were winding down and sake supplies were getting low, Scott saved the day by bringing Choux Factory cream puffs! I ate mine while sipping on a little cup of Nurukan Three Dots – Heaven! We all had a lot of fun and I really enjoyed having a B.Y.O.S. However, word on the street is that I had a mild case of veisalgia on the following morning… Not True I tell you! I was framed!

Akita Sake Connoisseurs’ Club

founding_members.jpgFrom all the pictures I’ve seen, Akita Prefecture is a place of great natural beauty and they make some pretty darn good sake, too.

I was thrilled when I heard about a tasting that would focus specifically on the sakes from this Prefecture. I love these region specific tastings – it’s the closest you can get to doing a tour of a prefecture’s breweries without paying the $6,000 airfare.

daimond_dust.jpgThe Akita tasting was the first official event of the recently formed Akita Sake Connoisseurs’ Club (ASCC) held at World Sake Imports offices in Manhattan. Once inside, I was greeted and immediately handed a ‘welcome beverage’. very nice!

It was a tasting size of Amanoto Hyosho Usu-Nigori (“Diamond Dust”, Junmai Ginjo, SMV -2, ALC 15.3%, acidity 1.3, Seimaibuai 50%) served with a sliver of fresh strawberry. Obviously, that added an interesting fruity feeling to the taste that played up the sweetness, but I must make a note to try this yummy nigori just on it’s own sometime. The rice solids left in this nigori were very subtle and light, which I really enjoy.

Chizuko_san.jpgScanning the rest of the room, I saw there were two tasting tables set up with a total of 12 Akita prefecture sakes.

Before we were let loose on the real tasting, Natsuyo Lipschutz had some opening remarks and introduced the founding members of the ASCC as well as the mission of the Club. Akita Native and our dear Sake Sommelier friend Chizuko-san “translated” part of the speech into Akita Prefecture dialect. Even though I don’t speak much Japanese it was really funny!

Chizuko-san then gave some advice on how to approach the tasting, starting with the lighter daiginjos first and working your way to the hearty junmais. The only problem was that when the tasting began, all 80 attendees swamped the table with the daiginjos! Soon enough however, people started milling about and I got to taste some of the daiginjos myself!

Asami with akitabareHere are the sakes that were being served.

  • Suirakuten Junmai Daiginjo (“Heaven of Tipsy Delight”, Akitabare Brewery, Seimaibuai 45%, SMV +5, Acidity 1.3, ALC 15.3% ) Notes: Tipsy Delight, Indeed! Super smooth and leaning a touch on the dry side. Just a perfect little package of sake yumminess. wrap it up – I’ll take it.
  • Shimizu no Mai Junmai Daiginjo (“Crystal Cascade”, Akita Shurui Seizoh Brewery, Seimaibuai 45%, SMV +3, Acidity 1.3, ALC 15.5%)
  • Yuki No Bosha Junmai Daiginjo (Saiya Brewery, Seimaibuai 40%, SMV +1, Acidity 1.6) Notes: Light and graceful with a touch of crisp fruit on the palate. One of my new favorites!
  • Lots_of_people.jpgHyosho Usu-Nigori Junmai Ginjo (“Diamond Dust”, Amanoto Brewery, SMV -2, ALC 15.3%, Acidity 1.3, Seimaibuai 50% ) Notes: This was our Welcome Drink as described above.
  • Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo (Saiya Brewery, Seimaibuai 50%, SMV +1, Acidity 1.9 )
  • Chokaisan Junmai Ginjo (“Celestial Joy”, Tenju Brewery, Seimaibuai 50%, SMV +1.0, Acidity 1.3-1.5, ALC 15.5%) Notes: To my taste, this was a Daiginjo in Ginjo drag. Complex and delightful, I went back for seconds – and thirds of this one.
  • Tenju_chokaisan.jpgBenimansaku Junmai Ginjo (“True Blue”, Hinomaru Brewery, Seimaibuai 56%, Acidity 1.6, ALC 16.2% )
  • Matsukura Junmai Ginjo (“Nature’s Serenade”, Dewatsuru Brewery, Seimaibuai 60%, SMV +1.0, Acidity 1.3-1.5, ALC 15.5% ) Notes: This was a rich but not terribly nuanced brew.
  • Akinota Junmai Ginjo (“Harvest of Joy”, Hideyoshi Brewery, Seimaibuai 55%, SMV +3.5, Acidity 1.4, ALC 15.5% )
  • Jizake Monogatari Junmai Ginjo (“Story Teller”, Naba Shoten Brewery, Seimaibuai 55%, SMV +2, Acidity 1.7, ALC 15.5% )
  • Namahage Junmai (Kariho Brewery, SMV +8, Acidity 1.7, ALC 15.5% ) Notes: this is our old friend, Mr. “Extremely Dry!”. yeah, if super dry is your thing – this is your sake!
  • Koshiki Junzukuri Junmai (Akitabare Brewery, Seimaibuai 60%, SMV +2, Acidity 1.8, ALC 14.5%)

All in all, the Akita Tasting was a smashing success! The most fun was trying to taste a common thread amongst all these sakes from the same part of Japan. Not really that easy to do, but tasting is fun. I sure am looking forward to the next event put on by the Akita Sake Connoisseurs’ Club. In the meantime, I can buy a lot of Akita sake with that $6000 I saved on airfare – OK, ok… the next round is on me.

The Wrath of “Kan”

cha_an_sign.jpgOne of the really surprising things about the study of Sake is that once you think you know something, you find out, you really know nothing at all. Yes, Sake can humble you in this way. Whatever you’ve learned, there is always more to explore. “Kan Sake” or “warmed sake” is one of these areas. Conventional wisdom says that only cheap, poorly produced sake is heated as warming masks the uneven flavors. Usually it’s piping hot and tastes like jetfuel… Right? Anyone who as seen Star Trek II knows how Captain Kirk feels about it.

Well, as with all things sake it’s just not that simple. Kan Sake is a vast subject but I made some inroads into this world last week when I attended another Sake Seminar at Cha-an Tea House.

Again, this lesson on warm sake was facilitated by our friend Chizuko-san, sake sommelier at the amazing Sakagura restaurant and Sake Bar. Unfortunately, the November weather was not coordinating with the theme. Chizuko_san_and_translator.jpgIt was a somewhat warmer and humid evening in NY and I wasn’t looking forward to 5 courses of steaming hot sake. My fears however were completely unfounded.

I found the evening too be delicious and I found myself to be a new and unlikely fan of heated nihonshu! How did this happen? Well, The evening was artfully arranged by Chizuko-san to showcase the very best of what heated sake is all about. Simply stated, it was a revelation.

Let’s review the individual Sakes presented and how they each stood up to warming.

yuki_no_bosha_daiginjo.jpgWe started with a real top notch pick right out of the gate. It was Yuki No Bosha Daiginjo (ALC 15%, SMV +2, Acidity 1.5, Seimaibuai 35%, Akita Prefecture.)

Chizuko-san described the sweetness fo the Yuki No Bosha Daiginjo as having a sweetness suggestive of warm milk with honey – and I couldn’t agree more. The warmed honey flavor really came through. It was delicious. Another important note about this sake is it’s richness. The rich deep flavor allows this sake’s rice flavor to come through despite the gentle warming.

Please also take note, this is a Daiginjo!! Prevailing advice is to never, ever, ever heat a delicate daiginjo, but in this case – it really works. delightful – and how often do you get a heated Daiginjo? try it!

matsu_no_midori.jpgThe next sake was a surprise! We were honored to have Mr. Yamamoto from the Yamamoto sake brewery make an unannounced visit and share a real treat with us.

We had the pleasure of trying the Matsu No Midori Junmai Daiginjo (ALC 15.8%, SMV +5, Acidity 1.3, Kyoto Prefecture). This sake was very enjoyable, indeed. To me, it had a somewhat deeper flavor than the previous Daiginjo. The higher SMV also indicated to me that Matsu No Midori was slightly drier. At this point I was starting to feel spoiled drinking all this heated Daiginjo sake. I mean, usually, it’s a no-no, but all bets were off for tonight.

Kamoizumi_three_dots.jpgBy this point I was feeling really good and was ready for our Third sake. We were treated to Kamoizumi Shusen Junmai Ginjo (“Three Dots”, ALC 16%, SMV +1, Acidity 1.6 Seimaibuai 58%, Hiroshima Prefecture)

I have heard before that “Three Dots” is a good sake for warming, and now I understand why. For me, this sake was tinged slightly yellow, but tasted nice and smooth with a distinct earthiness that lent itself well to heating. That earthiness was a woody mushroomy flavor that tasted so cozy.

dewazakura_izumijudan.jpgAn important note about this brew is the lack of familiar floral tones you might know from other junmai Ginjos. Chizuko-san told us, this sake was created by the brewery to have that “back to nature” quality. It may not be everyone’s taste, but I sure loved it. Like a camping trip in a glass!

The fourth sake was Dewazakura Izumijudan Ginjo (“Tenth Degree” ALC 17.5% SMV +12, Acidity 1.4, Seimaibuai 50%, Yamagata Prefecture)

masumi_yamahai.pngAnyone who reads my blog regularly knows I’m a huge fan of Yamagata sake after I went to a special tasting that focused on that region. Dewazakura is perhaps the most well known brewery from this region. Above all, this Izumijudan Ginjo is a really dry sake that keeps it’s distinct try gin-like character even through a gentle heating.

akitabare_koshiki_junzukuri.gifOnward and upward! The fifth sake was the The Masumi Yamahai Ginjo (“Winter Yamahai”, ALC 15%, SMV +2, Acidity 1.9, Seimaibuai 55%, Nagano Prefecture). We learned that this sake was crafted especially to be heated. I found it to have a pure, rich yet smooth flavor.

I didn’t detect much of a nose at all and the tail I would describe as “barely there”. But while on that palate, this Yamahai is a full-bodied-people-pleaser.

Our second to last sake was the delicious Akitabare Koshiki Junzukuri Junmai (“Northern Skies”, ALC 14.5%, SMV +1.5, Acidity 1.55, Seimaibuai 60%, Akita Prefecture). The Akitabare we tried also lacked much of an aroma, but the flavor was rich and bold. shichi_hon_yari_junmai.jpgThis junmai was served headed to 122°F. It’s interesting to note that this sake is that the rice is grown locally and the yeast is produced in the brewery itself which gives this sake a special Terroir.

The final sake was one I was expecting and happy to see at a “warmed sake” evening. Last but not least we enjoyed Shichi Hon Yari Junmai (“The Seven Spearsmen” ALC 15.5%, SMV +4, Acidity 1.5, Seimaibuai 60%, Shiga Prefecture)

This is a delightful Junmai to enjoy everyday with no frills or fancy affect. It is one of the few sakes that can be heated to a higher temperature – up to 140°F and still taste great. The light dryness of the sake evokes it’s aim to be a simple treat. The Tomita Sake brewery is well known and it’s history dates back to the time of the Samurai. When heated the flavor greatly expands and warms you really from the inside out. Warning: this sake can be highly addictive!

Last but not least, Chizuko-san gave us a very handy temperature chart for heated and chilled sake which you can find below. as you can see there are many gradations of sake based on temperature. Next time you order your sake and the server asks “hot or cold?” You can answer you’d like your sake “Nuru-kan”. You’ll know for sure if they are hot…. or not. Enjoy

Sake Naming and Temperature Chart
Japanese Name Celsius Fahrenheit English Name
Tobikirikan 55° C 133° F Very Hot Sake
Atsukan 50° C 122° F Hot Sake
Jokan 45° C 113° F Slightly Hot Sake
Nurukan 40° C 104° F Warm Sake
Hitohadakan 35° C 95° F Body Temperature
Hinatakan 30° C 86° F Sunbathing in Summer
Suzubie 15° C 59° F Cool autumn Breeze
Hanabie 10° C 51° F Blooming Spring Flower
Yukibie 5° C 41° F Falling Winter Snow

Domo Arigato Mr. Robata

aburiya_sign.jpg My sake friend Nell works at an amazing robata grill restaurant on the east side called Aburiya Kinnosuke (213 East 45th, 212-867-5454). After many promises to visit, I was overdue to give Nell’s workplace a try. Once I found out Aburiya was owned by the same folks that run Torys and Yakitori Totto – two of my favorite restaurants – it was on!

Suffice to say, this place is off the hook!

When I first heard the term “Robata Grilling”, I thought it was some high-tech Japanese robot machine that grilled your food and brought it to your table via conveyor belt -kind of like those sushi making machines. I soon learned that it is actually quite the opposite of high-tech and much more of a primal cooking method. The food is grilled in an open brick pit by attaching it to a stake or wooden paddle and leaning it in towards the fire. robata grillI found this description of robata grilling online:

In Japanese, Robata means “by the fireside,” and refers to the centuries-old country style cooking of northern Japanese fishermen.Evenings in coastal villages found fishermen cooking their catch over an open fire, then sharing among themselves by passing food on oars from boat to boat.

When Scott and I arrived, Nell seated us at the bar and the first thing I felt was a wave of heat from the robata grill. It was the best seat in the house! Scott and I watch in amazement as the chefs tended the fire and kept perfect tabs on every piece of food propped up and slowly grilling around it. houraisen waEverything we had to eat was grilled to perfection and so delicious. It takes longer than direct heat cooking but it’s worth it.

The next great treat that awaited me at Aburiya was the sake menu. This was a menu with personality. It wasn’t the same usual 10 sakes you see at every regular Japanese restaurant in town. These were unique! Unusual! Intriguing!

After much debate, I ordered the Houraisen Wa (Sekiya Jozo Brewery, Aichi Prefecture, Seimaibuai 55%, ALC 15.8%, SMV -5, Acidity 1.5) This was the winner for sure. It was slightly sweet with light acidity. A bit delicate but oh soooo smooth. really enjoyable, soft and drinkable.

This sake is a Daiginjo in ginjo’s clothing. This sake was also served in a fancy blue cut glass tokkuri. I will order this one again.

pouring kikuhimeScott tried a small carafe of the Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai (Kikuhime Brewery, Ishikawa Prefecture, SMV +2, Acidity 2.0, Seimaibuai 60%). This Yamahai didn’t really ring my bells.

It was kind of an over-the-top yamahai style. To me the flavor was unbalanced and too earthy. Note the super high acidity. I think that may be what tastes out of wack here. It wasn’t awful, but paired up side by side with the Houraisen Wa, Kikuhime didn’t stand a chance. I don’t think this flavor profile will appeal to a broad range of sake drinkers out there.

If you get a chance, do not pass up an opportunity to try Abuiya Kinnosuke. I can’t say enough about how much we enjoyed our meal and sake.The atmosphere is wonderful, too and you can’t help but feel that nell_and_timothy.jpg you’re on a mini vacation to Japan.

The open hearth style of cooking is a natural fit for winter weather. As the temperature outside starts to drop, I know I’ll be back to warm up with some toasty Robata and then Chill out with some cool sake.

It’s that unique sake list that makes this place one of the best — even without a grilling robot and conveyor belt. Special thanks to Nell for all the hospitality and turning us on to such a great restaurant! Domo Arigato!

NO! NO! Today’s Amazing Special

no_no_amazing_special.jpgI feel like i’m getting a little more adventurous every so often and trying some new sake bar, or izakaya or sushi place that may be a little bit out of my comfort zone. That was indeed the case for Donburi-ya (137 East 47th, 212-980-7909). This place is odd and didn’t sit with me quite right at first. Let me set the stage a little…

glass_of_ikinaonnaFirst, the decor – so many japanese places i’ve been to have a beautifully focused style or aesthetic, but this restaurant was all over the place – kind of like a little bit Upstate New York country diner (think dried flowers) meets crazy toyko version of Cheers. There is lots and lots of oak-toned wood: the tables, the chairs, the bar, the bar stools, some paneling… a lot of oak.
As for atmosphere, there was a row of loudish men at the bar ordering beers and flirting in broken japanese with the very beautiful, yet tough, japanese bartender.

All this “ambiance” put me in serious need of some really good sake. Their sake menu was limited and understandably more focused on hearty robust sakes that will stand up to hearty robust pub food.

limited_sake_menu.jpgThere were 10 sakes total on the menu with some well known standbys such as Masumi, Suishin, Otokoyama and Hoyo (not to mention a one cup Ozeki!). There was one Daiginjo offering that caught my eye… “Iki Na Onna”. Looked a little familiar. I ordered it and hoped for the best.

After the fact, I realized that I’ve had this sake before. I first tasted it at a Tedorigawa event at Matsuri back in January. It was one of the yummy sakes that was very freely flowing. Ikki Na Onna (Daiginjo, Tedorigawa Brewery, ikinaonna_bottle.jpgRice: Miyamanishiki, Seimaibuai: 40%, Ishikawa Prefecture) is translated as “Lady Luck” and is a sake that is brewed in limited amounts each year for the Association of Lady Sake Retailers.

This Sake is good. The Brewery describes it as having a “fetchingly feminine attitude”. Well, I don’t know if that’s true. If they mean subtle and nuanced, then I guess so, but that is really more marketing speak than anything else. at least the bottle isn’t pink! I was really happy to find this sake because I don’t see it around much. It’s the most expensive one on the menu, but it’s also the best.

Overall, my experience at Donburi-ya was reflected in a funny Lost-in-Translation moment I had while reading their menu. It said at the top “No! No! Today’s Amazing Special”. Huh? I should avoid the amazing special?

Then I read it as: NO! NO! [this decor scares me!] Today’s Amazing Special [today I found an amazing, special daiginjo!] Lady Luck indeed!