2012 Golden Masu Awards

Golden Masu Award!

Golden Masu Award!

2012 zipped by in a flash. Where has the time gone!? I can only stare into the bottom of my empty sake cup and wonder.

For me, this year was a whirlwind of great sakes, old and new. It’s also been a year of learning and teaching. I’m discovering that sharing my love and passion for sake is becoming one of the great joys in my career. If you’re interested in learning more about sake, I hope to see you in one of my seminars in 2013!

My yearly “Golden Masu Awards” roundup is my biased take on the best, boldest and most bodacious brews that caught my eye and tickled my taste buds in 2012. Without further ado, I give you the winners…

“Best 720 Under $30”



And the Masu goes to:
Okunomatsu Tokubestu Junmai

It seems our economy improved some in 2012, but that didn’t stop me from looking high and low for sake bargains. For a high quality 720 ml bottle of sake under $30, I found myself returning again and again to Okunomatsu Tokubestu Junmai. Retailing for a price between 25.00 and 27.99, this Fukushima sake has become a reliable standby for everyday enjoyment. Dry, smooth and delicious, this sake will pair well with many different kinds of food and I’ve enjoyed it with everything from roast chicken to pad thai. In New York City, the local grocery delivery service “Fresh Direct” even offers this sake for home delivery. What could be better than getting Okunomastu right along with your bananas, butter and brussel sprouts?! Without a doubt, this sake is an incredible value for the price – and a great way to support Tohoku! Kanpai!

“Best Junmai Ginjo Debut”



And the Masu goes to:
Fukuju Junmai Ginjo

These days, Junmai Ginjo is a crowded category in the sake market. Given this, it’s hard to make an impression, but one sake this year did just that. Fukuju Junmai Ginjo was a sake I tried for the first time in 2012 and boy oh boy, what a treat. Made in Japan’s Kobe region, this sake is smooth, delicious and an important achievement. The quality of sake coming over from Japan is always improving and Fukuju is a prime example of this. A smooth and delicious brew which is exceeding balanced and light on palate, this sake will seduce you. You can enjoy it with a wide range of foods – a true sign of a high quality sake. Try Fukuju and believe!

“Most Delicious Sake in Custom Packaging”



And the Masu goes to:
Tenryo Hidahomare
Junmai Ginjo

Some sakes try to distract from their lack of quality with a fancy bottle shape or a unique wrapping or bow. This kind of trickery only works once for most consumers. One brand that knows about handmade quality is Tenryo. They make the famous Tenryo Hidahomare Junmai Ginjo with its unique, hand-woven and locally-sourced bamboo basket packaging. This basket is not just a thing of beauty, but a reflection of the hand made quality of this most famous sake from Gifu prefecture. You can expect a versatile and delicious Junmai Ginjo with hints of its unique Hidahomare sake rice on the palate. This is one case where the packaging does match the beauty of the sake within.

“Best Nigori Debut”



And the Masu goes to:
Shichihonyari Junmai Ginjo Nigori

It’s not everyday that a new nigori sake hits the market. Nigori, or cloudy sake, can be divisive among sake fans. Some love it, some… not so much. But I think the new Shichihonyari Junmai Ginjo Nigori maybe changing some hearts and minds this year. This nigori strikes the delicious balance between sweet and dry with a consistency that is a touch on the fuller side. It’s perfect for pairing with grilled or fried foods. The Brewer even encouraged me to try this nigori on the rocks. What the? Well, I did and it was great! This was just the reminder I needed that our tastes and preferences are an ever evolving thing. When it comes to sake, let a fun new nigori get you out of your sake rut.

“Best Expensive Sake Worth the Price”



And the Masu goes to:
Tedorigawa Mangekyo Daiginjo

Some sakes in the upper echelon of quality can give you a serious case of sticker shock. However in some cases, the high price is worth it. Such is the case with Tedorigawa Mangekyo Daiginjo. The cost for a bottle of this elixir is upwards of $420 in a restaurant. Mangekyo has the transcendent taste of a perfect daiginjo. Smooth, soft and silky, this beautiful sake is aged at a low temperature for two years for added depth. Production of this sake is limited to only 400 bottles per year, adding rarity to it’s many allures. I had the good fortune to taste this sake this year as part of a tasting set at a Tedorigawa event at Sakagura. Rare, expensive and worth it.

“Best in Show”



And the Masu goes to:
Masumi Arabashiri Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu

For the first time, my “Best in Show” sake is going to a junmai ginjo… and what a jumnai ginjo it is. The yearly release of the Masumi Brewery’s Masumi Arabashiri Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu is an event anxiously awaited by many a sake fan, myself included. The reason this sake was picked is its infallible drinkability. When in season and fresh, this nama is so good, I’d take it on an IV drip – you just can’t get enough. Bold, rich in fruit flavors on the palate and exceedingly smooth despite the 18% alcohol content, this dreamy unpasteurized brew is a consistent winner. So here’s a toast to what you can call “Springtime in a bottle” a.k.a Masumi Arabashiri. This could very well be the perfect Nama!

So there you have it! Congratulations and Kanpai to all the winners! I’m looking forward to a sake filled 2013 with lots of sake sipping, learning and loving. My special thanks to all sake producers and drinkers I met in 2012 – let’s make next near the year of sake in the USA! Kanpai and Happy New Year to everyone!

See Previous Golden Masu winners here: http://www.urbansake.com/category/golden-masu-awards/

Exploring Sake in Glorious Gifu

I recently visited Gifu Prefecture for the first time. I was lucky enough to be invited to tag along on Sake Discoveries’ tour of Gifu guided by JETRO this past October. Over just a few days, we crisscrossed the Prefecture, visiting many sake breweries and experiencing some truly unique parts of Gifu’s culture. It was like discovering a new side of Japan’s sake scene that I didn’t know existed. Below is a brief outline of what I experienced and the highlights of this unforgettable trip exploring sake in glorious Gifu!

Nihon Izumi Shuzo

The Takeyama Brothers make Nihon Izumi Sake in Gifu City

Moments after arriving in Gifu City’s Shinkansen Station, I was already walking into my first Gifu Sake Brewery. This is because Nihon Izumi Shuzo is just steps away from the station. It’s an extremely unique brewery run by the Takeyama brothers. What makes this small Brewery special is that all their production takes place in an office building basement! The production scale is small, but the sake they produce is top notch and really delicious. Given its compact size, touring the Brewery took just minutes, but I wanted to linger much longer over the tasting. This first stop in Gifu really surprised me. Sake can be made anywhere and Nihon Izumi proves it deliciously.

Hayashi Honten

Eiichi Brewery in Gifu

Our next stop was a short drive from Gifu City, taking us to the town of Kakamigahara. This is the home of Hayashi Honten, makers of Eiichi brand of sake. The Toji gave us a personal tour. The first thing that struck me was the size and vast scale of this Brewery. They are currently making a lot less then their capacity, but now their focus is on quality over quantity. Specialty items include a oak barrel aged sake and a fun pop art influenced “sakedelic” brew. They certainly get points for creativity! I really enjoyed visiting Eiichi.


Nagaragawa Ukai, Cormorant Fishing

Fireworks signal the start of the Ukai Cormorant Fishing on the Nagaragawa River

Cormorant fishing, known as Ukai in Japanese, is synonymous with Gifu’s Nagaragawa River. It’s an ancient form of fishing practiced at night, under a bright burning wood fire, where captive cormorant birds are used to retrieve river fish using their natural hunting instincts. We met Cormorant Fishing Master Masahiko Sugiyama who gave us the low down on how this all works. The title of Cormorant Fishing Master, as designated by the Emperor, is strictly hereditary and handed down from father to son only. Ukai watching parties are popular and you can go out on a boat and watch the birds up close. it’s an amazing experience, and we got so close, that I could feel the heat from the fire on my face. Incredible to see up close. Our boat even had a Gifu Maiko who entertained us non stop until the birds were ready to do their thing. truly and unforgettable night!


Ohashi Ryoki Masu Factory

Mr. Ohashi instructs us on the ins and outs of making Masu

Sake culture extends beyond just what you can drink. A perfect example of this was our visit to the Ohashi Ryoki Masu Factory. Now a masu is a square wooden box traditionally used for drinking sake. Mr. Ohashi’s family has been making these masu for over 60 years.

In the sake business, you see these masu everywhere, but I had never stopped to think how they were made. A visit to Mr. Ohashi’s factory cleared up all that. I learned about the elegant Japanese Cypress, better known as “Hinoki” that is used to craft these beautiful boxes. Hinoki is the wood chosen to make the oldest wooden temples in Japan and is also often used to build Japanese baths as well.

The wonderful morning spent at Ohashi Ryoki Masu Factory really opened my eyes to the work that craftsmen like Mr. Ohashi are doing not only to preserve the ancient craft of making a Masu, but also to advance the art. A case in point is the fun new shapes that they are using – not just four corners any more! and also laser etching designs on the boxes allows for fun and exciting design! Kanpai for masu! the best is yet to come.

Takeuchi Sake Brewery

President Masafumi Takeuchi shows us his sake museum

Located in Ogaki city, Gifu, Takeuchi Shuzo is a brewery with a little something extra – namely, a wonderful tribute to the history of sake brewing. Up the stairs and to the left, behind the door is the old Koji room, which brewery president Mr. Takeuchi has converted into a makeshift museum. Here you can see many of the implements used to make sake in the past centuries – most interesting of which is the husk fill in the koji table itself… a 19th century solution on how to retain heat and keep the koji warm.

Mr. and Mrs. Takeuchi welcomed us with a wonderful tasting and a spirited discussion of all things sake… from bottle shape and size to taste and preferences of the foreign market. A beautiful time and a wonderful brewery.

Tenryo Sake Brewery

Some of the amazing sake selections at Tenryo!

Located in Gifu’s Gero City, Tenryo is arguably the most famous sake from Gifu.

Gero is famous around the world for it’s hot springs and osen culture. what better place to look than Gero city for some of the best water there is. Tenryo does not disappoint with a rich but clean taste. I learned from the Brewer’s family that their taste matches particularly well with the local cuisine and I had a great chance to try that out for myself.

One of the most famous treats was the local Aiyu (sweet fish) that was caught locally and is absolutely delicious. Since Tenryo is widely available in the U.S., I hope you get a chance to try this great sake soon! And there is no law against drinking this sake in the onsen, that’s for sure!

Sake Breweries in Furukawa, Gifu

Streets of Hida Furukawa, Gifu

Next we visited two sake breweries in Hida Furukawa, Gifu. This charming town is laced with wide canals filled with bulky koi fish swimming against a strong current. First we visted Kaba sake Brewery with a tour guided by their toji. After the tour, the Managing Director Atsuko Kaba gave us a delicious tasting of their sakes.

Next we walked down the street to Watanabe Sake Brewery, makers of Horai brand Sake. Brewery President Mr. Watanabe toured us around his beautiful brewery and we also met Cody-san, their American Kurabito. We sat down for a wonderful tasting and discussion about promoting sake in both Japan and the States. Furukawa is a beautiful town with beautiful sakes!

Sake Breweries in Takayama, Gifu

At Hirase Sake Brewery

Last but not least was our wonderful visit to Takayama, Gifu. This town is very well known within Japan as a major tourist destination, and once I arrived there, I understood why. The old city of Takayama is beautifully preserved in the Edo style, and feels quite a bit like stepping back in time. Another beautiful thing is the number of sake breweries that are concentrated in this quaint little town. We visited at least five in one day. They are all visitor friendly and within easy walking distance of each other.

The breweries we visted included Hirase Shuzo, makers of Kusudama brand sake, Harada Sake Brewery, Makers of Sansha brand sake, Niki Shuzo, Funasaka Sake Brewery and Kawashiri sake brewery, Makers of Hidamasamune koshu sake. In short, Takayama was magical… for now it feels like my hidden little secret, but won’t be for long!

Koyoido Sake “Toy Box” Ceramics Exhibition in Kyoto

Ceramic artists Ren & Rie of Koyoido at the Sake “Toy Box” exhibit in Kyoto

When I was a small child, our dentist would (if we navigated the appointment without too many tears) let us pick out a toy from this giant toy chest in his office. I remembered those fun moments of rummaging through Dr Woods’ toy chest when I found out my recent trip to Kyoto in Japan was overlapping with the latest and greatest sake ceramics exhibit by the cutest sake couple in Kyoto, Ren and Rie Uehara of Koyoido Ceramics Atelier.

The exhibit was a blast with the theme being nothing less than: “The Joyful Toybox for childlike Drinkers“. Yes, we’re talking toy-inspired sake cups, carafes and all kinds of extremely fun sake stuff. The Ueharas recently welcomed a new addition to their family, their daughter Horo, and I can only surmise that tripping over a baby toy or two may have been the inspiration for the toy box sake exhibit.

I was completely charmed not only with the cute as a button Uehara family, but also with their smart and funny sake ceramics. Everything they created for the show demonstrated dedication, skill, and a keen wit keeping with their history of intelligent design.

vroom, vroom! sake cups on matchbox wheels.

Lots of Cups, Ochoko and Masu have funny winking smiling faces on them, which I think gets to the core of their exhibit – exploring the smiley, child-like state we can get into after a few rounds of excellent sake.

One of my favorite pieces included a working spinning-top sake cup with a bold red stripe design that would appeal to any child-like drunkard. How they got that balance to work so perfectly is beyond me, but it was a wonderful sake toy to be sure.

Another winning piece was what I call the “Matchbox ochoko”. a cute sake cup on a pair of matchbox wheels. If it wasn’t spilling my Daiginjo, I would be popping wheelies all the way down the kitchen table. These cups were serious FUN!

My special thanks to Ren, Rie and Horo for welcoming me to their wonderful exhibit. I haven’t had this much fun since my last filling!