The yearly “Joy of Sake” event is the Big-Fat-Greek-Wedding of sake tastings. It easily wins, hands down, the title of largest sake event in the U.S. It’s huge, sprawling and a lot to take in… over 300 sakes at one event. I was surprised therefore when a notice arrived in my inbox for “Joy of Sake: Aftertaste ’08 Umami the 5th Taste“. Measured against the original Joy of Sake event, the Aftertaste happening was featuring a modest 45 sakes and the theme was ferreting out the taste of “Umami” in these sakes.
Umami is roughly translated as ‘savory’ and it’s a taste widely recognized in Asia, but relatively unknown in the west. Chris Pierce of the Joy of Sake organization spoke briefly about the interesting background of how Umami was discovered. Modern chemistry identified the Umami taste as our perception of Glutamic acid, one of the essential Amino Acids. This discovery in turn gave rise to the commercialization of Monosodium glutamate aka MSG. To zero in on Umami, think of the essence of some of the following flavors: soy sauce, parmesan cheese, anchovies, and A1 Steak sauce.
After Chris’ brief lecture, we were unleashed on the 45 bottles and left to hunt for that elusive Umamai. I hit the ground running and found so me fantastic sake right out the gate. I started with the sakes from Kokuryu. First, the Kokuryu “Ryu” Daiginjo. Word on the street is that this is one of the Japanese Emperor’s favorite sakes. That is one thing I have in common with His Royal Highness. This daiginjo is smooth drinking and I almost always drink a glass or two extra when I get access to a bottle. You can expect delicious floral notes in the nose and a soothing smooth finish. This sake is worth a king’s ransom.
Next the Kokuryu Gohyaku-Mangoku Junmai Ginjo. I found this sake to be a Wonderful Umami-laden Junmai Ginjo. Savory and smooth, this is a sake you can really taste some depth of flavor on and really sink your teeth into. A supreme pleasure to drink and perfectly positioned between elegant and casual.
Some other stand out sakes that offered up some Umami flavors to me were the hearty and hand-crafted Shichihonyari Junmai, a delicious Okunomatsu Tokubetsu Junmai, and two yummy sakes from Tentaka Brewery, the Tentaka Junmai and the wonderful Tentaka Junmai Daiginjo.
My favorite new discovery of the night was Yaemon Junmai Ginjo. While certainly not a mega umami bomb, smooth drinking with a pleasant light umami on the palate… also known as scrumptious! Short finish and not too heavy a rice flavor. really nice! This is a sake I really made friends with. I kept coming back to Yaemon again and again.
When all was said and done, I feel I got closer to an understanding of Umami. Well, I learned enough to know I want to learn more. And if you’ve got to stay up late doing homework, what could be better to study than scrumptious, savory, mouth watering umami. Kanpai!