007 on Sake: You Only Drink Twice

I recently saw a 1967 Japanese-themed James Bond film “You Only Live Twice” for the first time. This film takes place mostly in Japan and involves a complicated plot about an evil mastermind trying to provoke nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Viewed 40+ years after it’s initial release, this film comes across as ripe with cultural insensitivity, political incorrectness and male chauvinism. But in the go-go swinging 1960’s Bond-san’s Japanese shenanigans got good reviews and the film was a financial success…Oh, behave!

In the end, I think this film serves as an lens into how the outside world viewed Japanese culture at time it was made. Most interesting to me were the two brief scenes in “You Only Live Twice” that feature SAKE. There is actually a lot to learn here! Let’s break it down…

Sake Scene 1
98.4ËšFTiger Tanaka: “Do you like Japanese sake, Mr. Bond? Or would you prefer a vodka martini?”
James Bond: “No, no. I like sake. [sip] Especially when it’s served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, like this is.”
Tiger Tanaka: “For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.”

In this scene, Bond passes on this his signature martini and admits he likes sake. The interesting point to note here, is that the writers are attempting to make Bond sound worldly and sophisticated by having him know the proper heating temperature for hot sake.

But wait – “Isn’t hot sake considered bad, cheap, yucky sake?”, you ask.

Well, viewed historically, at the time this film was made (1967) all sake breweries were still fortifying their sake with distilled alcohol as a legacy of wartime rice shortages. As a result, serving sake hot to help ward off any sharp or unbalanced flavors made sense and was very common. Chilled premium sake as we know and love it today wasn’t really around.

It wasn’t until a year later, in 1968, that the first breweries started to again experiment with making Junmai “pure rice” sake (no distilled alcohol added). This was one very significant factor that ushered in the area, sometimes called the “Jizake Boom”, of smaller breweries crafting increasingly pure, elegant and refined sakes that are best served slightly chilled.

I’m sure James Bond today drinks his sake chilled to a perfect 58.2ºF! And in Bond-san’s defense, if you ARE choosing to warm premium sake, 98.4ºF is indeed a fantastic serving temperature. Warm sake can be delightful if done properly.

Sake Scene 2
sip_sipIn this scene, James is supposedly “disguised” as a Japanese native by wearing a kimono and a wig. um… Please see my note above regarding cultural insensitivity.

He is pretending to marry a Japanese girl to help himself blend in as he attempts to infiltrate the evil Mastermind’s lair. And yes, he does try to get busy with his fake bride before actually infiltrating the evil Mastermind’s lair. um… Please see my note above regarding male chauvinism.

This scene simply represents a Japanese wedding ceremony with the bride and groom sharing sake as a sign of joining their lives. This part of the Shinto wedding ceremony that involves sake is called “San-san-kudo”, which literally means “three, three, nine times”.

The groom and bride each take three sips from three sake cups. The Japanese Spy/Bride in this scene is shown correctly taking three sips from the sake cup. The Shinto Miko maidens who pour the sake in this film also fill the cup with three small pours. What’s up with all the “Threes”? Three is an advantageous number in Japan and is not divisible thereby symbolizing unity for the couple.

And why is sake used to seal the deal on a wedding? It is a hold-over from ancient times when consuming sake was seen as a link between the gods and the people. When performed for real and not by spies, it is a really beautiful and touching ceremony with deep roots in Japanese culture.

The name is Sake, Urban Sake.
If you haven’t seen it, renting “You Only Live Twice” may be worth a look and good for a few laughs. You can indulge in a little political incorrectness, examine perceived Japanese social mores of the 1960s, and learn a bit about sake along the way. Yeah, baby!

Samurai Tasting at Sakaya


What: Tim Sullivan Samurai Tasting
When: Sat. March 8th, 2-4pm
Where: Sakaya (324 E. 9th Street)
Why: It’s free and fun and delicious! Please stop by if you can to sample some fantastic sakes that have a connection to the Samurai Spirit.

I’ve been invited by Sakaya to host a special sake tasting at their shop and introduce some of my favorite Samurai inspired sake! As a Sake Samurai, I’ve taken an oath to educate about sake and share the beautiful culture of Japan. Here’s a look at the Samurai inspired sake we’ll try:

sougen.gifSougen Junmai “Pride of the Samurai” (SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.8, Rice: Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 55%, Ishikawa Prefecture) With a name like “Pride of the Samurai” how could I ignore this one? It sure doesn’t hurt that this sake is a perfect junmai, both with and without food. Smooth and quite easy to drink, I recommend this sake to people just starting out with Nihon-shu

shichi_hon_yari_junmai.jpgShichi Hon Yari Junmai (”The Seven Spearsmen” ALC 15.5%, SMV +4, Acidity 1.5, Seimaibuai 60%, Shiga Prefecture) Yasuhobu Tomita is a young brewer on a mission. His family Kura was founded by Samurai and Tomita-san tapped this same samurai family spirit to keep the brewery running smoothly and make some great sake. He uses only locally grown Tamazakae sake rice. This sake is fantastic both chilled and heated and offers a robust, truly artisan hand crafted sake experience.

The ‘seven spearsmen’ brand is in fact in honor of 7 samurai warriors who helped secure victory for the famous Japanese War Lord Hideyoshi in 1583.

senchu_hassaku.jpg Tsukasabotan Tokubetsu Junmai Senchu Hassaku (Seimaibuai: 60% ALC: 15.4% SMV: +8 Acidity: 1.48, Kochi Prefecture)
With one of the coolest labels in all of sake-dom, Senchu Hassaku has a unique connection to Samurai history. Ryoma Sakamoto was a samurai warrior who, while on a boat, wrote an 8 point plan for political reform in Japan at the time of the Meiji restoration. “Senchu Hassaku” means “Aboard Ship 8-Point Plan”. This sake is dry with a fantastic, smooth flavor on the palate. Perfect for lovers of robust, dry sake.

Hope to see you on March 8th!!

Shopping for Sake: Isetan, the Musical

chillin_at_isetan.jpgAfter my adventures in Yamaguchi, it was back to Kyoto for a final few days in Japan. After a week of thrilling ‘firsts’ (first shinto ceremony, first bullet train, first brewery visit…) it was time for another very important “first”… my first visit to a Japanese Sake Shop! Attached to the huge Kyoto train station, is a department store called “Isetan“. As is the case in many Japanese department stores, they have a huge lower level space dedicated to food with aisle after aisle of prepared take away delights. I’d never really seen anything quite like it.

I was happy to discover that Isetan had a sizable sake section! Seeing row after row of sake bottles on display on wide well lit shelves, I really had thissake_selection_isetan.jpg feeling that I had reached the mothership! um, I was kinda in Sake heaven. I mean, you can’t really go to The Cellar at Macy’s and take your pick from 300+ sakes! The sales clerk was probably laughing at this wide eyed gaijin running from shelf to shelf fawning over each bottle. If my visit to Isetan was a musical, this is where I would break into song, dance around and put on the big show-stopping production number! well, luckily, I was able to refrain from singing, but I was singing inside! Isetan had a good selection of 300 ml, 720ml and 1.8L bottles.

cute_fugu_one_cuo.jpgIf anything I was surprised at the number of 1.8L (called “ishobin”) bottles for sale. In the States, this size tends to be comparatively rare… and unfortunately for me, ishobin are not suitcase friendly! Since Isetan is attached to a major train station, there were many ‘gift giving’ friendly sakes, small bottles with extra special wrapping geared towards giving as an “omiage”. As is the custom in Japan, when people travel, friends back home might expect returning travelers to bring them a small token gift from the place they have visited. So, if you’re at Kyoto station ready to return home and you forgot your Omiage, Isetan food court has you covered! And what better gift than sake!

Isetan, not only catered to sake-loving travelers in search of gifts, but also those who may want a little sake somthin’ somthin’ for themselves! Enter the “one cup”. If you ever needed any proof that Japan is an awesome place worth of admiration, the invention of the “one cup” is it. even_more_ishobin.jpgThere was a good selection of cute one cup sakes here that are perfect for sipping on the bullet train as the countryside flies by at 175mph. One cup sake has become a bit of a trend in recent years, and many breweries have released their sake in cute, well-designed single serving cups that just scream out to be collected.

After I had loaded up on some (portable) sake to bring home from Isetan, I had time to hit one more shop, so I headed out by subway in search of another sake shop! I ended up finding Meishukan Takimoto. When I was actually there, I didn’t know the name, as I can’t read the kanji, sake_shop_x.jpgso I called it Sake Shop “X”. Sake shop “X” was pretty different from Isetan. There was sake everywhere, but I would 85% of it was 1.8L ishobin size. Also interesting that most of the sake here was not refrigerated.

I wanted to talk to the sales staff and introduce myself and explain about my blog and samurai ceremony, but I chickened out at the last minute due to lack of faith in my ability to communicate in Japanese. I did work up the nerve to ask about a very unique package of sake I found. Holy Capri Sun, Batman, this packet is perfect for the lunch box. bullseye.jpgI also used my visit to Sake Shop “X” to buy some nihonshu accoutrement. I remember John Gaunter saying in sake class that the bullseye sake cups were hard to come by in the States. So I found a large size one to bring home with me. This is the kind used in most judging sake competitions. cool, eh? I also picked up a couple small bullseye cups, too. Well, at this point I was getting weighed down with lots of sake and I needed to head back to my hotel. If I was going to fit this sake into my suitcase, it would take a serious song and dance routine.

What is Your Sake Personality?

bottles.jpgHave you every wondered what kind of sake is best suited to your personality? Well now is your chance to find out! Take this SAKE PERSONALITY QUIZ and learn what type of sake is best for you!

Go to the QUIZ now>

Solid Gold!

sg.jpgOne pop culture memory from the ’80’s that’s is hard to shake loose is the Solid Gold! Dancers strutting their stuff on TV. The creators of that show knew that gold has a glittering, glamorous allure that is second to none. Let’s face it, a show featuring the Sterling Silver! dancers would have flopped, big time! Without a doubt, gold has the power to not only make a hit TV show, but to build empires, and possession of gold imparts some serious caché.

Surprisingly, some Japanese brewmasters are also tuned-in to the undeniable appeal of pure gold. The connection between gold and sake was explored in detail at a recent American Museum of Natural History Event I attended called, “Adventures in the Global Kitchen: Golden Sake“. This enjoyable evening was co-sponsored by Sakagura restaurant and featured a lecture by Sake expert Michael J. Simkin.

golden_sake_lecture_slidesh.jpgThis was one of the most well put-together tasting events I’ve ever been to. The facilities, printed materials, food, lecture and sake were all first rate. The evening started out with some introductory remarks from Bon Yagi, the owner of Sakagura. I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Yagi at the end of the evening and it was an honor to talk to someone who played such a large role in bringing sake to New York.

Michael_J_Simkin_and_me.jpgNext, Sake expert Michael J. Simkin took the podium and began a lecture on the sake production process and sake’s connection to gold. Michael has traveled extensively through japan and has interned at breweries working in the trenches to learn first-hand how sake is made. For me, one of the highlights of the presentation was the many photos Michael showed of him involved in the hands-on production process.

Museum volunteers then brought each of us a tasting size of the 5 featured gold leaf sakes.

kamotsuru_gold.jpgAs chance would have it, I recently reviewed the first sake we tried just last month! It’s the Kamotsuru Tokusei Gold (Daiginjo, Seimaibuai 50%%, SMV +1.5, Acidity 1.4, ALC 16.4%, Hiroshima Prefecture). I liked this sake last month and I liked it again tonight. The way Kamotsuru uses gold sets it apart from the other sakes immediately. The gold leaf is pressed into beautifully finished flower shapes that dance about in the bottle and in a small 180ml bottle there are only two of these tiny bits of gold. The sake itself is quite good and it was the least dry of the sakes we tried. The long finish and smooth palate remained from my first sampling of this sake.

Next we tried Manotsuru Sakin Honjozo (Seimaibuai 60%, SMV +4.5, Acidity 1.4, ALC 15.5%, Niigata Prefecture, Obata Brewery). I found this sake to have a soft, round feeling on the palate. Noticeable dry notes pervaded from start to finish. Of all the sakes I tried, this one have me the most gold flakes per cup!

Third was Kinpaku “Gold Leaf” (Seimaibuai 55%, SMV +3.0, Acidity 1.5, ALC 15.5%, Mie Prefecture, Wakaebisu Brewery). Of all the sakes we tried, for me, this one has the most pronounced alcohol bite. The nose smelled slightly pasty to me and brought forth images of kindergarten arts and crafts. I think this was my least favorite of the group.

manotsuru_sakin.jpgNext sake up to bat was Shochikubai Jun-Kinpaku-iri Tokubestsu Junmai (Seimaibuai 60%, SMV +2.0, Acidity 1.6, ALC 15.5%, Kyoto Prefecture, Takara Brewery). This sake comes from a huge brewery and I learned from Michael that Takara is the #1 seller of sake in the USA. This sake came across with classic Junmai flavors and robust richness that kept the overall flavor profile “down to earth”. Nothing flowery or too elegant here.

The final sake we tried was Manotsuru Koshu Vintage 1999 (Seimaibuai 40%, SMV +5.5, Acidity 1.1, ALC 16.5%, Niigata Prefecture, Obata Brewery).. This interesting sake is not available in the US and is quite expensive – even in Japan – so it was a real treat to get to try it. Now, this was not the smoothest, most mind bending koshu I’ve ever had… but it’s better than most. The palate has hints of the Sherry-like flavors you get in less subtle aged sake. Along with a pleasant lingering finish, the color was also nice, keeping much of it’s clarity since 1999, unlike other sakes that turn various shades of amber when aged.

Chizuko_san_and_me.jpgOnce the lecture and tasting was over, Sakagura served some delicious food and refills on sakes were offered, too.

I finished the night understanding that gold leaf sakes are used often in gift giving and celebrations. Gold is considered a little something extra to set a gift of sake apart and let the receiver know they’ve gotten something special. Now, whether you’re drinking sake or watching some dancers on TV, these activites are meant to be fun, yet the moment you add some “Solid Gold” in the mix – you know you’re in for some serious fun.

Hagi Heaven

hagi001.jpgI’ve been on the lookout for a sake bar that could become my “Cheers“. You know – “where they they always know your name…” Sake Bar Hagi has been on the short list since our first visit last September and a recent trip there made Hagi’s a front runner!

There’s a lot going for this place: The Time’s Square location is central, the service is friendly, the japanese bar snacks are yummy, and the atmosphere is casual. The one thing that impressed me the most, however, were the offerings on the seasonal sake menu. I discovered on this visit that Hagi was offering three Autumn Namas. Namas made for the Fall are much less common, so I was excited to find them at Hagi.

Urakasumi_hiyaoroshi.jpgNama of course is unpasteurized sake (sometimes called “draft” sake). It’s usually produced seasonally for the spring and is extremely perishable so it’s meant to be consumed quickly. These springtime Nama sakes are known for the expansive fresh, alive flavor. Autumn Namas seem to me to have an earthier, huskier countenance while still having a unique “alive” dimension that all namas provide.

The first sake I tried was Urakasumi Hiyaoroshi (“Misty Bay” Miyagi Prefecture, SMV +1.5, Acidity 1.4). This sake came across as quite fruity, although my initial reaction was that it tasted one-sided and one dimensional. This point aside, I found it quite delicious, with a hint of nama freshness, but more subdued that what you would find in a springtime nama.

pouring_wakaebisu.jpgNext I had some of Scott’s Wakatake Onikoroshi Akino ki-Ippon (“Demon Slayer, Shizuoka Prefecture. SMV +1, Acidity 1.4). Hello badboy! This nama was bigger, bolder and brasher than the Urakasumi. I felt a little scratch from noticeable alcohol on the finish. This sake is a more in-your-face nama with fuller and rounder flavor. My favorite tonight.

Last but not least, I enjoyed the Wakaebitsu Gizaemon (“Young Smile, Mie Prefecture, SMV +2, Acidity 1.6). This third selection came across as earthy and sharp. On the palate, there were hints of softer fruit… could have been pear & apple as the tasting notes suggested, but quite mild fruits in any case.

Scott’s comment on the Wakaebitsu: Strong Grape Jolly Rancher notes. hmm.

down_for_the_count.jpgThese autumn namas were all really enjoyable. Now, the only issue I can see is that the rest of New York seems to have discovered this place, too, so the waits can be long. Obviously, I think the wait is worth it. Otherwise, just get there well before or after the 8pm rush.

Well, above and beyond everything else, I think the one thing that made me feel like Hagi could be my “Cheers” was seeing the guy who passed out at the bar next to me. Ahhh… welcome home.

Totto Take Me Away!

totto_logo001.jpgI live in the Chelsea area of Manhattan and I really love my neighborhood. I love it so much I live and work here. It’s honestly one of my true luxuries that I can walk just a few blocks to work. I know those 3 blocks between my apartment and my day job very well.

Recently, however, I went for some training that took me out of my cozy little nest. I spent three days 9-to-5-ing in Midtown…Times Square no less! The crush of people and screeching taxis made Chelsea seem like a peaceful hamlet.

azumaichi_bottle.jpgAt the end of my first day of training my brain was fried and I was far from home and starving for some dinner. I felt I really deserved, and needed, a treat to sooth me and make it all better.

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks – I was nearby one of my favorite places – Yakitori Totto. I walked over there and arrived just before they opened. I got a spot at the bar for the first seating and soon things started to look a little bit rosier.

Of course, I knew I needed a sake asap! I looked at the menu and decided to try something I’ve never had before. This is a move I call “Japanese Roulette”.

After checking over the sake menu in detail, I went with a glass of Azumaichi Junmai Ginjo ( SMV ±0, Acidity 1.6, Seimaibuai 65%, Saga Prefecture). The best word to describe this taste is “Jammy”. totto_carafe.jpgI didn’t know if I should drink this or spread it on toast. It’s thick and very fruity. The fruitiness comes across mostly on the palate as this ginjo only has a light fragrance. I think I would classify this as a good option when you’re in the mood for a sipping sake that you enjoy without food.

The food I had at Totto was beyond yummy as usual, but these fried and deeply flavored foods were not a dream marriage with the Azumaichi fruit bomb. Too much battling going on for flavor in the mouth. I think this sake would have worked better with a plain chicken yakitori that was simply grilled.

When I finished my secret, solo get-away to Totto, I felt refreshed, full and ready to take on city stress with the best of ’em! Bring it, Midtown!

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

Honey, I Shrunk the Masu!

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.

Urban Sake Upgrade!

I’ve been a hard working sake-geek lately and you’ll see in the navigation links above, I published some new pages on my blog that I hope everyone will find interesting and/or useful!

1) Tim’s Sake Database. I’ve started a database to record all the sakes I taste. I only have about 20 sakes in there now, but I will definitely add more as time allows. Since tasting recommendations can be so subjective, I’m using both a Gauntner-style Sake Fueled Geek Out Weekend! “tasting profile” chart as well as a totally biased score of 1-5 based on my personal review. Also, each page will record whatever technical data I can gather on each sake such as SMV, ALC percentage, Prefecture, etc.

2) Sake Basics. I thought it would be fun to put together a “Sake 101” page that covers all the basics for people who are just getting started. Please check out my animated Seimaibuai (a.k.a. rice milling percentage)! Did I mention I’m a sake-geek?

3) NYC Sake Resources. Duh! I should have done this a long time ago. “Saké and the City…” This is a simple listing of sake resources, links, shops and restaurants that i’ve come across in New York City. I’ll add to this as I visit other cities or when I find new and exciting sake resources.

Enjoy and let me know what you think!

Just getting started with Sake?

Learning the types of Sake produced is a great place to start!

Below are the basic classification grades of Sake:

Junmai / Honjyozo:

Rice milled to 70% of it's original  sizeJunmai Sake is brewed using only rice, water, yeast and koji. There are no other additives. To qualify as a Junmai, the rice grain must be milled to at least 70% of it’s original size.

Honjoyzo Sake is the same as Junmai except a small amount of distilled brewer’s alcohol is added to the sake to achieve different flavor profiles.

Junmai Ginjo / Ginjo:

Rice milled to at least 60% of it's original sizeJunmai Ginjo Sake is brewed using only rice, water, yeast and koji. There are no other additives. To qualify as a Ginjo, the rice grain must be milled to at least 60% of it’s original size.

Ginjo Sake is the same as Junmai Ginjo except a small amount of distilled brewer’s alcohol is added to the sake to achieve different flavor profiles.

Junmai Daiginjo / Daiginjo:

Rice milled to at least 50% of it's original sizeJunmai Daiginjo Sake is brewed using only rice, water, yeast and koji. There are no other additives. To qualify as a Daiginjo, the rice grain must be milled to at least 50% of it’s original size.

Daiginjo Sake is the same as Junmai Daiginjo except a small amount of distilled brewer’s alcohol is added to the sake to achieve different flavor profiles.

There are also some important brewing styles:

Nigori: Sake that is only corsely filtered of rice solids after brewing. These tiny bits of the rice are left in giving this sake a creamy and miky appearance. Be sure to shake up a nigori before you pour.

Namazake: Nama is a word you should know! Trust me. Nama is just unpasteurized sake. It must be constantly refridgerated, consumed within a day or two of opening and is only available seasonally. The trade off for all this is that nama is known for it’s fresh, young, bombastic taste. Delicious!

Genshu: Undiluted Sake. Hot off the presses, sake is normally about 20% Alcohol. Brewmasters usually add pure water to dilute the strength down to 15-16%. Genshu skips this step and give you full-on high octane sake. It’s strong! Often, Genshu is served on the rocks.

Koshu: Aged sake. Normally, sake should not sit around for years, but some premium sake is aged and produces a sake known as Koshu. This produces a golden-amber color and a complex flavor profile. It’s really similar to sherry. Personally, I love this stuff.

Taru: Sake that has been stored in cedar barrels, imparting a cedar-y taste to the sake. If you love to spend time in your cedar closet, this may just be the drink for you. The more sublte the cedar notes, the better.


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About UrbanSake.com

Sake News, Education, Events and More!

tim_photo.jpgHi, my name is Timothy Sullivan and I’m the founder of UrbanSake.com, a site devoted to sharing the appreciation, knowledge and joy of Japanese Sake with you.

How it all started

In 2005, I sampled premium sake for the first time at a Japanese Restaurant in New York City, and I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. The complex, nuanced and delicious flavors simply amazed me. I was hooked and immediately began researching how water and rice come together to make “Nihonshu”, known in the U.S. simply as “sake”. I started UrbanSake.com first as a blog to help myself keep track of the sakes I was tasting at the many sake events New York has to offer, and as a repository for everything I was learning. What began as a labor of love grew over the next few years to become a larger online resource for sake information and education in the U.S.

Would you like to stay in touch with us and all things sake? Please consider subscribing for our free monthly sake newsletter and also please register to become a free member of the UrbanSake.com website.

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If you would like more information on UrbanSake.com or Timothy Sullivan, please get in touch through my contact page.
I look forward to hearing from you and I hope you enjoy UrbanSake.com! Kanpai!

Mystery Sake at Congee village…

One of my dearest friends Alysia was given a suprise Birthday Party at Congee Village. It was a chinese banquet kinda thing and it was a lot of fun to sit around those big tables with the huge lazy susan. The waitstaff was very nice too, and they really take care of you. I asked for a saké and they only had one kind. I never really caught the name of it, so this will remain a mystery until my next trip to congee, but it was strong – I’m guessing a junmai and a little coarse, but quite serviceable!

Nigori in the New York Times!

S. alerted me to an article in the New York Times about Nigori Sake. It’s still not my favorite kind of Sake, but there is a lot there to be explored. I’ve had it about 3 times. it tastes a little “fermented” to me right now, but I may have had some inferior quality. S. of course says he love Nigori – so as usual, he’s ahead of the curve of a foodie trend.

Here is the gist of the article…

(c) New York Times
For Sake’s Sweet Sake

Published: November 17, 2005
OVER the years my husband has tinkered with many exotic drinks. We survived his zombie phase, the summer of mangrove smashes and what I now think of as a dark period he devoted entirely to mixing the ingredients of a Manhattan in unnatural proportions.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
THE BIG POUR As a sign of generosity, the nigori sake overflows the glass.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
RICE LIQUOR Sho Chiku Bai is made from melted Sierra Nevada snow and Sacramento Valley rice.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
MADE IN THE U.S.A. Momokawa Pearl, says the Web site, is “wonderful with chocolate or as a dessert.”

He has filled our liquor cabinet with parrot-colored liquors like Midori, and he has served dinner guests large choke-provoking quantities of muddled mint. It was only a matter of time before he discovered nigori sake.
Soon after we moved to Northern California he got a tip that Sushi Ran, a well-known Japanese restaurant in Sausalito, served 30 kinds of sake. So we rushed over, waited an hour for a table and then settled in to do some serious research. My husband scanned the list of fermented rice liquors, pointed to his choice, and within minutes the waiter returned bearing two small glasses that sat inside open square boxes.
He poured from a large bottle. Milky white liquid overflowed the glasses into the boxes in a Japanese gesture of generosity. We took a sip – it tasted like chilled pineapple – and then another, which reminded me of coconut.
There was a look in my husband’s eye that was familiar. It was the look he gave me the night we met. I realized that all I had to do to forestall a return of the mangrove smashes was to keep a steady supply of nigori sake in the refrigerator.
The only problem was finding it in a store. Although cloudy unfiltered sake has been steadily growing in popularity in the United States over the last 10 years, it still accounts for only a small percentage of the sake market, manufacturers say. Nigori sake, whose sweetness is a good foil for spicy food, remains unfamiliar to many who are used to drinking warm filtered sake.
Since nigori sake has a shorter shelf life than filtered sake – the rice sediment at the bottom spoils quickly if bottles are not properly stored at cool temperatures – I wondered whether I would even be able to find it for sale online.
Once again I had underestimated the Internet. A key word search for nigori sake turned up sites like 00sake.com, which sells imported Nikko Kirifuri (described as “soft and mild taste, very thick nigori sake compared to others”) for $18 a bottle, and Winespecialist.com, which sells imported Ozeki nigori sake (“preserves the fresh flavor of the moromi – the fermenting mixture of rice, water, koji and yeast – for a crisp, vibrant presence”) for $7.99 a bottle.
And Bevmo.com, the Internet arm of a bricks-and-mortar retail chain called Beverages & More, sells imported Rihaku nigori sake Dreamy Clouds (“superb with halibut over a toss of fresh spinach and mild sweet red onions”) for $14.99 a bottle and Tozai nigori sake Voices in the Mist (“a hint of anise”) for $21.99 a bottle.
My choices were many. To get advice on how to narrow the field I phoned Sushi Ran’s owner, Yoshi Tome, who is also the president of the Northern California Japanese Restaurant Association.
“I heard you are the top expert in California,” I said just to be cordial and not because I was hoping to get a table faster the next time I go to Sushi Ran.
“If somebody is recommending me, maybe I should take the credit,” Mr. Tome said courteously, but he did not ask me to repeat my last name for future reference.
“When buying nigori sake, what should a shopper look for?” I asked.
“Be very careful to ask first about how it is stored,” he said. “In Japan a good sake brewery puts a date on the bottles. Ask if it is kept refrigerated. It tends to sour very quickly.”
“How do you avoid that problem at your restaurant?” I asked.
“I’ve had many occasions, more than one or two, when I tasted it, and the sake was bad,” he said. “Occasionally we do bring in a premium imported nigori sake from Japan, but right now on the menu we have two kinds, both made nearby in the United States.”
The two locally brewed brands Mr. Tome serves are SakeOne’s Momokawa Pearl nigori sake (“wonderful with chocolate or as a dessert,” according to sakeone.com, where it costs $10 a bottle) and Takara’s Sho Chiku Bai nigori sake (available at Winespecialist.com for $4.95 for a small bottle and at 00sake.com for $18 for the much larger bottle, which you will wish you had bought if you don’t).
Takara Sake USA Inc., an offshoot of the parent company in Japan, has since 1984 made nigori sake at its plant in Berkeley, Calif., near where I live. It seemed necessary to visit.
There I was met by Masatoshi Ohata, the general manager for marketing, who gave me a tour of the company’s historical sake museum, where 10,000 visitors a year view exhibits that explain traditional 19th-century methods of fermenting, pressing (which in those days required huge boulders) and filtering rice to make sake.
Mr. Ohata said that in the last decade the popularity of Takara’s nigori sake has steadily grown and now accounts for about 8 percent of the 600,000 cases the company sells each year in this country.
“But in Japan it is not as popular because they like sake that is dry, not so sweet or rich,” he said. “In Japan they are surprised that we can sell nigori sake in the big bottles here.”
“What makes your nigori sake taste like tropical fruit?” I asked.
“The fermented rice is very important for the taste,” Mr. Ohata said. “We make it with water from the snow in the Sierra Nevada and very good rice from the Sacramento Valley.”
I went home excited to face a future that did not include zombies, long-handled glass stirrers or maraschino cherries.
My husband said he was excited too about working out the kinks in a new cocktail he was developing.
With a sinking feeling I asked what it was called.
“A nigori colada,” he said.

(c) New York Times



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Miho Imada and ColleagueNext I tried the three sakes from Imada Sake Brewery in Hiroshima. An interesting note about the Imada brewery is that they have a female Toji or Brew master, Miho Imada. She’s pictured on the left, holding a bottle of her great Moon on the Water Junmai Ginjo with a Imada Brewery colleague to the right.