Golden Masu Award!

Golden Masu Award!

Another year has come and gone. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the sakes of 2013… Year after year, I produce this semi-serious “Golden Masu Award” roundup, which is my totally biased take on the superior sakes, bodacious brews and nihonshu of note of the past year.

The biggest change for me was that this year I began working as Brand Ambassador for Hakkaisan Sake Brewery. This has given me the amazing opportunity to travel, teach and introduce Hakkaisan sake to the world. That’s a wonderful thing, since Hakkaisan was my first premium sake back in 2005 and really changed my life. To avoid any whiff of conflict of interest, going forward I’ll exclude Hakkaisan from my all-in-good-fun “Golden Masu Award“, but for me, Hakkaisan is already an Golden Masu All Star in the Sake Hall of Fame.

That being said, there is a lot of fun sake to celebrate. So with a fond memory of the ghost of kanpais past, and an eye towards the spirit of kanpais future, let’s check out the Golden Masu winners of 2013. No Sake, No Life…


“Best Sake Kicking it Seriously Old School”

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Yatagarasu Taru

And the Masu goes to:
Yatagarasu Junmai Taru

When life gives you lemons – as the saying goes – of course, you make lemonade. And when your sake brewery is located smack dab in the middle of the famous Yoshino cedar forests of Nara Prefecture, it goes without saying, you make a Taruzake, or cedar cask aged sake. Taru sake was once very common in Japan as sake was brewed and stored in wooden barrels until steel brewing tanks came along in the early 20th Century. As such, Taru evokes an extremely old school and nostalgic sake vibe.

I’ve found that Yatagarasu Junmai Taru from the Kitaoka Honten Sake Brewery is a true classic of the Taru genre. For this style of cedar-laced sake, subtlety is king. Too much cedar and it’s like sipping grandma’s closet. For my taste, the Yatagarasu gets the balance just right. Enough cedar to invoke a lovely warm woody taste, but not at all overpowering. The clean, dry sake used is the perfect backdrop for the cedar taste. So, for the closest thing to sake time travel, transport yourself back to the days of the Samurai with just one sip of taru sake.


“Standout Muroka Sake”

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Naraman

And the Masu goes to:
Naraman Bin Hiire Junmai Muroka

Most premium sake you see out there as been charcoal filtered before bottling to achieve a clarity and crystal clear body you just can’t achieve otherwise. There is a growing movement, however, towards “muroka” style sakes, which skip this charcoal filtering step and lets a sake show more of its ‘back-to-nature’ character. Murokas can be more dimensioned, slightly amber-ish in color and full of personality.

One of my favorite muroka sakes is the Naraman Bin Hiire Junmai Muroka from Fukushima’s Yumegokoro Sake Brewery. This junmai offers a flavor-forward palate laced with a nice minerality, all while maintaining its balance. Great full flavors that speak to the depth of what a muroka style sake can offer. A slightly higher alcohol at 16.5% adds a bit of vrooom that murokas need to get off the ground. If you’re just getting started exploring muroka sake, be sure to try this offering from Naraman. No better way to get a splash of sake personality than with a muroka.


“Best Use of a Rare Sake Rice”

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Wataribune

And the Masu goes to:
Wataribune 55 Junmai Ginjo

If you press any sake enthusiast for the name of a sake rice variety, almost everyone will say “yamadanishiki” which is well loved in the industry for its ease of use, outstanding quality and great taste. It turns out however, that Yamanishiki may be too well loved, as rumors about shortages abound – demand simply outstrips supply. This got me thinking about other rice varieties and what some brewers are doing with heirloom rice and one name sprang to mind instantly: “Wataribune.”

7th Generation Sake Brewery President Takaaki Yamauchi of Ibaraki’s Huchu Homare Sake Brewery is a legend for his revival of the heirloom wataribune rice strain. Yamauchi-san was looking for a local sake rice to use at his brewery and heard tell of wataribune, but local farmers were no longer growing it. In fact no one was growing it. He thought it lost to history until he found some frozen seedlings at a local agricultural research center in Ibaraki. Using a mere tablespoon of seed, he worked with a local farmer to revive the lost rice varietal and in 1990 produced his first sake using wataribune.

Today, this amazing legacy gives us Wataribune 55 Junmai Ginjo. I can sincerely say this sake is always a joy to drink. It’s exceedingly smooth and has a hint of richness on the palate that just entices you to take another sip – and then another. Also, Wataribune 55 is an exceptionally well crafted and technically masterful sake. You can taste the history, hard work and dedication in every ounce. I think perhaps Wataribune was destined for success here in the U.S. – who could resist the story of this ultimate sake rice comeback kid?


“Best Nigori Lover’s Nigori”

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kamoizumi

And the Masu goes to:
Kamoizumi Ginjo Nigori

Whenever I’m pouring sake at an event, I always get asked “Do you have any of that cloudy white sake? What’s it called?” Well, it’s called Nigori, and I’m always happy to introduce people to this unique style of sake. Nigori style sake is coarsely pressed after brewing, leaving bits of rice starch behind, which lend the milky white/cloudy character to its appearance. Styles of nigori vary widely from sticky sweet to quite dry and from thick and viscous to wispy and light.

If you find yourself with at least one foot in the nigori lover’s camp, take a gander at the much loved Kamoizumi Ginjo Nigori from the Kamoizumi Shuzo in Hiroshima. I know from personal experience, this is a Nigori Lover’s Nigori. It’s a ginjo grade sake, so you’ll note it’s lightly fortified with distilled brewer’s alcohol, which contributes much to the round and rich character of this creamy treat. The body is quite full and thick and will readily coat your glass. As this sake achieves a great balance between sweet and dry, you can pair it with many foods, but, with a nod to my sweet tooth, I especially enjoy it with desserts. A few sips of this nigori alongside a decadent wedge of chocolate cake or an over-sized chocolate chip cookie is a little slice of heaven. What better way to get your nigori on?! Kanpai!


“Best Mega Sake From a Micro Brewery”

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Oze no Yukidoke

And the Masu goes to:
Oze no Yukidoke Junmai Daiginjo

Once upon a time, a wise gift recipient once said “The best gifts come in small packages.” Now, this person was probably someone who had just received a diamond ring or the keys to a Porsche. When it comes to sake brewery size however, I know there are top quality sakes made by large, medium and small sized breweries. And as for me, I’m always fascinated with top tier sakes coming from extreme micro breweries. We’re talking 2-4 people brewing a limited amount of sake. With a small team and a lot of determination, micro breweries can make magic.

One such place I got to know a little better in 2013 was Ryujin Shuzo in Gunma. Of the handful of brewery workers at Ryujin, TWO are guild-licensed Master Brewers known as “Toji”. Needless to say, having two master brewers on the team doubles the expertise and delivers some pretty outstanding sake. One such sake is the exquisite Oze no Yukidoke Junmai Daiginjo. This sake is smooth as silk and made with 100% yamadanishiki sake rice milled to 40% remaining. The palate sings with tropical fruit and banana notes paired with an enchanting aroma to match. Elegant, luscious, commanding and masterful – it is a sake to sip, savor and study. Truly a mega sake from a micro brewery.


Congratulations and Kanpai to all the Golden Masu Honorees! I am sincerely hoping that 2014 will bring many wonderful sake journeys to us all. Kanpai and Happy New Year to everyone!

See Previous Golden Masu winners here: http://www.urbansake.com/category/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”

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Okunomatsu

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”

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Fukuju

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”

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Tenryo

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”

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shichihonyari

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”

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Mangekyo

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”

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Masumi

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/

Golden Masu Award!

Golden Masu Award!

The year 2011 is one I can assure you I will never forget. The March 11th Great East Japan Earthquake and it’s aftermath with stay with me forever. I was in Japan on that day and now that over 9 months have passed, I can see even more clearly how deeply it affected me.

I also spent several months of this year visiting Japan – more than ever before in my life. This allowed me to meet many wonderful people and learn more about sake and Japanese culture than I could have ever imagined.

For me, I’ve long known that sake is indeed ‘Japanese culture in a cup’. With that in mind, join me as I take a look back at 2011 and acknowledge those sakes that caught my fancy, tickled my taste buds or broadened my horizons.

Without further ado, I give you the 2011 UrbanSake.com Golden Masu Awards!


“Best Sake Under $25”

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Seikyo

And the Masu goes to:
Seikyo Takehara Junmai

With everyone from European Governments to sake sippers from Saskatchewan adopting austerity budgets in 2011, this seems to be the year for belt tightening as never before. This doesn’t mean however, that you need to give up really good sake, even if your balance sheet comes up a little short. I discovered there are wonderful premium imported sakes out there that can be had for under $25 a pop. My favorite this year was Seikyo Takehara Junmai. This Sake retails for just under $25.00 a bottle and is worth every penny. Hailing from Hiroshima, this soft and balanced brew is easy to drink and easier on the wallet. Versatile, food friendly and delicious, my advice is to stock up on this brew and ride out any further market gyrations with a glass of Seikyo Junmai in hand!


“Most Elegant Plum Sake”

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Daishichi

And the Masu goes to:
Daishichi Umeshu

Plum Sake don’t get no respect. Called “Umeshu” in Japanese, plum sake can unfortunately be a hard sell as people sometimes confuse plum sake with the unsophisticated and overly sweet plum wines on the market. Things are changing however and high quality Umeshu is taking it’s rightful place at the premium sake table. One remarkable standout in the plum sake category is Daishichi Umeshu. This sake is a masterful study of elegance and restraint in creating a sake with plum. Smooth as velvet and using only premium Nankou plums from Wakayama, you’ll be dazzled by how subtle and refined the plum taste is on the palate. By downplaying any overt sweetness, Daishichi lets the true plum flavor shine through. After one sip, you’ll know plum sake is not just for dessert anymore.


“Best Futsushu”

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Hakkaisan

And the Masu goes to:
Hakkaisan Futsushu

Most Americans don’t know that the vast majority of sake sold in Japan is the type classified as “futsushu“, which can be translated as “regular sake” or “table sake”. Yes, we’re talking about non-premium brews here. People just getting started with sake tasting often swoon and wax poetic at the complex floral aromas and smooth-as-silk body you can enjoy with a fine Junmai Daiginjo. But, as it’s such a huge part of the Japanese market, there is something to be said for the other end of the sake spectrum, too. One “regular sake” that rises above the rest is Hakkaisan Futsushu. The Brewery President Jiro Nagumo told me that one of his company’s goals is to make good quality sake available to everyone. To do that, they keep their most inexpensive futsushu quality high – for example, it has a milling rate of 60%! This combined with a slow and cold brewing period keep their Hakkaisan Futsushu sake tasting clean, dry and delicious. Whether you serve it chilled or warm, this is one “table sake” you’ll want to ensure you have at your table.


“Most Inspiring Junmai Ginjo”

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Hakurakusei

And the Masu goes to:
Hakurakusei Junmai Ginjo

2011 will always be tied in our memories to the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake. I had the distinct honor to volunteer for a week in September of this year at Niizawa Brewery in Miyagi (see blog post here). During that time, I gained such respect for Mr. Niizawa and his entire staff and family who carried on with sake making despite a brewery building damaged beyond repair, continuing aftershocks and an uncertain future. After a week of hard work at the Brewery, Mr. Niizawa took us out for dinner at a local Izakaya and poured us his magnificent Hakurakusei Junmai Ginjo. After one delicious sip, I had a flash of understanding in my mind. All the sake brewers, in Miyagi and beyond who are working so hard – sometimes quite against the odds – and laboring tirelessly for the recovery of the sake industry are honest-to-goodness heros. With that one sip, I came to a new understanding of just how inspiring a glass of sake could be. I hope you’ll join me in 2012 and beyond to continue to support Hakurakusei and, indeed all Tohoku sake breweries in their on-going recovery.


“Best New Junmai Import”

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Shichida

And the Masu goes to:
Shichida Junmai

New sake imports arrive on our shores regularly. This is a wonderful thing, as more variety selection can help grow the sake market year over year. But every once in a while, a new sake just jumps out at you and makes you say “Wow“! For me, one such sake this year was the standout Shichida Junmai from Tenzan Sake Brewery in Saga. This sake is so completely enjoyable with a nice play of self-assured boldness on the palate and a clean, easygoing finish, it’s hard not to fall in love. Whatever they’re doing down there in Saga, it’s working! If you try it, Shichida Junmai may become a new favorite for you, as it has for me. Welcome to Wow!


“Best in Show”

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Tatenokawa

And the Masu goes to:
Tatenokawa 18 Nakadori Junmai Daiginjo

Lots of people in the U.S. still think that fermented grape juice is the end-all be-all when it comes to elegant imbibing. Those among us who’ve tasted superior premium sake know differently. One sake I had this year that is easily going to win over hearts and minds to Team Sake is Tatenokawa 18 Nakadori Junmai Daiginjo. This gracious, exquisite and masterful sake is really a wonder that deserves our attention. The brewers at Tatenokawa in Yamagata start by milling their sake rice to an astounding 18% remaining. This tiny nugget of pure rice starch is then transformed, with loving attention to detail, into something so smooth, elegant, deep and complex – it will leave you speechless, as it did me. Available for sale soon in the U.S., you’ll want to invest in a bottle of Tatenokawa 18 Junmai Daiginjo to enjoy for a special occasion, celebratory toast or to pair with a fine meal. Sit back, relax and enjoy the new world of elegant imbibing. Score one for Team Sake.

So there you have it! Congratulations and Kanpai to all the winners! After all the struggle and uncertainty of 2011, I am looking forward to next year as a new era for sake at home and abroad. Let’s raise a masu to celebrate all we have accomplished and the wonderful sake days ahead. Kanpai and Happy New Year to everyone!

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

Golden Masu Award!

Golden Masu Award!

Before we leave 2010 behind us forever, I wanted to take a look back at this year and highlight some master brews we encountered over the last 12 months.

It’s been an awesome year – so many sakes and so many adventures! I got to travel to Japan twice this year which is a dream come true. The Golden Masu Awards are my way of having a little fun at the end of the year and highlighting those sakes that made me smile, savor or simply sit up and take notice.

Without further ado, I give you the 2010 UrbanSake.com Golden Masu Awards!


“Best Junmai for Sushi”

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Sougen Junmai

And the Masu goes to:
Sougen Junmai

Sake meet sushi. Sushi meet sake. The pairing is so classic and time-honored that some folks still think sushi is the ONLY food that pairs with sake. Nothing could be further from the truth; with untold numbers of scrumptious food and sake pairings working wonderfully together. But what if you are in the mood from some good old fashioned sushi – what sake goes best? There are lots of sushi friendly brews out there, but one of my personal favorites is this Sougen Junmai from Ishikawa Prefecture. The taste is super clean and balanced and it just – in the most delicious way possible – wipes your palate clean between each morsel of fish. A good food and beverage pairing is a true case of 1+1=3. The two together are more then they are apart. If my calculations are correct, Sougen + Sushi = Yum.


“Most Tokubestu Tokubetsu Junmai”

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Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai

And the Masu goes to: Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai

Quick and simple Japanese vocabulary lesson: Tokubetsu means “special”. When applied to sake, what do they mean by “special” anyway? Well, in most cases they mean that the sake rice has been milled more than required for a given classification. In the case of this Hakkaisan junmai, they’ve milled down to 60% remaining which would legally classify it as a junmai ginjo, but Hakkaisan sells this beauty as their Special Junmai. The taste is lightly dry, incredibly balanced and immensely food friendly. What else is special? Well, for one, this sake is not for sale in Japan! Hakkaisan makes this sake for export and it’s available only to us here in the good old USA. A sake just for us? That makes me feel pretty darn tokubetsu right now!


“Most Ginormous Ginjo”

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Narutotai

And the Masu goes to:
Narutotai Ginjo Nama Genshu

Let’s see now – first you’ve got your hearty ginjos… then next you’ve got your big ginjos… and then, well, then you’ve got Narutotai Ginjo Nama Genshu, the ginormous ginjo. And please believe me when I say, I mean ginormous in the most flattering light. This sake is rich and rewarding with some real meat on it’s bones and a finish that just goes on and on. Sometimes a light and airy brew just won’t cut it. There is a lot going on in this sake so let’s break it down: this sake is a ginjo (slightly fortified) Nama (unpasteurized) Genshu (undiluted cask strength). Lush and full, this sake says with every sip: “go ginormous or go home!”


“Best Sake Sipping Value”

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Dassai 50

And the Masu goes to:
Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo

Longtime fans of the Golden Masu Awards will remember that Dassai 50 won the coveted “Best Sake Bang for Your Buck” award in 2007. Well, Dassai 50 is back this year with “Best Sake Sipping Value” award. When it comes to cost-conscious sake consumption, dang it, Dassai 50 is hard to beat. It’s an affordable, balanced, easy-drinking and delicious. You can bring Dassai 50 to any party, event or soiree and watch the sake lovers and sake newbies alike devour this brew. It’s a winner all around but especially in the much scrutinized cost-per-sip-enjoyment ratio. Given the low cost and high enjoyment – sip away!


“Coolest Label”

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Denshin Rin

And the Masu goes to:

Denshin Rin

There are a lot of cool sake labels out there, but this one pushed to the top of the list when I talked this year in New York with Mr. Kubo, VP of Fukui’s Ippongi Brewery – the makers of Denshin. I learned that that they collect the trimmings from their labels (the negative space on the Denshin Rin labels) and meticulously place them on the bottles for their namazake, or unpasteurized sake. You can see a picture of this “reverse engineering” magic here.

Not only is this good for the environment, but it looks, and above all tastes amazing, too. For this reason, Denshin wins out as the coolest label of the year. A delicious packaging for a delicious brew!


“Best in Show”

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Tenju Chokaisan

And the Masu goes to:
Tenju Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo

Chokaisan is a dreamy sake that pleases all the senses. I had the honor of visiting the brewery this year and saw for myself the care, detail, attention …and flower yeast, that goes into making this winner a true artisanal gem. To seal the deal, this Junmai Daiginjo also benefits from the pristine brewing water that trickles down from nearby Mount Chokai.

Chokaisan comes at you with an enchanting aroma and smooth body that will shamelessly charm you. Sake Beginners and Sake Connoisseurs can both agree on the appeal of this brew – and that is one of it’s distinct strengths. It’s a crowd pleaser, but a crowd pleaser with a touch of star quality. If you want a sake with charisma, this is it.

Well, there you have it. Congratulations to all the winners, and as we say goodbye to the last ten years that were “the Aughts” or “the Naughts” or “the Naughties”, let’s raise a glass of sake to the coming decade! That would be the 21st Century’s “Tween & Teen” years… I think it will be a rambunctious time of growth for sake! Personally, I can’t wait. Kanpai and Happy New Year to everyone!

Golden Masu Award!

Golden Masu Award!

For me personally, I’ll look back on 2009 as a year with some struggles, some fun and some really great sake! …And, at least for me, sake helps with both struggles and with fun.

It’s the time of year again when we salute some of the best sakes of the year… Just like the Oscars with lots more sake and a lot less movie stars. This year’s list of winners runs the gamut from honjozo to cup sake to the finest junmai daiginjo. All of it delicious in it’s own special and unique way.

Without Further ado, I give you the 2009 UrbanSake.com Golden Masu Awards!


“Best Honjozo”

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Ban Ryu

Ban Ryu

And the Masu goes to:
Ban Ryu “10,000 Ways” Honjozo

In the U.S., honjozo style sake (fortified with added distilled alcohol) are relatively hard to find. People hear “alcohol added” and think “jet fuel”! I’m here to tell you nothing could be further from the truth. Honjozo style sake can be expressive, rich, fragrant and enchanting. To prove this to yourself, look no further than Ban Ryu Honjozo. Look for that signature velvety finish and a great flavor profile and several temperatures. chilled, warm or hot, this sake will please you in 10,000 ways. This versatile sake is not to be missed.


“Best Cup in the U.S.”

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Oyaji Gokuraku

Oyaji Gokuraku

And the Masu goes to: Chiyomusubi Oyaji Gokuraku

“Here’s looking at you!” I have a special place in my heart for sake sold in the “one cup” size. No one cup stole my heart this year as did the Chiyomusubi Oyaji Gokuraku sake cup. The design of this label is based on the the anime “Ge-Ge-Ge no Kitaro“. Created by the famous Japanese artist Shigeru Mizuki (水木 しげる), Kitaro has had a wide impact on Japanese popular culture. The Oyaji character is the father of the lead character and he’s bascially a walking, talking eyeball who loves sake. Only in Japan, folks! In any case, the brewers at Chiyomusubi chose Goriki sake rice for the Oyaji flavor. This is a stroke of genius in my book. Goriki has a great nostaligic flavor that is not too pretty or quaint and a perfect match to the sake-loving Oyaji character. Cup sake is a treat… and this one is a treasure!


“Most Delicious 500ML”

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Manotsuru

Manotsuru

And the Masu goes to:
Manotsuru Four Daimonds Junmai Ginjo

Sometimes, 300ml isn’t enough, but 720ml is just too much. Enter the 500ml bottle. They are few and far between, but well worth a look-see. One of my very favorite of these sakes is the Manotsuru Four Daimonds Junmai Ginjo. Produced by Obata sake brewery in beautiful Niigata prefecture, this sake is something special. It’s a full on genshu sake bordering on 18% alcohol. This doesn’t diminish in any way the quality or well crafted feeling of this brew. I enjoy it slightly chilled and find it quite versatile as far as food pairing goes. Another win for Niigata sakes – and another win for 500ML! Thank you Obata-san!


“Best New Junmai Import”

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Wakatake

Wakatake

And the Masu goes to:
Wakatake Junmai

New sakes are imported into the USA every year without fail. I’m always on the lookout for something new. What surprises me most is when something new comes from someone so familiar! We all know and love Wakatake Junmai Dainginjo sake, but the folks at Wakatake brought in their Junmai sake this year. It’s got a slight creaminess that I just find irresistible and yet, it maintains that wonderful feeling of shizuoka simplicity that makes the junmai daiginjo such a hit. This is a great expression of what a Junmai can be and a welcome addition to the Junmai lexicon in the US. Kanpai!


“Best Extra Dry Sake”

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Kasumi Tsuru

Kasumi Tsuru

And the Masu goes to:

Kasumi Tsuru Extra Dry Junmai

“What do you have that’s DRY?” Oi, If I had a first class ticket to Japan for every time I’ve heard that question! Many folks State-side have gotten this notion into their head that the best sake is Dry sake. Super dry sake is super yummy in my book, so I love to have a primo example of what dry really is at the ready when people ask for it. My textbook example is the delicious Kasumi Tsuru Extra Dry Junmai. It’s dry without being over-exaggerated and unbalanced. Imported by Joto Sake importers and a product of Hyogo Prefecture, this sake has a delightful depth and distinct dry edge that make it in my book the great exemplar of what a well rounded dry sake can be! Enjoy this gem at all temperatures!


“Best in Show”

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Kirinzan

Kirinzan

And the Masu goes to:
Kirinzan Junmai Daiginjo

I first tasted this sake at Sakagura Restaurant on New Year’s Eve a few years back. Our server left the stunning bottle on the table for me to admire as I sipped on the sake. This left all my senses pleased! Kirinzan makes a balanced, clean and pure Niigata Junmai Daiginjo that is a treasure in and of itself, but the beautiful bottle just adds to the enjoyment of this sake all the more. This “total package” is a feast for the senses and a true testament to everything a sake can be. For me, this is one of the very best. Enjoy it yourself for a special occasion, with friends or simply on it’s own. Without a doubt you’ll taste the quality that is it’s own reward.

Well, there you have it. Congratulations to all the winners and I’ll be on the look out in 2010 for any new sake stars on the horizon… Kanpai and Happy New Year!

golden_masu_1With 2008 coming to a close it’s only natural to want to look back and ponder the best sakes of the year. In other words, it’s time to announce the 2008 UrbanSake.com Golden Masu Awards! Let’s honor those sakes that stood out from the pack and made 2008 the best year for sake yet.


“Best Nama”

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Born Muroka

Born

And the Masu goes to: Born Muroka Nama Genshu Junmai Daiginjo

This year, pure decadence won out over the usual delights that most sweet and fruit-driven namas have to offer. Born Nama is a rich and compelling sake. It is aged for a year, giving it a greater complexity that speaks volumes on your palate. Being unpasteurized, this brew gives that fresh wake up call to your taste buds that only a nama can deliver, however, this sake sings a sultry ballad and not a sugar sweet pop song. Enjoy with someone you love, in a place you love, with some food that you love and you’ll love it – I promise.


“Best One Cup in the U.S.”

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Funaguchi

Funaguchi

And the Masu goes to: Kikusui Funaguchi Shibori Honzojo Nama Genshu

I have a special place in my heart for sake sold in the “one cup” size. These tiny servings are wonders of engineering, not to mention portion control! The supply of sake sold in the one cup size is limited in the U.S., but of what you can get, Kikusui Funaguchi is far and away my favorite! The taste is full and strong and fruit-forward. Also, being a genshu, this sake is undiluted and can have a lot of impact, but in a good way. It’s a delicious tidbit to drink at a picnic or just on the go. I always try to have a few in the fridge ready to jet off on adventures when I am.


“Best Sake under $20”

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Kurosawa

Kurosawa

And the Masu goes to: Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto

It’s just great the the papers are finally telling us we’ve “technically” been in an economic recession for the past year. While everyone loves to turn to booze when times are tough, expensive sakes can sometimes be just out of reach. What’s a sake lover,who has been socked in the wallet, to do? I recommend Kurosawa Kimoto Junmai as a very affordable drinking sake that happens to taste spectacular, too. You’ll get all the flavor and quality of higher priced brews, in a delicious package that retails for under $20. If that makes it a little more affordable to choose a sake to drown your sorrows, my work here is done.


“Coolest Label”

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KuroObi

KuroObi

And the Masu goes to: Kuro Obi Do Do Yamahai Junmai

Fukumitsuya Brewery has style, no doubt about it. If you’re in Ginza or Kanazawa, a trip to their retail shop is all the proof you need that these folks understand design. This extends to the stunning packaging for their latest import, the delicious Kuro Obi Do Do or “black belt” in english. The gorgeous abstracted Kanji on the label stand out in silver relief against the black background. The best news of all is that the yamahai sake inside the bottle is as snazzy as the label. The depth of flavor will pair well with many foods, but I match this brew with cheese in particular. Black Belt is the new black.


“Most Deserving of a 99 Rating from the Wine World”

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masuizumi

Masuizumi

And the Masu goes to: Masuizumi Junmai Daiginjo

Oh, all those vaunted wine experts are just crazy for their numeric wine ratings! That little number can make or break the fortunes of any wine. Luckily, we’re not so bound by this system in the world of sake. However, I can’t help feeling that every now and again, this rating system could be used as a bridge to convert some wine enthusiasts into fervent disciples of sake. Enter scrumptious Masumizumi Junmai Daiginjo. This sake strikes me as tailor-made to get a magical rating of 99 from the biggest names in the wine biz and also as the perfect brew to ease wine lovers into sipping on some sake. As I know all too well, it only takes that one magical taste to get hooked on nihon-shu permanently.


“Most Umami”

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Iroha

Iroha

And the Masu goes to:
Sawanoi “Kioke Jikomi Iroha Kimoto Junmai

All the foodies I know really connect with those sakes that may strike some as, well… funky. Sawanoi Iroha is the perfect example of a sake that can stand up to a foodie’s favorite flavors. In a word, “Umami”. This is considered the mysterious “fifth taste” that is often translated as ‘savoriness’. In a world of sake filled with those light and fruity Junmai Daiginjos, a little savory can go a long way to perk up your palate. My “a-ha” moment with this sake came the instant I paired it with shitake mushroom. The two together created pure foodie magic and made me a believer in Umami ever more.


“Best in Show”

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Dassai

Dassai

And the Masu goes to: Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjo

Oh Dassai 23… How do I love thee? Let me count the ways… um, 23 ways? Well, 23 of course stands for the ultra low milling rate of the rice used to make this dreamy sake. 77% of each grain is ground away prior to brewing, an astounding feat in and of itself, but what does that do to the taste? Dassai 23 has a smoothness on the palate that is hard to match, yet with the unmistakable characteristics and consistency of a sake that has been lovingly hand-crafted in small batches. This brew can be a real splurge but it’s worth every penny and it will restore your faith in the power of pure, delicious flavor to elevate the soul.

Well, there you have it. Congratulations to all the winners and I’ll be on the look out in ‘09 for any new sake stars on the horizon… Kanpai and Happy New Year!

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The Blogosphere has been abuzz lately wondering about the winners of the 2007 UrbanSake.com Golden Masu Awards. I know people were concerned that 2007 would draw to a close without the sake blogging world’s highest honors being bestowed this year. Fear Not! Just in the nick of time, the 2007 Golden Masu Awards are here. This allows us to take a look back over the year and acknowledge some of the sake high points we’ve seen this year.

Forgive us if we skip the fashion, fluff and fake tans on the red carpet and get right to the good stuff. Without further ado, drumroll please…

Best Nigori

golden_masu.jpgyuki_No_bosha3.jpgAnd the Masu goes to: Yuki no Bosha Junmai Ginjo Nigori

It’s not every day that a fantastic Nigori enters your life. If the truth be told, I’m actually not the biggest Nigori fan on the planet… however, I can appreciate the stuff.

One thing that makes a nigori really shine in my eyes is subtlety and Yuki no Bosha Nigori has that in spades. The nigori here is whisper-light and elegant with just a hint of texture.

Made by a small artisanal brewery in the Northern prefecture of Akita, the taste is smooth and soothing – a real winner in my book. If you’ve never had a nigori, start here and you can’t go wrong.


“Best Spring Nama”

golden_masu.jpgKamikokoro.jpgAnd the Masu goes to: Kamikokoro Toukagen Shiboritate Tokubetsu Junmai Nama Genshu

Namas in April and May really do herald the coming of Springtime. The best nama I had in 2007 was only available in the spring and I have no trouble thinking back to the taste of this memorable elixir. It was fruity with a strong strawberry-peachy bend. Yeah, just kinda yummy that way. The sneaky secret is the use of peach yeast in the making of this Okayama Prefecture brew.

In addition to the big flavor, the name can be a mouthful, too. Let’s break it down: Kamikokoro (brewery name), Shiboritate (first run), Tokubetsu (special), Junmai Nama (unpasteurized/draft junmai), Genshu (undiluted/cask strength). hmmm. Maybe we should just enjoy the flavors. can’t wait for spring ’08!


Best Fall Nama

golden_masu.jpgurakasumi_nama.jpgAnd the Masu goes to: Urakasumi Hiyaoroshi Tokubestsu Junmai Nama

Fall Namas are a different beast from the springtime ones. However, they do have their own particular charms. They have that nama freshness, but taste more of the end of harvest than the buds of spring.I was able to try Urakasumi Fall Nama several times in 2007 and grew to appreciate it’s mild fruit, subtle flavors and balance. Miyagi Prefecture’s Urakasumi Brewery goes to the trouble to produce a fall nama and their efforts are rewarded.

One of the key points of this sake is it’s tie to the changing of the seasons. They have captured the essence of Japanese Autumn in a bottle. we’re very lucky to be able to get it here in the states.


“Best Sake for Warming”

golden_masu.jpgshichi_hon_yari.jpgAnd the Masu goes to: Shichi Hon Yari Junmai

Shichi Hon Yari or “The Seven Spearsmen” is a sake that keeps alive the Samurai Spirit. Anyone who has seen a PBS special on Feudal Japan knows that the samurai way of life was simply about honor, but also fierce and intense. Shichi Hon Yari is also an intense and honorable sake when chilled, but gentle warming brings out the intensity in this Shiga Prefecture brew.

If you warm this sake, I guarantee you a sensory experience. You can almost feel it running through your veins. On a cold night the gentle warming of the alcohol is just what the Dr. ordered. The perfect thing to sip before any Samurai battle… or even for a quiet night in.


“Best Label”

golden_masu.jpgsenchu_hassaku.jpgAnd the Masu goes to: Tsukasabotan Senchu Hassaku Tokubetsu Junmai

They say you can’t tell a book by it’s cover… but sometimes you can. This is the case for the delicious, and deliciously designed, bottle of Tsukasabotan Senchu Hassaku.Being the only sake label I know of that screams out in neon safety-orange kanji, it immediately caught my attention. A cover like this better house an interesting book – and Tsukasabotan delivers.

The flavor is rich and full, the nose hints and mild fruits, while maintaining an overall dry character. Yeah, it’s kinda punk rock. I might even brave a mosh pit to get my hands on Senchu Hassaku.


“Best Sake Bang for Your Buck”

golden_masu.jpgDassai_50.jpgAnd the Masu goes to: Dassai 50 Junmai Ginjo

I’ve fallen hard for the allure of Dassai 50. I was really lucky to visit this Yamaguchi perfecture brewery in Oct. 2007 and saw up close how they lavish attention on every detail. It’s really hand crafted.

The reason I think this sake in particular is a great value is that it’s sold as a Junmai Ginjo, yet is milled to 50% which would allow it to legally qualify to be sold as a Daiginjo. Given the fantastic taste, attention to quality and a current retail price of around $25.00, you really can’t go wrong. While it’s no “2 buck Chuck”, This is a fantastic sake to introduce beginning sake drinkers to the joys of Nihon-shu.


“Best in Show”

golden_masu.jpghakkaisan_ginjo.jpgAnd the Masu goes to: Hakkaisan Ginjo

For me, 2007 was the year of Hakkaisan Ginjo. Simply put, I love this stuff. How do I love thee? let me count the ways! 1) Smooth and oh oh so drinkable. 2) Just enough richness and depth to keep the tastebuds activated. 3) That fantastic Niigata water doing it’s thing. 4)The crystal clear color of this brew sparkles in the glass. 5) A nose that any greek statue would envy. 6) Yum-o!

Have you not tried Hakkaisan Ginjo yet? Well, get thee some, pronto. If you like smooth, clear and clean drinking sakes like I do, this brew may just enchant you, too.

Well, there you have it. Congratulations to all the winners and I’ll be on the look out in ’08 for any new sake stars on the horizon… Kanpai and Happy New Year!

CrowdsIf I had to be trampled at a sake tasting, I wouldn’t want it to happen anywhere other than Sakagura. Nihon-shu aficionados can be just like any other rabid fans out there: when the Star makes an appearance, everyone rushes the stage. So when the sake bottles were opened at the awesome Sakagura spring tasting event last Monday night, the crowd stormed the bar! One false move and I could have been sake road kill.

Whatever the risks, attending any Sakagura tasting event is not to be missed! There were 30, count ’em, 30 sakes to try! From sugary-sweet to gin-on-the-rocks dry; from mountain-spring-water clear to ultra-rich-velvety-floral: There was something here to please anyone’s palate.

Sake line up ready for tastingScott & I had a reservation for the 9:15 seating and the place was sold out. This is an Event! Here’s how it worked: The venue had two seatings for the evening. Once seated, you were given a sake chart for taking notes and a special limited menu of delicious food to compliment the sake. All of the sakes out for tasting were lined up along the bar with a Brewery rep or sommelier in charge of 3-4 bottles that they would pour you a tasting of upon request. So you would end up visiting the bar to sip a few new sakes, then sit down and enjoy some food – rinse and repeat.

Tamara and RobYour basic eat, drink and be merry! One thing I have come to love about sake tastings is how people really come together when the “Sake Magic” takes hold. For example, Scott and I had such a nice chat with our neighbors at the next table Rob and Tamara. Hi guys!

Since it would be really hard to taste and describe all 30 sakes, I have decided to highlight the best, boldest and weirdest brews by launching my very own award: The UrbanSake.com first-ever ‘Golden Masu’ Awards! Just like the Oscars! but only on my blog. And there’s no red carpet.

So here we go!

Most likely to convert Sake-Curious to Sake-Fan

KubotaGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Kubota Hekiju!
Kubota Hekiju (Junmai Daiginjo, Niigata Prefecture, SMV=+3.0, Seimaibuai=50%) is one of my all-time favorites. This sake is smooth and lovely. It was a joy to taste it again at the Sakagura tasting. This is one of those old favorites that feels like slipping on a much loved cashmere cardigan when you take a sip: Instantly familiar, soft, comfy, smooth and utterly delightful. This is also one of my favorite “conversion” tools. If a friend is “Sake-Curious” but a little wary, I may start off with a perfectly chilled glass of Kubota Daiginjo. One sip and a Sake-Fan is born!


Sexiest Label

Kokuryu DaiginjoGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Kokuryu!
When I tell people about my interest in sake, a lot of people respond by saying “those sake bottles are so beautiful”. They are! However, Kokuryu (Daiginjo, Fukui Prefecture, SMV=+4, ALC=15.5%) takes it too a whole new level. With Gold Glitter Kanji (!), and a dark chocolate background, it looks like this bottle just finished up a nite at Studio 54 and is on it’s way to the after party with Bianca and Liza. The very best surprise? Glitter Label is not all just flash. This sake tastes as good as it looks. It’s got a smooth clean taste, and to my palate, a slight hint of berry. Yum! I Loved it. This would be a great sake to order when you’re out with friends for a night on the town. The party will begin the moment this disco ball bottle hits the table.


Friendliest Alternative-Style Brew

Dassai NigoriGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Dassai Nigori!
Everyone who starts to learn about sake usually picks up the Junmai–>Ginjo–>Daiginjo concept pretty quickly… but then they learn there are variants out there. Aged Sake, Cedar-Tinged sake, Unpasteurized Sake, and then.. cloudy unfiltered sake with bits of rice swimming in it?? It can be a lot for a beginner to take in. Enter Dassai Nigori (Junmai Ginjo, Yamaguchi Prefecture, SMV=+3.0, Seimaibuai=50%) . This nigori is very friendly for the beginner – and it’s the sake I would use to introduce “alternative-style” brews to your friends. It is creamy with a wonderfully even texture – not chunky or to thick like other nigoris. And in the background is the wonderful Dassai attention to quality. One of my favorites!


Strongest Right Hook on a Nama

Kasumi Tsuru Shiboritate nama genshuGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Kasumi Tsuru Shiboritate!
Not every brewery could say, “My Sake could beat up your Sake.” but this one has got the chops. Kasumi Tsuru Shiboritate (Honjozo , Hyogo Prefecture) has a unique one-two punch. First, it’s a nama (unpasteurized), which gives a larger, more expansive taste, and second, it’s an genshu (sake not diluted after brewing), which gives the pow of a higher alcohol content. This type of sake is great on the rocks or when you want a real attention-getter. Just be careful not to drink to much or you really will be down for the count. Imported by Joto Sake.


Biggest Barbie Wannabe

KarenGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Karen!
Karen (Junmai, Niigata Prefecture, Ichishima Brewery) is one pink girl. The packaging designers got it right on this one. The über-pink bottle perfectly captures the taste: Think cotton candy, bubble gum, Malibu Barbie’s corvette. It’s an interesting niche in the sake world, though. It may not be my taste, but i haven’t seen a lot of brewers specialize in the much sweeter brews. This can be a great change of pace when only something sweet will do. If that’s your thing, be sure you have Karen’s number in your little black book. Just don’t call her Barbie by mistake – she hates that.


Best in Show

Ken DaiginjoGolden Masu Award! And the Masu goes to: Ken!
Speaking of Barbie, she knows better than anyone that Ken is a perfect Gentleman. This is true for the delightful and truly charming Ken Daiginjo (SMV=+4.0, ALC=15.5%). Again and again, i’ve been wowed by this sake. oh Ken… I wish I knew how to quit you!! The taste is clean, clear and smooth without being weak or watery. It’s got a taste I can only describe as the essence of “Sake-ness”. what the heck does that mean? it’s got the best aspects of many sakes I’ve had all rolled up into one, while still being elegant. It’s really something special, so I’ve called it here “best in show” although it really is impossible to pick a “best” at this tasting. Every person out there will find their own personal best. Congratulations to all the winners!


Well, all in all, it was an amazing evening! I’m looking forward to my next tasting at Sakagura – they really know how to put on a show. If you get the chance to attend, don’t miss it – and remember, it’s an honor just to be nominated.