Sake In The News: 03-02-18

New York has its first sake brewery and it is fantastic. The Taproom at Brooklyn Kura opens today and serves the freshest sake you can get this side of the Pacific: Just pressed sake on draft, lightly filtered Orizake as well as raw sake mash from the Tank. All of it delicious.

Born in Japan, and Now Made in Brooklyn: Sake
by Rachel Wharton, New York Times
March 2, 2018

At first glance, Brandon Doughan certainly fits the mold of the professional brewer in Brooklyn: The Portland, Ore., transplant has a tidy beard, a penchant for plaid button-downs, and is a former home-brewer well-versed in advanced fermentation.

Read the Full Article >

Sake In The News: 02-21-18

Nice article from a major media outlet about the growth of sake in the export market.

As Japan falls out of love with sake, brewers look to the West
February 21, 2018

KYOTO, Japan — Sake runs in Tokubee Masuda’s blood. He’s the 14th generation of his family to operate one of the many sake breweries in Fushimi, a small district in Japan’s old capital of Kyoto.

Masuda’s passion shines through as he escorts visitors around the Tsukino Katsura facility, explaining how high-quality rice and fresh groundwater is used to produce the traditional Japanese drink, sometimes described in simple terms as rice wine.

Read the Full Article >

Sake In The News: 02-20-18

Sake seems to be hitting its stride. Sake Exports increased 19% in 2017 and has tripled in volume over the last 16 years. Awesome news that speaks to the growing interest in and knowledge about sake with consumers outside of Japan!

Sake exports reach record high again
by The Yomiuri Shimbun
February 20, 2018

Japan’s sake exports increased 19 percent in 2017 from the previous year to 23,481 kiloliters, setting a record high for eight years in a row.

Partly boosted by a growing interest in Japanese cuisine overseas, sake exports have enjoyed an upward trend since 2006, when exports topped 10,000 kiloliters. Last year, the volume passed the 20,000-kiloliter mark for the first time, and the rate of increase was also the highest ever.

Read the Full Article >

Lecture at Japan Society: My Year at a Japanese Sake Brewery

I was honored recently to be able to speak at the Japan Society in NYC about my year living and interning at Hakkaisan Sake Brewery.  It was an amazing experience, and if you want to learn more, you can check out my lecture posted on YouTube.

Sake In The News: 02-14-18

Is Sake too cheap in Japan? I often hear that prices for premium sake in the USA are too high. But I always enjoy the very low premium sake prices whenever I visit Japan. This article raises many interesting questions!

Is Japanese sake too cheap? Many in the industry think so
by HISAO KODACHI, Nikkei Asian Review
February 14, 2018

TOKYO — Japanese sake is gaining enthusiastic fans around the world. Yet foreigners who are familiar with sake after drinking it at places like upscale restaurants are often surprised at how cheap it is in Japan.

“Sake tastes good but it is priced too low,” said Shinya Tasaki, president of the Japan Sommelier Association. Tasaki has a sake refrigerator at home and introduces sake to sommeliers from around the world.

Read the Full Article >

OOOOH, I love stories like this! Local Colorado sake brewers are working to change their state laws for our industry. Good luck guys!

Denver Sake Maker Pushes for Change in Brewing Laws
February 14, 2018

Colorado seems like the perfect place to make alcoholic beverages; just look at the proliferation of breweries and distilleries around the state, and the growing number of wine and cider makers. So what if your drink of choice is sake? That shouldn’t make too much of a difference when it comes to producing and selling something that’s not so different from beer and wine, right?

Read the Full Article >

Sake In The News: 01-30-18

I’m quoted in this article about the sake industry’s move to expand its market overseas. The Export market for Japanese brewers is an area of growth and I think they will continue to put lots of effort into growing demand for sake outside Japan.

Learning To Love Sake: Japan Ramps Up Efforts To Entice Foreign Markets
by JIM CLARKE, NPR: The Salt
January 30, 2018

Outside of Japan, sake is somewhat of a mystery, with its own terminology, styles and drinking traditions. But the country’s recent push to make sake more comprehensible to non-native drinkers is making an impact, especially in the U.S.

Sake can easily fall between the cracks for American drinkers. Because sake is brewed, relying on a mold called koji to convert the rice’s starches into sugars for fermentation, “it’s made like a beer but drinks like a wine” in texture, character and strength. A pint of 5 percent alcohol beer makes a sensible serving; a pint of 16-to-17 percent alcohol sake is a whole night of drinking.

Read the Full Article >

Interview on Japan Eats: My Year at a Japanese Sake Brewery

I was interviewed on the Japan Eats radio show. Host Akiko Katayama talked with me about my year in Japan. If you like please take a listen below! What did I think of my year?? Was I skilled at Sake Brewing?? What were my fun cultural activites?! Listen and all will be revealed!

On this week’s episode of Japan Eats, Akiko is joined in studio by Tim Sullivan, Brand Ambassador for the Hakkaisan Sake Brewery. Tim was the first person ever to receive a Cultural Activities Visa to study sake making in Japan! He founded, America’s longest-running sake website, and was awarded the title of “Sake Samurai” by the Japan Sake Brewer’s Association in recognition of his work promoting sake outside of Japan.

Writing About Sake? Here Are My Sake Reporting Pet Peeves… With Cats!

No one is more excited than me to see a news article, restaurant review or blog post mention sake! This means there is interest in my favorite beverage and the more the word gets out there the better! I want everyone to know about sake. However, every time I come across such a sake article, my joy quickly turns to slight trepidation. Most articles get a lot right (yea!), but more often then you’d think, there are some mistakes, misstatements or downright misinformation about sake reported in the news. A big part of the job for people in the sake industry is to dispel myths and fallacies about sake. I thought it might be useful to put together a list of the most common mistakes I’ve seen mentioned about sake in the media. Let’s start to get this misinformation cleared up! Inspired by critical cats restaurant reviews, I thought it might be nice to have cute kittens help me to get my message across and clear the air about my sake article pet peeves!

Don’t refer to the Sake Production Process as “Distillation”

“The drinks list is dominated by sake, of both the ginjo and junmai variety (the difference being added alcohol in the distillation process). “ 1

Sake is a naturally fermented beverage. In English, we usually refer to sake as being ‘brewed’ and being made at a sake brewery. Distillation is used for distilled beverages such as vodka or shochu, which are usually much higher in alcohol. Imagine for a moment you read an article that said something like “The use of grape skins during the distillation process helps add color to the wine” or “This beer uses hops from both Germany and the US during it’s distillation process.” Meow!

Don’t call Nigori Sake “Unfiltered”

“Nigori Sake is unfiltered. Nigori sake leaves the grain solids that are usually removed after the fermentation process, which produces a cloudy liquor similar in appearance to milk.” 2

I usually describe nigori as coarsely-filtered sake. The word nigori simply means murky, turbid or lacking clarity. To legally be sold as sake in Japan, the law requires that the sake mash first be passed through a filter. Some nigori sakes are made by fully pressing sake until clear and then adding some of the unfermented rice solids back into the sake or alternately, by pressing using a coarse filter that will let little bits of rice solids into the final product. Sake that is truly unfiltered (from the mash tank to your glass with no pressing or filtering out of rice solids) is known as doburoku, and it is illegal to sell in Japan unless you have a rare special permit.

Don’t call sake a “Spirit” or a “Liquor”

“Sake is the traditional spirit of Japan. Always present in religious rituals and social ceremonies, this liquor made from fermented rice is also highly appreciated all over the world.”. 3

Both a “spirit” and “liquor” are defined as distilled beverages, such as brandy or whiskey, and they are by definition distinct from fermented alcohol, such as wine or beer or… you guessed it, sake. Calling sake a spirit or a liquor perpetuates the misunderstanding that sake is a distilled beverage with a very high alcohol percentage.

Don’t Misspell Sake Classification Names

“Dassai 50 Junmai Daijinjo. Aromatic sake with tropical fruit – pineapple, lychee and mango – and a creamy texture, though pleasantly astringent. “ 4

I get it! Spelling industry specific words from the Japanese language, or from any foreign language, can be hard and the terminology can be confusing. But doing a quick spell check for key sake vocabulary or classification names is easy and will go a long way to help people take your article seriously. “Daiginjo”, as in the example above, is a commonly misspelled sake word. If you need help with spelling any nihonshu terminology, you can always double check using the Sake Glossary.

Don’t write “Sake To Me” or “Sake To Me, Baby”

“Sake To Me: Sake Bewitches The Spirit World” 5

Dear God, no. Just no.

Don’t Assume Junmai Is More Premium Than Non-Junmai Sake

“Sake without added alcohol is the more premium and is identified by the word “junmai.”” 6

Some people learn that “Junmai” means “pure rice” and assume that non-junmai sake (aka alcohol-added) must be impure or in some way inferior. Nothing is further from the truth. In the world of premium sake, both junmai and non-junmai types are delicious, fantastic and wonderful. They are just stylistically different. Adding a small amount of distilled alcohol can boost aromas and create rounder flavors and the palate. This is not better or worse than Junmai type sakes – just different. And I feel the more various styles of sake, the better.

Do you have any sake info pet peeves you’ve seen in the media? Let me know!

Stunning Sake Production Video from Matsumoto Brewery

Mastumoto Brewery is a well known Kura in Fushimi, Kyoto. Recently, they’ve produced a video that shows the beauty of the sake production process unlike anything I’ve seen before. Looks like the filmmakers also used a drone to get aerial shots of the brewery. However they did it, it’s stunning and worth a look for any sake fan. Check it out here:

Brewed in Kyoto with Shuhari Spirit from Shuhari – Sawaya Matsumoto on Vimeo.

Sake Dispatch from 1907 – “Potent Liquor is Sake”

Lafcadio_HearnI recently came across this century old description of Japanese sake and was thrilled to learn about it’s author, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a greek born writer who became one of the first western writers to document Japan. He had a Japanese wife and lived in Japan from 1890 until his death in 1904.

The article I found is from a 1907 Colorado newspaper, the Littleton Independent, and was published about 3 years after Hearn’s death. The article outlines his musings on Japanese sake.

It is fun as it describes drinking traditions at Japanese banquets, which many modern day visitors to Japan will well recognize. I also love the description of the intoxication effects of sake: “Luminous exhilaration… then you get very sleepy.” Hope you enjoy this fun time capsule from the early days of sake’s introduction to the west.


Lafcadio Hern’s testimony as to Strength of Japanese Wine.

There is no liquor in the world upon which a man becomes so quickly intoxicated as Japanese sake (rice wine), and yet none of which the effects last so short a time. The intoxication is pleasant as the effect of opium or hasheesh. It is soft, pleasant, luminous exhilaration, everything becoming brighter, happier, lighter; then you get very sleepy.

At Japanese dinners it is the rule to become slightly exhilarated, but not to drink enough to talk thickly or walk crooked. The ability to drink at banquets required practice – long practice.

There are banquets of many kinds, and the man who is invited to one at which extensive drinking may be expected is careful to start in upon an empty or almost empty stomach. By not eating one can drink a good deal. The cups are very small and of many curious shapes. One may be expected to empty 50. A quart of sake is a good deal; two quarts require iron nerves to stand. But among the Japanese there are wonderful drinkers. At a military officer’s banquet a captain offered me a tumbler holding a good pint of sake. I almost fainted at the sight of it, for it was only the first. But a friend said to me: “Only drink a little and pass it back,” which I did. Stronger heads emptied cup after cup like water. – Letters of Lafcadio Hearn.

Littleton Independent Newspaper Feb 8, 1907

Become a Certified Sake Adviser with the Sake School of America Dec 1 in NYC!

2014_aug 6502

Do you want to take your sake knowledge to the next level and get certified as a Sake Adviser? Open to hospitality industry professionals as well as serious sake enthusiasts, this Sake Adviser course will dive deep into the world of sake. Learn about the history of sake, all about sake ingredients, sake tasting and the sake classification system. During the course of the seminar, we will also taste and examine 16 unique sakes to show you the depth and breath of sake production today.

Introductory Sake Course for Professionals and Serious Sake Enthusiasts. The Sake School of America is endorsed by the Sake Service Institute International (SSI), the largest organization of sake sommelier certification in Japan.

Upon completion of the course and passing the Sake Adviser exam, you will receive the Sake Adviser certificate and pin.

SAKE TASTING SESSION (16 Sakes tasted)

Fee: $475.00

Instructor: Timothy Sullivan

Course #: SSA-148 English

Location: New York Mutual Trading, Inc.
77 Metro Way, Secaucus, NJ 07094
NOTE: Free Shuttle bus from Manhattan will be provided

Lecture Date: December 1 (Monday) Time: 8:30 AM ~ 4:00 PM

Exam Date: December 1 (Monday) Time: 4:00 PM ~ 5:00 PM

[On the Registration page, enter course #: SSA-143 English]

About the Sake School of America
SSA_logoSAKE SCHOOL OF AMERICA is an education and training center of Sake, Shochu, and Japanese liquors, for Sake professionals and enthusiasts to expand knowledge and to explore further enjoyment of the category.

SAKE SCHOOL OF AMERICA aims toward fostering higher appreciation and memorable drinking and dining experiences. We are fully committed in educating trade professionals and enthusiasts alike, to promote Sake in faraway countries at the same level of understanding and of enjoyment as is in its homeland of Japan.

In the 1980’s in Japan, Jizake fine artisan Sake climbed to popularity as consumers discovered tantalizing flavors and aromas from microbrewers crafted in remote breweries, some with legendary tales which date back centuries. When this best kept secret arrived in US during the 1990’s, Americans too were quickly enamored, charmed by “the novel Jizake”, the finesse, and pure joy. Then came Shochu, Ji-Beer, and now, a resurgence of Junmai and Honjozo Sake.

Nowadays, with a variety of specialized foods covering the spectrum, from casual dining, trendy Sushi bars, authentic Izakayas, to fancy Kaiseki, there’s a Jizake suitable for any dish and Nigori Sake, shochu, Japanese Ji-Beer, Umeshu, and other interesting brews. The world of Sake is a joyful exploration into Japanese culture, cuisine, and the brewing art.

New Cup on the Block: Azasu!

Houriasen cup sake with Takoyaki and French Fries

Houriasen cup sake with Takoyaki and French Fries

Longtime readers of Urban Sake will know that I am a devoted fan of Cup Sake! So much so, I organized a cup sake week back in 2009! Cup sake week never took off, but I still love my single serving cup sake every chance I get.

My hopes for a cup sake renaissance got a big boost this year with the opening of Azasu, a new cup sake izakaya on the lower east side. The masterminds behind Azasu are none other than Christy and Gaku Shibata, owners of the more upscale and much loved Yopparai.

The name “Azasu” is a fun and more informal contraction of the polite “arigatou-gozaimasu”, which means “thank you” in Japanese. The keyword here is informal, as Azasu strikes the perfect note between casual and cool. The seating is mostly large shared tables which is perfect for gathering in groups and making new friends.

Panda Cup from Gifu

Panda Cup from Gifu

A word about the food. The offerings are yummy Japanese comfort foods with an emphasis on deep fried deliciousness. Don’t tell my cardiologist, but the french fries at Azasu are darn near the best fried potato thing in New York. Another highlight is the Takoyaki or octopus pancake balls, which are house made and heavenly. The menu is rounded out by classic crust-less white bread sandwiches and potato salad.

What pairs perfectly with all these izakaya classics? Well, if you said Cup Sake, you get an A+! There are a wide variety of cup sakes on offer at Azasu. Some of my recommended favorites include:

  • Aomori Otokoyama by Hachinohe Shuzo in Aomori. Don’t be confused as there are two “Otokoyama” or Man’s Mountain sakes on the list at Azasu. I prefer the one from Aomori. This brewery is also the maker of the cult Mutsu Hassen sake that is currently only for sale in Japan. Their Junmai sake is rice-y, smooth and quite clean.
  • Panda Cup by Miyozakura Brewery in Gifu. The appeal of this Junmai cup starts with the playful panda design on the cup itself, but extends to the taste as well. You’ll appreciate the noticeably dry body of this sake with hints of lactic acid. Rice steamed rice aroma, too.
  • Houraisen Honjozo by Sekiya Shuzo in Aichi. Being an alcohol added honjozo style of sake, look for an enhanced aroma on this sake. It has a nice dry finish and full, round flavor on the mid-palate.

Whichever sakes you choose, no one goes home empty handed as one of the highlights of a night at Azasu is being able to take all your empty cups home with you at the end of the night. Frolicking panda cup pen holder anyone?

49 Clinton Street NYC

Become a Certified Sake Adviser with the Sake School of America June 30 in NYC!


Do you want to take your sake knowledge to the next level and get certified as a Sake Adviser? Open to hospitality industry professionals as well as serious sake enthusiasts, this Sake Adviser course will dive deep into the world of sake. Learn about the history of sake, all about sake ingredients, sake tasting and the sake classification system.

Introductory Sake Course for Professionals and Sake Enthusiasts. The Sake School of America is endorsed by the Sake Service Institute International (SSI), the largest organization of sake sommelier certification in Japan.

Upon completion of the course and passing the Sake Adviser exam, you will receive the Sake Adviser certificate and pin.


Fee: $475.00

Instructor: Timothy Sullivan

Course #: SSA-143 English

Location: New York Mutual Trading, Inc.
77 Metro Way, Secaucus, NJ 07094
NOTE: Free Shuttle bus from Manhattan will be provided

Lecture Date: June 30 (Monday) Time: 8:30 AM ~ 4:00 PM

Exam Date: June 30 (Monday) Time: 4:00 PM ~ 5:00 PM

[On the Registration page, enter course #: SSA-143 English]

About the Sake School of America
SSA_logoSAKE SCHOOL OF AMERICA is an education and training center of Sake, Shochu, and Japanese liquors, for Sake professionals and enthusiasts to expand knowledge and to explore further enjoyment of the category.

SAKE SCHOOL OF AMERICA aims toward fostering higher appreciation and memorable drinking and dining experiences. We are fully committed in educating trade professionals and enthusiasts alike, to promote Sake in faraway countries at the same level of understanding and of enjoyment as is in its homeland of Japan.

In the 1980’s in Japan, Jizake fine artisan Sake climbed to popularity as consumers discovered tantalizing flavors and aromas from microbrewers crafted in remote breweries, some with legendary tales which date back centuries. When this best kept secret arrived in US during the 1990’s, Americans too were quickly enamored, charmed by “the novel Jizake”, the finesse, and pure joy. Then came Shochu, Ji-Beer, and now, a resurgence of Junmai and Honjozo Sake.

Nowadays, with a variety of specialized foods covering the spectrum, from casual dining, trendy Sushi bars, authentic Izakayas, to fancy Kaiseki, there’s a Jizake suitable for any dish and Nigori Sake, shochu, Japanese Ji-Beer, Umeshu, and other interesting brews. The world of Sake is a joyful exploration into Japanese culture, cuisine, and the brewing art.

4th World Sake Sommelier Competition

9470936a4e3240248b65a28aa94ac059Calling all Sake Sommeliers! SSI and Sake School of America are hosting the 4th World Sake Sommelier Competition! Are you a sake professional and want to get in on the action? Email by May 20th to apply your spot for regional competitions in LA, Chicago or NYC. Details below!

Sake Service Institute International presents
4th World Sake Sommelier Competition
Application Inquiry:
Application Due : May 20th
US Pre-Selection : May 27th
Los Angeles Regional Competition : June 12th
Chicago Regional Competition : June 16th
New York regional Competition : June 25th
Semi-Final in Tokyo : September 19th & 20th
Final in Tokyo : September 20th

Apply Now!
Application Inquiry:
To qualify, enter in: US Regional Competitions in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York

Competitors traveling to the Semi-Final and Final World Competition in Tokyo receive US$ 1,000 to cover travel fees, plus two nights’ hotel stay.


Sake Tourism to Japan: Sake Journeys!

SakeJourneys_Logo_sq400Have you ever dreamed of traveling to Japan’s best Sake regions, meeting the sake brewers and drinking the very best sake on the planet? Now you can!

I hope you’ll consider joining me on our next Sake Journey to Japan from March 12-19! The best way to learn about our tour is to visit the Sake Journey’s website. You can see our Detailed itinerary and learn all the details! Here are some highlights:

  • You’re guided on the tour by Sake Samurais and sake experts Chizuko Niikawa and Timothy Sullivan. Learn about sake from industry experts in Japan!
  • Dive deep into the hidden world of Tokyo Izakaya (sake pubs). We’ll be guided by Izakaya expert Kiwako Kurashima
  • Meet Sake Brewery owners and workers and get the rare chance to watch their work up close.
  • Enjoy and savor the best sakes on the planet. You’ll taste rare and exotic sakes you cannot buy – even in Japan!
  • Visit Japan’s largest sake festival – Niigata’s SAKE NO JIN!
  • Tour behind the scenes at three magnificent Breweries: Hakkaisan, Nanbu Bijin and Dewazakakura.
  • Our very small tour size gives you lots of time for questions, fun and sharing sake!

The Tour cost includes all accommodations in Japan, almost all meals and all travel within Japan. See our itinerary for all details on costs. I hope you’ll consider joining our tour! I can’t wait to visit Japan’s Sake Country with you!!

2013 Golden Masu Awards

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”


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”



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”



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”



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”


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:

Sake and Nobu at De Gustibus Cooking School

Sakes served at DeGustibus

Sakes served at DeGustibus

Recently, I had the good fortune to get invited to introduce some sakes at a cooking class – but this wasn’t just any cooking class, this was a cooking seminar from the chefs of Nobu New York, Nobu Next Door and Nobu 57 at the renowned De Gustibus Cooking School inside Macy’s.

I was presenting 5 stellar sakes to pair with their wonderful omakase course which we were not only going to eat but also learn how to make.

Each course was presented by a different chef from Nobu and I introduced each sake at the start of each course. The pairings were fun and there was a lot of playing around with “umami”, that concept of savory deliciousness, in both the sakes and the nobu dishes.

The reaction from the students was enthusiastic! Everyone seemed to love the food and sake pairings as well. Check out the food pairings and lots of photos below to get a sense of the evening. If you’re interested in De Gustibus Cooking School, I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’s a great place study fine cuisine!

Joy of Sake Friends & Family Discount

josLogo_140pxWe’re all sake friends here, right? Well, lucky us because I have a discount code for friends and family of Urban Sake to get $15 off the cost of admission to the Joy of Sake! When you are buying your tickets use code “FAFNY”. Act fast this offer expires Sunday Sept 8th!!

Friends & Family $80/person ($15 off)
use code “FAFNY”
Expires Sunday, September 8
The Joy of Sake
The Altman Building (135 W. 18th Street)
Thursday, September 26, 2013, 6pm–9pm

The Joy of Sake has a record 384 sakes for you to taste plus amazing appetizers from 15 top New York restaurants. And the best part? We’re offering this to our Friends & Family at an exclusive $15 discount!

It’s our way of saying thank you for all your support. We love kicking off the Joy of Sake season with this offer, but like all good things, it must come to an end. So get your orders in at the online ticket store at (promo code FAFNY) or at the Joy of Sake hotline at (888) 799-7242. Remember, our Friends & Family discount expires at midnight on Sept. 8!

A few facts about The Joy of Sake:

This year there are 384 sakes come from every sake brewing region in Japan.
More than half are ultra-premium daiginjo sakes.
Sixty percent—223 sakes—are not available in the U.S. except at the Joy of Sake.
The sakes were bottled in July and arrive in New York in peak condition after an unbroken chain of refrigerated transport.
There are outstanding restaurants and appetizers this year.

For more information, go to

Urban Sake Upgrade 2013!

Geeking Out 2013!

Geeking Out 2013!

Back in 2006, just one year after starting my website, I was proud as a new papa of my fledgling Urban Sake website redesign. I was crowing about my new Sake Directory filled with a whopping 20 sakes! Well, as they say… times have changed!

I’ve known deep down it was time for a facelift, so instead of undergoing microdermabrasion myself, I directed my energies on a long overdue Urban Sake website overhaul. I’ve added a lot of new features and functions that I hope you will find useful for your sake learning and loving. Without futher ado, check out what awaits you in Urban Sake 2013. …and as always Kanpai!

Urban Sake 2013

1) Urban Sake Membership
You can now sign up for and become a FREE member. This allows you to establish a profile, record your tasting notes, communicate with and friend other members, add sake events as well as add sake locations to our City Guides. Check out the activity stream to see who’s doing what! You can also ask questions and get answers on our Urban Sake Forum.

2) Urban Sake Directory
Using the new and improved Urban Sake Directory, you can browse, research and comment on 500+ sakes. If you visit the directory home, you can use the filters on the right hand side to filter the results and browse through many sakes. For example, If you’re looking for a Daiginjo from Akita that uses Yamadanishiki sake rice, we’ve got you covered. You can also leave tasting notes, create custom sake lists and Mark sakes as your favorite. Keep all your sake stuff in one place!

3) Urban Sake Events Calendar
Visit my new and refreshed sake events listing to stay up to date on all the events happening around the nation related to sake. Don’t see your event listed? If you sign up as an Urban Sake Member, you are free to post your own events and get the word out about your sake happenings anytime! Let’s make some events happen!

4) Urban Sake City Guides
Want to know where to find a sake retail shop in Seattle? or sake bars in NY? or sake restaurants in Honolulu? Use our convenient Sake City Guides using google maps and directory listings to zero in on the best of the sake world wherever in the world you might find yourself. Don’t see your favorite sake place? No problem, you can add your favorite sake spots to our guide yourself. Let your fellow sake lovers know what you recommend!

I hope you’ll take the time to join us at Urban Sake and become a FREE member! If you have any questions about sake or about using our new website, don’t hesitate to contact me. I look forward to helping you discover your new favorite sake! Kanpai!

New Film: The Birth of Sake

UPDATE: Sept. 1, 2013. Good News and a Happy Ending! The “Birth of Sake” Kickstarter achieved its goal of raising $50,000 to complete their film! This is an amazing achievement. Congratulations to all the organizers. Can’t wait to see the final product. When the time comes, I’ll certainly post any news on screenings right here on Urban Sake, so stay tuned.

I’ve visited many sake breweries over the years and always have my camera or video camera in tow. I am always sure I’ll capture the perfect video to help convey the magic of sake making on film. Well – it doesn’t quite work out that way. Reviewing my raw footage, I am usually foiled by the lighting, sound, steamed up lens, bad camera angle, low battery or some other glitch. You can’t imagine my thrill when I heard about a new film being made called The Birth of Sake, which endeavors to capture the art, complexity, humanity and beauty of sake making on film.

filmingThe Birth of Sake is a documentary film about the workers and production seasons at Tedorigawa, a fifth-generation, family-owned sake-brewery in Ishikawa, Japan. Tedorigawa has been producing some of the world’s top award winning sakes since 1870, and still relies on time-honored techniques to hand craft sake in a traditional way. We love Tedorigawa and it’s the perfect place to show some of the real beauty in sake making.

filming2The filmmaker Erik Shirai was a cinematographer for The Travel Channel’s ‘No Reservations’ with Anthony Bourdain, and just started a Kickstarter campaign running through September 2, 2013 to raise money for finishing the film. I was lucky enough to attend a launch event for the kickstarter and got to see a short preview of the film and… it’s amazing. It really does sum up everything that is great about sake making in a visual way. Beautiful editing, cinematography, lighting and everything you would expect.

When completed, it will be an vital film to help champion the sake industry and well worth supporting! Can’t wait to get to see a full screening someday, but in the meantime, you can join me in lending your support over at Kickstarter:

you can watch a short preview clip here:

The 10 Commandments of Sake

18Well, good heavens! I’ve been teaching about sake since 2007 and believe me, I get it – sake can be confusing and even downright intimidating for those just getting started.

I always thought it would be a good idea to pull together a cheat sheet of core concepts to help everyone understand more about sake basics. Thus was born the 10 Commandments of Sake, my guide to get your bearings and to start enjoying the wonderful world of sake. Can I get an “Amen” in here?

Ⅰ. Sake is Japanese Culture in a Cup.
cultureRight off the bat it’s important to understand that Sake is deeply connected to Japanese culture. I call it “Japanese Culture in a Cup.” Sake is known in Japan as the “drink of the gods” and it has deep ties to both religion, ceremony, traditions and everyday social interaction. Get to know sake, and you’ll get to know Japan. Like so much in Japanese culture, on the surface, sake may seem simple, restrained or perhaps even plain, but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a vast and colorful world of styles, tastes, methods and lore – and a devoted group of acolytes, committed to the quiet pursuit of perfection.

Ⅱ. Thou Shalt Pair Sake With More Than Just Sushi.
sushiFor better or for worse, America’s omnipresent sushi restaurants are the place where almost all of us get our first exposure to sake. This has lead some to conclude that sake should only be served with raw fish. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sake pairs beautifully with a stunningly wide array of cuisines and dishes. Some of the top restaurants in the world have sake on their wine lists. Give premium sake a try with any of your favorite dishes – Roast Beef, Pizza or even Thanksgiving Dinner… There is a sake you can pair up with any of these. Experiment and enjoy!

Ⅲ. Thou Shalt Not Even Think About Calling Sake a ‘Rice Wine’.
Ok, I’ll admit it, this is not the biggest sin in the book, but it is a major pet peeve of mine, so I’m gonna get up on my soapbox. Sometimes people want to dumb down sake for the masses and rely on the crutch of calling sake a “rice wine”. Blasphemy I say. If you get out the dictionary and actually look up the definition of wine, it says a wine is alcoholic drink made from the fermented juice of a fruit, such as grapes. Rice is not a fruit nor is it a plant that can produce juice. So, rice cannot produce wine. The finished product may drink like a wine, or even be served in a wine glass, but I think sake is important enough to merit it’s own category in the beverage world.

Ⅳ. Thou Shalt Not Bomb nor Shoot.

Just Say No.

Just Say No.

I feel that the Sake Bomb and Sake Shot are unfortunate vestiges of what I’ll call an unenlightened medieval period in the history of sake in the States. For the uninitiated, Sake Bombs involve dropping a small cup of cheap sake into a beer and drinking both quickly and Sake Shots involve slamming back an entire small cup of sake in one swift gulp. Both of these behaviors are now most likely seen during get-me-drunk-quick shenanigans during college, but in the wider world, we are happily moving well beyond the image of the sake bomb. More and more people recognize premium sakes as true artisinal works of art with craftspeople devoting their lives to its production and betterment. So leave the Sake Middle Ages behind and join us in the Sake Renaissance. Oh, and if someone asks you to do a sake bomb, do what Mr. T and Nancy Reagan recommend – “Just Say NO!”

Ⅴ. Thou Shalt Avoid Heat and Light When Storing Sake.
sunHeat and light are the enemies of sake. If you want extend the shelf life of your sake, keep it in a cool, dark place. If you have room in there, the refrigerator is the obvious choice! Pasteurized sake does not need to be refrigerated, but it is always a better option if you’re able. Please note that those yummy unpasteurized “nama” sakes must be refrigerated at all times. Oh, and don’t patronize that liquor shop that put all their sake on display in the front window. That’s literally not cool.

Ⅵ. Thou Must Pay a Premium for Premium.
richIt’s worthwhile knowing that cost and quality classifications are attached at the hip in the world of sake. If you want to enjoy an extra special sake with a Daiginjo or Junmai Daiginjo super premium classification, be prepared to pay more. There is not much bargain hunting for undiscovered gems as you may have in the wine world. Rice milling directly effects raw material costs for sakes. As sakes rate higher on the premium classification scale, the rice used to make those sakes is more finely milled and that means raw material costs are going up, too. To be clear, yummy and quality sakes can be had in all classification levels, but the more finely milled sakes most often cost more. Explore and see what style you (and your wallet) like best.

Ⅶ. Thou Shalt Not Pour For Thyself.
cupIn Japan, the most basic etiquette rule of serving sake is known as o-shaku. The main tenant of o-shaku is that it is considered most polite to pour sake for others but never directly for yourself. This little ritual of pouring for others creates an atmosphere of social interaction and bonding and the small sake cups typically used in Japan allow for many opportunities for everyone at the table to pour and receive sake. I have often seen a friendly tug of war over a sake carafe as guests jockey to be the first to pour for the other. Be sure to note that when you are receiving sake, it’s viewed as most respectful to lift your cup up off the table, hold it with two hands and be sure to take a sip before setting it back down. Why worry about this here? Well, I think it’s a fun and endearing custom that gets everyone at the table interacting and gets the sake flowing – the perfect way to jump start any sake event!

Ⅷ. Thou Shalt Not Fear the Screw Cap.
Some wine people seem to have a true phobia when it comes to screw caps. They are reputedly the domain of inexpensive, low quality wines. Sake manufacturers, however, have taken a different tack and use screw caps almost exclusively for all bottles, from the bargain basement sakes to the most expensive Junmai Daiginjos. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Screw caps just make sense. They are easy to open, easy to re-seal and do the best job of keeping the sake protected from oxidation. Once you start drinking more sake, you’ll come to much prefer that ‘craaack’ sound of opening a sake screw cap to the crumbly pop of a wine cork, as I have. But please – don’t sniff the screw cap.

Ⅸ. Thou Shalt Experiment With Serving Temperature.
What is the correct serving temperature for sake? Hot? Cold? in between? In a nutshell, there is no strict right and wrong in serving temperature as both warm and chilled sake can be wonderful. It’s all about finding the right sake for the right temperature for your palate. In general, fragrant, floral and aromatic sakes are best for serving slightly chilled as that will enhance their aroma. And again, in general, full bodied, robust and dry sakes tend to be a great choice for warming as that brings forward the alcohol notes on the palate and will suppress aroma. But whatever temperature you pick, it’s good to note that sake is so flexible in this area. You can drink it warm when you come in from shoveling show, or drink it cold to escape the summer heat. Serving temperature is actually sake’s secret weapon in the battle of the alcoholic beverages. Sake 1, other booze 0.

Ⅹ. To Thy Own Palate Be True: Drink Whatever Sakes You Enjoy!
amenLast but not least is the true Golden Rule of the sake world, and the easiest sake commandment to follow. Never forget that at its core, sake is about enjoyment and having fun. Be sure to give yourself permission not to worry too much about pairing rules, milling rates or serving temperature. You can simply start out by finding a sake you like and really enjoying it – simple as that. If you want to dive deeper down the road, you can certainly geek out with me about all the classifications and regions and rice types of the sake world, but none of that really matters for sake’s most basic function: to bring people together for having fun. Trust your own likes and drink whichever sakes speak to you regardless of price, reviews or expert recommendations. Simply put: “To thy own palate be true.” Well, hallelujah, I’ll drink to that!

Daishichi Baccarat Sake Night at Hakubai

Mr. Ad Blankestijn and Mr. Hideharu Ohta from Daishichi and Chizuko Niikawa

Mr. Blankestijn, Mr. Ohta from Daishichi and Chizuko Niikawa


is a sake brand that is famous for two things – its exclusive use of the Kimoto brewing method, and it’s extreme elegance. That elegance was on full display at a recent sake dinner featuring Baccarat Crystal at the Hakubai Restaurant in the Kitano Hotel.

This was another amazing night at Hakubai. When I sat down, I couldn’t help but notice the table setting which was full of refined looking stemware from the the Château Baccarat line of Baccarat Crystal.

We also had some special guests – Mr. Hideharu Ohta, the 10th Generation Owner of Daishichi, and Mr. Ad Blankestijn, a sake sommelier from Daishichi. Ad-san introduced each sake as it was poured.

Daishichi Sakes

Daishichi Sakes

Ms. Kaoru Parker from Baccarat was on hand to introduce her glasses and she encouraged us to try Daishichi Minowamon Junmai Daiginjo in both a standard wine glass and the Château Baccarat glass. It was amazing, but I must admit, the Baccarat glass somehow concentrated the flavor.

This event also gave me the rare opportunity to try the stunning Daishichi Myoka Rangyoku, which is without a doubt or any exaggeration one of best sakes on the planet. Supplies were understandably limited, and we got a small serving each and I really enjoyed that with a finish that doesn’t quit, you can really savor each delicious sip.

What a fun night! Stay tuned to the Urban Sake Event Listing to find out about upcoming sake tastings near you!

Win a Free Ticket to the Masumi Arabashiri Tasting at Cherry!!

Welcome to our Masumi Arabashiri Tasting Giveaway! To enter, log into the widget below and answer our trivia question about Masumi sake! All entries with the correct response will be entered to win a ticket to the April 10th Masumi Arabashiri Tasting at Cherry (355 West 16th Street, New York) from 6-8pm. This is a $50 value! Good luck! The winner will be notified by email at 2pm,Tuesday April 9th.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Urban Sake on NBC

The upcoming “Sake and the City” event on February 12th in NYC is going to be an amazing evening of enjoying Nihonshu. As part of the promotion for this event, I was invited to appear on NBC as part of their live (LIVE!!) 7pm local NYC newscast to talk about sake and the event. Luckily, everybody at NBC put me at ease and I really enjoyed the segment. I was interviewed by Pei-Sze Cheng who couldn’t have been nicer. You can check out the video and some pics below.

2012 Golden Masu Awards

Golden Masu Award!

Golden Masu Award!

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

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

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

“Best 720 Under $30”



And the Masu goes to:
Okunomatsu Tokubestu Junmai

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

“Best Junmai Ginjo Debut”



And the Masu goes to:
Fukuju Junmai Ginjo

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

“Most Delicious Sake in Custom Packaging”



And the Masu goes to:
Tenryo Hidahomare
Junmai Ginjo

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

“Best Nigori Debut”



And the Masu goes to:
Shichihonyari Junmai Ginjo Nigori

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

“Best Expensive Sake Worth the Price”



And the Masu goes to:
Tedorigawa Mangekyo Daiginjo

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

“Best in Show”



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

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

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

See Previous Golden Masu winners here:

Exploring Sake in Glorious Gifu

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

Nihon Izumi Shuzo

The Takeyama Brothers make Nihon Izumi Sake in Gifu City

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

Hayashi Honten

Eiichi Brewery in Gifu

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

Nagaragawa Ukai, Cormorant Fishing

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

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

Ohashi Ryoki Masu Factory

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

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

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

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

Takeuchi Sake Brewery

President Masafumi Takeuchi shows us his sake museum

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

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

Tenryo Sake Brewery

Some of the amazing sake selections at Tenryo!

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

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

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

Sake Breweries in Furukawa, Gifu

Streets of Hida Furukawa, Gifu

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

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

Sake Breweries in Takayama, Gifu

At Hirase Sake Brewery

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

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

Koyoido Sake “Toy Box” Ceramics Exhibition in Kyoto

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

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

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

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

vroom, vroom! sake cups on matchbox wheels.

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

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

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

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

Visiting Tomita Shuzo – Shiga’s Shichihonyari

Tomita-san sprinkling Koji spores on freshly steamed rice at Tomita Shuzo

I first saw Tomita Shuzo in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture on a visit I took there in 2008. It’s interesting to note that it seems both a lot and nothing has changed. The brewery is still making small batches by hand with a small staff and achieving amazing results. But on the other hand, you can sense that Shichihonyari is now a more famous and sought after brand and even a destination for sake-loving tourists, whom I saw popping into the brewery sake shop with regularity on this most recent trip.

Hanging right above the entrance to the brewery is a wooden plaque carved with the name “Shichihonyari”. This plaque is famous as it was carved by Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883 – 1959), who is widely acknowledged as a creative genius in Japan and is most well known for his works in ceramics and as a master of calligraphy. It also doesn’t hurt that Shichihonyari was Rosanjin’s favorite sake.

Famous “Shichihonyari” sign carved by the creative genius Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959)

On the day we were there, we saw rice steaming in action. This was a hot, fast-paced maneuver. Rice was steamed and hoisted over to the cooling conveyor belt on which the warm rice, that was heading for the koji room, also got a sprinkling of koji spores. As Tomita-san supervised and regularly checked the rice temperature, the kurabito shuffled the rice into bins that were then whisked to the koji room. Speed was of the essence and everybody brought it – working together, sweating and working hard. So much goes on behind the scenes that translates into that bottle of sake on your table. It was amazing to watch.

I think the magic of Shichihonyari is that it is an ancient brewery – one of the oldest in Japan, still working on an artisanal scale, but powered by young people wanting to make a difference. If that doesn’t qualify as “craft sake”, nothing would. In the U.S., Shichihonyari is now selling 3 sakes which will give you an excellent idea of the taste and vision of this brewery. I hope you get a chance to try Shichihonyari soon, and experience for yourself everything that made Rosanjin such a big fan.

Visiting Shata Shuzo – Ishikawa’s Tengumai

Shata’s Toji gives us a taste of the Moromi!

One of the most well known sakes in Ishikawa Prefecture is Shata Shuzo’s Tengumai. I recently had the opportunity for return trip to Ishikawa and didn’t want to miss another chance to see the latest goings on at Tengumai. We were lucky enough to get a tour of the brewery by the Master Brewer (Toji) and I enjoyed sampling sake right from the moromi tank… this is a rare treat!

Koji ready for the next step!

We also spent a fair amount of time touring the Koji Muro or Koji making room. Outside the koji room itself were large trays of stacked koji, fished and waiting for it’s next step – addition to the main mash or yeast starter. Each batch of Koji was marked with unique markings that tell which step of the brewing process the koji is meant for. These markings are quite beautiful and fun to look at… and a piece of living sake history too

At the end of the tour, we got to sample some sakes which included Shata’s Go-Rin brand as well as Tengumai. The weather was beautiful this day and coming off such a beautiful brewery tour, it make the sake taste just that much more delicious.

Visiting Miyasaka Brewery – Nagano’s Masumi

Outside Masumi’s beautiful “Cella Masumi Sake Shop” with Mr. & Mrs. Miyasaka.

Miyasaka Shuzo’s Masumi is a well known and well loved brand of sake in the U.S. and one that was among the very first sakes I ever tried. It was therefore a long, long overdue visit, when the stars aligned and I got a chance to visit Nagano Prefecture for the first time and see the home of the beloved Masumi Arabashiri for myself!

Plaque at Masumi marking the location of the birthplace of “Nanano” or #7 yeast.

Mr. Miyasaka, President of Masumi, gave us a tour of the two Masumi Breweries, the original “Suwa Kura” and the larger “Fujimi Kura” which opened in 1982. The Suwa Kura is still in operation and has the distinction of being the birthplace of the famous “nanago” or Number 7 sake yeast, first identified in 1946, when Masumi swept the national Sake appraisal awards using this newly discovered yeast. A plaque marks the location of that first fermentation tank that used number 7 yeast… a yeast that is still used by 60% of breweries throughout Japan and a true point of pride for Masumi Brewery.

Inside the beautiful “Cella Masumi Shop”

The Brewery Tour concluded at the Cella Masumi Shop – a wonderful store managed and curated with great love and attention to detail by Mr. & Mrs. Miyasaka. The shop is one of the most beautiful stores of it’s type I’ve ever seen. Certainly, there is sake for sale in a beautiful refrigerated cabinet. But the shop also features a glorious selection of sake cups, carafes, trays, sets and the like, all of the highest quality. The shop also features food, gifts, and all manner of wonderful goodies for the sake inclined. If you’re anywhere near Nagano, it’s worth a trip to Suwa to drop in on Cella Masumi Shop, for sure.

My sincere thanks to the Miyasaka family for welcoming me so warmly to their home and brewery. I have a deeper appreciation for their wonderful sakes having seen where they are made up close and personal. Now I know next year’s Arabashiri will taste all the better for it.