In Japan, a master sake brewer is known as a Toji. They train for years and it’s their job to manage the day to day operations of sake production. And it’s not everyday that a Toji superstar blows into town, so I wasn’t about to miss my chance to talk sake with the Kyoto toji who makes Tamagawa Sake. Besides making some kick-ass sake, this Toji is a little, well… different from his colleagues in the Toji Guild. I’m talking of course about Philip Harper, the only non-Japanese toji in Japan.
Hailing from Cornwall, England, Philip became a Master Sake Brewer the old fashioned way… he earned it. Arriving in Japan in 1988, Harper worked his way up the sake industry ladder, taking and passing the Nanbu Brewer’s Guild Exam in 2001, whereby he became the first and only non-Japanese person to earn the title of Toji. In 2007, he joined Kyoto’s Kinoshita Sake Brewery, makers of the Tamagawa brand and became their toji.
This week, Sakagura Restaurant hosted Philip Harper at a tasting event featuring four of his Tamagawa Sakes, two of which are not available in the U.S. All of the sakes served were very interesting – each in their own way. Two are currently imported, the delicious Tamagawa Kinsho Daiginjo and the loveable Tamagawa Tokubetsu Junmai.
The scene stealers, however, were the rowdy Tamagawa Junmai Yamahai Nama Genshu “White Label” and the outrageous Tamagawa “Time machine 1712” Junmai Kimoto. The Yamahai Nama Genshu is brewed letting the house yeast fermentation run pedal-to-the-metal until the alcohol tops out at a staggering 20-21.5%! This makes for a strong, seasoned and sneaky yamahai – sneaky because it is still so smooth, drinkable and enjoyable as such sky high alcohol percentages.
The “Time Machine 1712” is brewed using a sake recipe from the year – you guessed it – 1712. This funky brew gives us a window into what sake lovers in Edo may have been enjoying. The taste is suprising – quite sweet with noticeably higher acidity. Pairing this sake with ice cream or blue cheese is a shogun slam dunk. Sakagura reserved the back room for the tasting with delicious appetizers served between generous pours of all the sakes in a socialble stand up style reception. Fun!
Tasting all these marvelous Tamagawa sakes, you can tell without a doubt that Philip is deeply devoted to his craft, and has a true love of creatively and deliciously pushing the sake envelope. But you know what? My sake spidey sense is telling me even more adventurous sakes from Harper are yet to come. What does the future hold? We’ll just have to wait and see where the Toji of Cornwall leads us next.