I brought a yakitori shop sake to a moon-viewing party. Or at least it felt that way as I plunked down my giant 1.8 liter bottle on the table next to a gathering of elegant junmai ginjos. The members of the Tokyo Sake Meetup Group met last Saturday at Ichibee (near the Ogikubo Station), to taste 13 sakes brought by the group, including three mystery sakes (labels removed) from Robert-Gilles, the Shizuoka sake blogger.

March 1 Sake Meetup
Photo: Koshi no Yuki Tsubaki junmai ginjo from Niigata, and Aoi Me no Samurai junmai from Kanagawa.

Much like the enjoyment of wine, sake tasting is highly situational and is affected by many factors such as food, location, even the company with whom one drinks. At our local yakitori shop, while we eat grilled chicken, braised pork, and fried lotus root stuffed with shrimp, our local junmai, Aoi Me no Samurai (Blue-Eyed Samurai), is very easy to drink, and it supports the rough and filling food. But it was tough to taste my local tipple next to a bunch of lean ballerina ginjos. Poor little Dumbo.

March 1 Sake Meetup
Photo: Two favorites of the evening: Maboroshi-no-taki daiginjo from Toyama, and Chiyomusubi junmai ginjo shizuku nama from Tottori.

The reality is, however, we tasted a wide variety of sakes, the grades ranged from futsushu (2 3), honjozo (1), junmai (4), junmai ginjo (4), to daiginjo (1), and including a futsushu sake of unknown grade just pressed on 29 February. The sakes were brewed in Niigata (3), Shizuoka (3), Kumamoto (2), Toyama (1), Ishikawa (1), Kanagawa (1), Tottori (1), and Kyoto (1). So, we tasted sakes of highly variable grades from all over the country. The experience of shared discovery is what makes these sake meetups so worthwhile. We never know what we are going to get, and we can expect to be delighted by a new find.

Not surprisingly (or sadly predictably), my notes on the four junmai ginjos and the one daiginjo are splashed with words like: “yum, classic sake, soft classic, beautiful nose.” But the junmai sakes also made an impression: Kagotobi Gokkan junmai muroka nama was really drinkable, with sweet start and an almost effervescent mouth feel, and Zuiyou junmai from Kumamoto was rich and round, pleasantly funky.

The standout was Tsuki no Katsura Yanagi junmai ginjo from Kyoto: absolutely soft and delicious, so pristine and elegant that many of us went a bit quiet as we tasted it. I wrote, “Japan in a bottle.” I meant Heian Japan, old classic Japan, elegant dreams of refinement and cool discretion, with a hint of the passion one feels sitting under plum blossoms. This is sipping sake.

March 1 Sake Meetup

It certainly can’t represent all of sake culture in a bottle. How could it? Do I want to drink that delicate willowy sake from Kyoto as I eat yakitori? God no. I need a fat bottomed junmai or honjozo to grab onto. Our experience of sake can’t be separated from the context, the people we talk with, the boiling nabe or cool sashimi in front of us at the table. But I’m glad to have the chance to try all these sakes, to widen my experience of what sake can be.

March 1 Sake Meetup

At the end of the evening, I drunkenly splurged on glasses of Juyondai, a junmai ginjo from Yamagata. During his sake professional course in January, John Gauntner told us that Juyondai was so popular that it was virtually impossible to buy in a retail shop, and that we should try it when on offer in an izakaya. So, buzzed and greedy, I bought a round of six overly large glasses. This move promptly sent several of us over the edge.

After energetic doings at a karaoke bar with my husband and some of the ladies from the meetup, I conducted a complicated removal operation to get sleepy Carlos into a cab for a long ride back to our hotel. It’s delightful to bundle your man into a cab after midnight, watch the lights of Tokyo flash by the windows, and feel the warmth of sake in your belly.

Many thanks to Et-chan and Te-chan who put together an excellent evening, and to everyone at the meetup for making it memorable and fun.