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Japan Society Earthquake Relief Fund

Jun ai shikomi
The label on the neck of a bottle of Sharaku 冩楽 junmai ginjo says: jun ai shikomi [pure love brewing].

In Tokyo on the evening of February 15, I was sitting cross-legged in the private dining room of Takara, a modern izakaya, with John Gauntner and his students taking the 2011 Advanced Sake Professional Course. At the table with us was John’s own sake sensei, Haruo Matsuzaki. The night felt auspicious. We toasted, shouting, “kampai!” Mori-san, the maitre d’, organized the perfect service of numerous courses of food matched to the seven sakes John had chosen for the evening. After we ate and drank ourselves into a happy flushed stupor, people began crawling like babies over cushions on the wood floor to talk to others. The very long table was covered with tall 1.8 liter bottles of sake, many katakuchi (sake flasks with open tops), innumerable o-choko (small sake cups), and the plates from dinner. The conversation was animated, enthusiastic, and a bit drunken. Delight and déjà vu: back in 2005 through 2008 when I lived in Japan, Takara had been the site of nine memorable John Gauntner dinners that had solidified my interest in sake.

One of the sakes on February 15th was Sharaku 冩楽 junmai ginjo from Fukushima, a rich, tingly, and delicious pure rice sake named after the 18th-century ukiyo-e master whose identity is a mystery. The neck of the bottle had a label that read, “Pure Love Brew,” a pun on the word jun for “pure” [100%] rice sake, with a mixed meaning of something like “love of pure rice sake brewing” and “brewed with pure love.” I was so taken with the phrase that I pledged in a slurred voice that I would pursue a jun life, making it delicious and full of love.

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And that is where I stopped writing when I heard the news of the earthquake/tsunami/radiation crisis in Japan. This post was going to be about my love of sake and sake people: my sake sensei, John Gauntner, and John’s coordinator in the sake courses and sake tours (sake expert in her own right), Etsuko Nakamura. I wanted to share photos of the toji (master brewers) and owners of the breweries we visited and the two sake experts that shared their knowledge with us in the class, Shunsuke Kohiyama, and Matsuzaki-san.

Shunsuke Kohiyama
(on right) Kohiyama-san, former brewer, sake industry expert

Matsuzaki-san
Matsuzaki-san, sake expert

After much thought I think that my impulse to highlight the lives of individuals remains the best way we can relate to tragedy. Waves crashing over entire towns can too easily be abstracted in one’s mind as a trailer for a movie about world destruction. But what is lost is moments and memories we can grasp one person, one moment at a time. This is all I can offer today: names and faces of individuals in Japan, some of whom I know are safe, some I hope are. I offer my broken heart with pure love for the the people who died, the people who will suffer, and all that will be lost.

Miyasaka-san
Miyasaka-san, president of Miyasaka Shuzo in Nagano Prefecture, maker of Masumi sake.

Igarashi-san
Igarashi-san, toji of Kumazawa Shuzo in Kanagawa, maker of Tensei sake.

Aoshima-san
Aoshima-san, toji of Kumazawa Shuzo in Shizuoka, maker of Kikuyoi sake.

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Crisp, clear winter blue sky. No snow, but a 30 percent chance for Christmas day. We spent the morning rearranging things, weeding our belongings, deleting the dross to accentuate the good, useful, and beautiful in our home. Carlos made me a desk, a useful and beautiful thing where I will reacquaint myself with my Japanese books after much neglect during this harried autumn. As the light turns into sunset gold, the mailman brings the January/February issue of Saveur, the Saveur 100 issue, in which Japanese culinary culture is represented by kombu, Kajitsu restaurant in NYC, Sushi Shin in Tokyo, Nehoni Nenox knives, and yuzu kosho (yuzu-flavored chili paste and salt). Almost lost among the junk mail and supermarket flyers is a handmade postcard with a bunny cartoon: a 年賀状 (nengajo, New Year’s card) from one of my old English students. Reminders of Japan always seem to find me…

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My newest ochoko, a birthday gift from my father. I christened it quickly with a lovely junmai ginjo sake.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year of the Rabbit!

Watermelon sake
Watermelon sake made with Otokoyama tokubetsu junmai.

The recipes in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook have proven reliable over the past two years. Their jambalaya is great and the spiced pecans and the crab dip are on the menu tomorrow for the Fourth. I was astounded to see a recipe in the cookbook for peach sake (why? because apparently some form of “rice wine” was “a noted beverage in the Lowcountry in the nineteenth century”), and a variation suggested watermelon.

I had a bottle of Otokoyama tokubetsu junmai which is nondescript enough to mix with fruit. The recipe is barely a recipe, steep fruit in sake, wait 24 hours. As a rule, I’m not interested in sake cocktails (although a concoction at Restaurant Eve was pleasant enough). But what the hell, it’s July Fourth weekend and the strange combination of Japanese sake and American watermelon might just convert some friends who are skeptical about sake.

The watermelon has been steeping 24 hours and it’s…watermelony sake.

Happy Fourth of July!

Shimeharitsuru "Jun" junmai ginjo
Shimeharitsuru “Jun” junmai ginjo. An old friend. The large swooping kanji in calligraphy is “Jun” (“pure,” as in pure rice sake, no alcohol added).

One of the pleasures of sake, at least for me, is revisiting old friends. As much as I am in search of the new, the untasted, the learning experience, I often come back around to some sakes I know that are solid, faithful, and fit my tastes very well. Shimeharitsuru “Jun” junmai ginjo is one of those old friends.

I think I tasted it the first time in the summer of 2007 with my then drinking partner, Patricia, at Tomohiro, a tiny izakaya in Yokohama that features Niigata sakes. Patricia and I had decided to try to visit some of the izakaya that John Gauntner wrote about in his books, Nihonshu no Umai Otona no Izakaya (a guide to Tokyo-area sake pubs) and The Sake Handbook. Oh yes, it is delightful to slide open a tiny door and enter, we two American women, to sit at the bar and take in the scene of cluttered glassware and bottles, the posters of Japanese beer girls and sumo banzuke, the humming fridges full of sake, the smells of tempura and braised eggplant, and thus become completely absorbed in the evening’s tastings. My notes that night were pretty terse, “Sweet rice nose, clean.” But I put a check mark next to it, my way of telling future me to go back for more.

I tasted it again when John Gauntner featured it at the first dinner of the January 2008 Sake Professional Course. My notes expanded somewhat and I wrote of its “cotton candy nose” and “classic” profile, plus the fact that it was made of gohyakumangoku rice. I’ve since learned that I often really (really) like sake made from that rice.

I smacked my lips on it on December 31, 2009, at Sushi Taro, before picking up my osechi. That day I drank it heated, which gave it tones of caramel.

And tonight I finished a bottle I had been enjoying over the past few days. It has a clean crispness (crisp cleanness?) typical of a sake from Niigata Prefecture, but the nose is gentle and sort of coy. Tonight that cotton candy nose was there with a slight banana undertone. A delicious tartness refreshes the palate and keeps me wanting more.

Tonight I drank “Jun” with gyūniku no misozuke (“miso-marinated beef,” but we marinated veal chops). I wrapped veal chops (non-factory farmed) in cheesecloth along with some crushed garlic. I spread some inaka miso I had in the fridge mixed with mirin over the outside of the cheesecloth and let it sit a few hours. Then I removed the cheesecloth and grilled the veal. The meat was outstanding, carrying that slightly fermented salty taste that makes me think of Japan. Be careful when you grill it, miso marinades tend to make meat burn more easily. The recipe was from the May/June 1998 issue of Saveur, but a quick search shows me that the author, Hiroko Shimbo, published the same recipe in her later book, The Japanese Table. The recipe is floating around Indra’s net if you want it.

The side was a light Japanese-style stirfry with yellow squash (my addition) and cucumbers from Yasai hatake no reshipi: 106 Recipes from Vegetable Farm [sic], a homey Japanese cookbook I picked up a few years ago. At the end of the recipe is a note which (I think) says: “Cucumber is recommended for people who are difficult to get along with.” [For Japanese speakers:「苦手な人」は英語に何ですか]  Or it could mean something like “People who have a weakness should eat cucumber.”

Luckily my weakness, sake, is not cured by eating cucumbers. But I do become more easygoing when I drink it…

Momokawa G Sake
Photo: The G Sake, “Joy,” from Momokawa, the genshu junmai ginjo.

I saved the last tasting for the big genshu. Genshu, basically undiluted sake, is different than “normal” sake (whatever that is) in that the brewer takes the ferment as far as possible without sacrificing quality. Then, the final result is not diluted with water to bring the alcohol level back down to about 16% (for example, G Sake is 18%). Genshus can reach up to 20% or so; before I opened this bottle I knew I was dealing with something that would hit me with a respectable wave of alcohol. What I didn’t know was how the balance would be struck between that higher level of alcohol and the flavors. I gave the G several tastings over a number of days because I knew it would change over a few days.

Day 1: When I first opened the bottle there was a whiff of cedar and ripe banana, a bit of grapefruit pith (yes, pith, not zest), and a bit of creamy vanilla. The color has a tinge of warmth, which makes me think they restrained themselves with the charcoal filtering. The website says “roughly filtered for creamy finish.” Is this a true muroka? They also age it for 10 months, but that doesn’t seem an extraordinary amount of time. The genshu front wave of alcohol was of course quite noticeable, but I was struck by a lack of taste coming behind the alcohol. The end of the sip was sharp with what I must now dub the sour Momokawa finish, which I see on the website they call “lingering, tropical spice finish.”

Day 2: I was happy to find there was less cedar on the nose a day after opening the bottle. I don’t mind a bit of cedar, but it can interfere with getting at the sake itself. The nose carried more banana and the palate was creamier on the back with a better finish. Much better. Still, this is a bottle to open when you know you are eating hearty and spicy food. The following days the G mellowed out a little more, but basically retained the same qualities as on day 2.

We tried it with a few different foods. It paired amazingly well with Korean spicy anchovies, Myulchi Bokkum. I know—thanks, Madam, for the overly specific food pairing. What I mean is this sake can stand up to to some serious heat and deep umami in the food and still come through as a distinctive pairing. That is how I would drink it in the future, with Korean food, with Thai coconut curries, and with American barbeque sauces. Hey, this is not a sake to sip gently while moon viewing, but I think it has a place as a foil for food.

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So, that’s it, my procrastination-laden series of tastings in SakéOne’s Momokawa and Organic product lines. I didn’t taste the nigoris, but considering how hard I am on even the best Japanese nigoris, I think I’ll hold off.

Out of 5 sakes, all junmai ginjos, I found a huge variation in the brewing styles, which shows a very nice control of the process and interest in exploring the craft. Nothing I had was poor quality; if I dinged a sake, it wasn’t to my individual taste, but there was clearly something intentional being created. What would I drink again? Certainly the Momokawa Silver and Ruby were friendly drinking and were affordable enough for me to share with friends. The G is big and wouldn’t be something I’d relax with, but I can imagine enjoying it when I’m serving Sichuan, Korean, or spicy barbeque sauce.

A few notes on SakéOne:
Obviously all the sakes I tasted were junmai ginjos. I have heard that U.S. laws require brewers to only brew junmai sake (so no alcohol can be added), but where is the daiginjo? Where is a hearty non-ginjo junmai?

Thanks again to Dewey and SakéOne for the chance to taste these sakes and for responding to my posts. Dewey assures me that SakéOne continues to improve and change, so that my tastings this past spring may become obsolete. I will revisit these sakes to check in.

The SakéOne Challenge, Part 2: Momokawa Organic Ginjo and Momokawa Ruby
The SakéOne Challenge, Part 1: Momokawa Silver and Momokawa Diamond

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