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Momokawa sakes
Photo: Momokawa Organic Ginjo (junmai) and Momokawa Ruby junmai ginjo.

Link to Part 1 of the SakéOne Challenge

Momokawa Organic Ginjo (junmai)
A few weeks back when I tried the Momokawa Organic Ginjo the weather was still chilly here in the Washington, D.C. area. We (the tasting team here at You, Madam) were sitting outside, not so much because it was comfortable outside but more in hope of luring warm weather. I was ready to discover a summer sake.

I sat wondering about the bottle which was labeled Organic Ginjo and on the line below, junmai. Why not just junmai ginjo as on the other three Momokawa junmai ginjos I had tried so far? Perhaps to the marketing team organic ginjo sounds better than organic junmai ginjo. I would have focused on teaming junmai with its connotations of all rice, no added alcohol, with the term organic, for a double-emphasis on a natural product, made of pure rice, using no chemicals. Whatever. As long as a sake makes my mouth happy, I don’t care if the label reads:

Isaac Titsingh’s Organisch Sacki

The first moment of the first sip was promising, I was thinking, a light, delicate, warm weather sake, something for summer to serve very cold, not too demanding for a non-sake drinker, perhaps to serve to some friends, now what would I want to drink with—

And then I got the long sour aftertaste which kills this one for me. It has a faint nose with a super light palate that is refreshing, but then the finish skews bitter/sour. Strange.

I certainly think using organic rice is a worthy enterprise. I am out at my local farmer’s market every week, I try for local and if something is also organic, all the better. But sake is one of those unique products that overcomes my delicate eco sensibilities in my need to quench my thirst, so that domestic organic label really needs to represent something delicious to sway me.

I read an interesting article by Melinda Joe about Japanese organic sake in the Japan Times, but it made me wonder about the rice SakéOne normally uses to brew its sake. Is that rice normally grown with pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers? Is it local rice?

I’ll try to get some answers and report back. If anyone has any insights on Japanese rice growers, organic sake, or Issac Titsingh, please do share.

Momokawa Ruby (junmai ginjo)
We drank a bottle of Momokawa Ruby with a dish of pasta with sardines, bread crumbs, and capers (from Mark Bittman in the New York Times). The Ruby had a great mouthfeel and paired nicely with the strong sardine and caper tastes. We drank the whole bottle…and ever since I have been trying to find the junk-mail envelope on which I wrote my notes. Let’s just say when it goes fast, we’re digging it. I remember it wasn’t as dry as the Silver and was free of the unpleasant nose of the Diamond. I’d pair this sake with grilled fish or even a steak (although I prefer to have one of my favorite yamahais with beef). Good news for me, Momokawa Ruby is another reasonably priced, reasonably good drinkin’ sake option.

Next: SakéOne’s G Sake, the big genshu…
The SakéOne Challenge, Part 3: G Sake
The SakéOne Challenge, Part 1: Momokawa Silver and Momokawa Diamond

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Momokawa Silver
Photo: SakéOne’s Momokawa Silver Tanrei Junmai Ginjo. IMHO, Silver beats Diamond.

Back in February I wrote a not-so-flattering post about a bottle of Momokawa Diamond. SakéOne’s Vice President of Marketing immediately challenged me to a rematch. Thinking I had perhaps gotten my hands on an old, tired bottle of sake, he very generously sent me fresh product.

I have held back on my comments for a while because I wanted to weigh considerations such as: Does a free bottle of sake taste better than one I buy? How do SakéOne’s American-made sakes compare to Japanese sakes and how much should I expect/desire them to be similar? Do I really want every sake I drink to be a freaking satori experience or might I want to enjoy something friendly and well made? How can I induce more toji to send me sake?

Enough shilly-shallying, thanks Dewey and kanpai!

Momokawa Diamond (junmai ginjo)
My first bottle of the Diamond indeed had been past its prime, God knows what had happened to it. The new bottle was better, fresher, brighter. Huge cantaloupe flavors come through and the palate is fat and pleasant. As I wrote the first time, it’s obviously a sake made with love, but I’m just not loving this sake. Here’s the detail that made me put off writing about this for a couple of weeks: I still think this sake has a nose reminiscent of wood glue (not Elmer’s, I checked). I can’t quite imagine what I would want to eat with it. Unlike the Silver, which made me think of many cuisines and dishes I could happily pair with it, the Diamond is crazymaking in its combination of big overripe fruit and an undertone of savory herbs.

Verdict: Seriously, what’s going on with that nose?

Momokawa Silver (tanrei junmai ginjo)
Dry, crisp, clean, with minerals and tart fruit, a huge mouthful of sake. Nice balance on the palate without the harshness of some dry sakes. I was amused to be reminded of the style difference between a complex and flinty French Chablis and those giant California chardonnays that can exhibit an unseemly assertiveness. While some Japanese sakes must unfold and blossom slowly, revealing layers of meaning, the Silver is a bit Brick-House-Mighty-Mighty, if you know what I mean. This is Lewis and Clark sake; that French Chablis–California Chardonnay style comparison gave me an inkling of what SakéOne means when they say they brew for the “American taste bud.” A few of us sake otaku bloggers had been debating that term, wondering what exactly it meant. I think I sort of get it when I have a giant mouthful of the Silver. It’s good sake, well made, but with a big presence. Kind of over the top, but that’s the appeal of it.

If you are going to pair it with food, try the bolder, meatier Japanese flavors like grilled chicken or nabe. We drank it with plate of freshly cooked David Chang/Momofuku fried chicken (recipe at Inuyaki). The back of the bottle recommends pairing it with fish and sushi, but there’s that huge palate that can stand up to more assertive food. I think some subtler Japanese dishes might be overwhelmed by this sake.

Verdict: For the price and quality, this sake is a real steal. I really liked it; I’ll drink it in the future. I don’t feel the need to sit and mull it over like I do a bottle of Kenbishi, but it drinks friendly, and what could be more American than that?

Next up: Momokawa Ruby and Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo
The SakéOne Challenge, Part 2: Momokawa Organic Ginjo and Momokawa Ruby
The SakéOne Challenge, Part 3: G Sake

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Sushi chefs preparing plates at Zentan.

March 3rd at Zentan restaurant in Washington, D.C., Trevor Corson (a native of the D.C. area and author of The Secret Life of Lobsters and The Story of Sushi) gave the first in a planned series of “sushi concierge” presentations. He hopes to come down to D.C. whenever he can book enough people for his sushi talks. I, of course, was lured out by the promise of sake, hoping to score something new.

While I was waiting at the bar for the event to start, I tried some Wakatake junmai daiginjo: sweet, smooth, fruity, but I had a hankering for something a little more fleshy that evening. The Zentan sake list discombobulated me. Several of the sakes are only listed by their English translations rather than their Japanese names. Thus, Ama no To is listed as simply “Heaven’s Door.” The English translations are nice to have, but why no Japanese transliteration? I was completely unmoored by these de-Nipponized sake names with no brewery listings. I’m praying this is not the wave of the future.

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Three selected sakes of the evening.

Corson’s presentation was designed to help one experience throwback sushi, that is, the more classic fish, rather than the common American style of sushi. As he put it, “Hey, I happen to like California rolls, but I think we should search out a fuller experience.” He specifically excluded salmon and bluefin tuna from the evening’s menu because they are not “traditional,” and wanted to focus on white and silvery fish and shellfish. Whether or not we need to buy into the concept of historical sushi fish versus modern fish, he makes a sound plea for diversity in sushi eating.

Nothing in his lecture was particularly earthshaking, but his focus on expanding the repertoire of sushi in America is admirable. He’s trying to get Americans to eat less appreciated fish that sushi chefs want to serve in the States but can’t get their customers to order. Thus, he emphasized that one should concentrate on texture from shellfish and the more subtle flavors of certain fish rather the “obvious” fatty and simplistic tuna belly, salmon, and unagi. Bluefin tuna should be off the menu for many obvious environmental reasons, but I like Corson’s manner of selling species diversity as evidence of diner sophistication. Will America buy it? Probably not, but it’s a worthy message.

We were served what is apparently the Zentan signature dish, Singapore slaw, which at first has some nice flavors and textures with hazelnuts and fresh radish and crispy rice noodles. Then it gets soggy and makes one think of July 4th party leftovers. The first of three sakes was Ame no To (Heaven’s Door) tokubetsu junmai. This is an old friend of mine from Japan, with that delightful crisp and ricey palate. Good stuff, and not hard to find in the States. In fact, all three sakes of the evening were Vine Connections imports. Corson declined to comment much about the sakes, saying he doesn’t have enough knowledge to do the subject justice. Disappointing, I wonder if he needs a lecture partner?

Round one of some well-made nigiri sushi: kanpachi with yuzu garnish, ocean trout with California caviar, madai with umeboshi, sweet shrimp with salmon roe and deep fried shrimp heads (particularly yummy), anago (sea eel) with the standard eel sauce.

Corson moved on to some well-known etiquette issues: Americans need to stop insulting sushi chefs by rubbing their wooden chopsticks together before eating (something I’ve always found bizarre). Later in the evening when he stopped by our table, I offered him my theory that some people feel the need to “remove splinters” because they are tightly (and incorrectly) pressing their lips against the chopsticks as they pull them out of their mouths (like a person eating chocolate cake with a fork).

He also counseled against pouring copious amounts of soy sauce, making a wasabi slurry, and sloshing away with the fish. As he put it, sushi chefs have told him when they see this they ensure that customer is “off the best fish list for the night.” Again, the choir says, Amen Brother.

He made an interesting point about how tightly sushi rice is packed for nigiri in the United States and that one way to get your sushi chef to regard you as good fish—worthy (the secret stash under the counter) is to ask for a looser pack on the rice. In this case, you’d eat the sushi with your fingers, something he encourages.

Corson confirmed a suspicion I had that sushi chefs in the States were preparing very sweet sushi rice compared with the sushi rice in Japan (even allowing for Kansai/Kanto variations). He said Japanese sushi chefs learn quickly that sweeter rice sells more sushi because it pleases the “American palate.” There’s mention of the American palate again! Someone please wash out America’s mouth with soap.

Sushi round two: sea scallop, horse mackerel with ginger and scallions, flounder with chili daikon, and ye olde bara zushi of mackerel and kelp.  Sake two: Tentaka Kuni (Hawk in the Heavens) junmai. More about that below.

Lecture concluded, Corson visited all the tables to answer questions, and miso soup was offered tragically in a lipped bowl with stainless steel spoons. I stared at the bowl on the table and held the spoon above it wondering what was wrong. Then I realized that so much of the enjoyment of miso soup is bringing the bowl up close to the face, appreciating the aromas, and sipping from a warm lacquer (ok faux-lacquer plastic) bowl. With Western-style etiquette plus a wide lip on the bowl keeping it anchored to the table and the feel of the cold, stainless steel soup spoon, the miso soup lost all its allure. I left it.

The Tozai ginjo nigori (Voices in the Mist) served with dessert was crisp and not as cloudy as many nigoris. Very nice, and I am hard on nigori sake. Dessert was an enjoyable, modern almond panna cotta with pineapple raspberry ravioli and passionfriut sauce.

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Tentaka Kuni (Hawk in the Heavens) junmai.

I played nice with our waiter and he brought me a free second glass of the Tentaka Kuni. I may have to revisit this one for the interesting bitter nutty taste with a widely spreading palate. Intriguing. Has some warming potential but was served cold that evening.

See Trevor Corson’s Sushi Concierge site for more about these lectures in D.C. and New York. He admits that his standard lecture must be aimed at sushi newbies. A private lecture (you must have at least 6) might be better for people who want to delve deeper.

Momokawa Diamond
Photo: Momokawa from SakéOne, Oregon-made sake.

I first tasted sake, like most Americans, in Japanese restaurants which served standard Japanese restaurant sake. I drank it, as they served it to me, partially boiled to death and I thought it grand. After those early sake experiences in college, I lived in Japan on two separate occasions, most recently from 2005 to 2008. I had a chance to educate my palate a bit.

The great stuff, Japanese artisan-made sake, inspires a delightful awe and a reverence for craft. That frank delight in the drink is reflected in the missionary work of people like John Gauntner (see Sake World), Beau Timkin at True Sake, and in some of the blogs I list at the left of this page, Tokyofoodcast and Jumanai Djimi Django, among others. The great sakes can encompass a wide range of styles and flavors, but they all are exciting, thought-provoking, and create good cheer.

I had previously written here about how expensive sake is in the United States, compared with prices in Japan. I knew there were American-made sakes that were much less expensive. So I bought a bottle of this $12 Momokawa with a touch of hope. Would I find a delicious inexpensive sake? Can they make good sake in America?

For me, the Diamond was a startling disappointment. The nose was a bit gluey with some fruit, like funky cantaloupe. This got me excited at first because a cantaloupe nose is something that does appear in many great sakes. But then the texture on the palate was flat, with no brightness or complexity (and it didn’t improve on subsequent tastings). It disappears off the tongue with a note of sweet and sour alcohol. It has the body and underpinnings of good sake, such that one can tell it was made with love and some craft. I just don’t think it’s the best expression of what sake can be.

A comment from Greg Lorenz, the SakéOne brewer, makes me wonder if my expecting a Japanese style in American sake is skewing my tasting:

“We represent the American taste bud,” said Greg Lorenz, who is responsible for the production of the sake. He studied sake brewing with SakéOne’s Japanese business partner, Momokawa Brewing, but uses his own inventive style to produce American sake.

“I grew up on burgers and fries, not sushi and rice, so we’re going to make choices that seem appropriate based on our background,” he said.

I’m going to have to taste more. I’ll try more SakéOne products, in particular the g-sake and the Momokawa Silver. Perhaps make a trip out to Minnesota to see a friend and to try moto-i, the sake brewery-restaurant. I’ll take recommendations…

ETA: See the post on the second tasting of Momokawa Diamond and a new tasting of Momokawa Silver thanks to SakéOne.

Dassai sparkling nigori
Photo: Dassai sparkling nigori junmai daiginjo 39.

A Frankenstein of unnaturally joined parts: daiginjo nigori sparkling sake.

Man, what a party-pooper I am. I was hoping to like this. Ooh, sparkling sake! Freakalicious! I had tasted some sparkling sake in John Gauntner’s sake seminar, in the “Other Types” tasting, which included a red rice sake, a nigori, and a low-alcohol sake, among others. I just looked up my tasting note for Chikurin’s Houhoushu sparkling sake. I wrote, “Eww.” Hmm, problem here.

But I wanted to be surprised by the Dassai, have my mind opened.

I really didn’t find the taste all that compelling, but my problem was more a texture thing: I enjoy some nigori sakes for their creaminess on the palate. The effervescence in this sake fought against the nigori creaminess and didn’t really enhance the sake taste or the floral daiginjo nose. In champagne, the bubbles take the bouquet and the tartness up from your palate and into your sinuses, a deeply pleasurable feeling. With this, I felt the bubbles fighting the low-flying nigori-sensation. Not enough tart acid to fly up with the bubbles, an okay nose, but sort of lost in all the frenetic, confused activity.

Not my thing.

I’ve enjoyed some other Dassai products, but this one tasted like a marketing experiment.

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