Summer is in full swing and while that usually means fatigue inducing humidity, a constant state of damp sweatiness, and an exorbitant electricity bill due to the round the clock pumping of the AC there is an upside. Summer sake!
This year has been no different with a plethora of brightly labelled, fruity, light and refreshing sake hitting the fridges across the country. Unlike graded sake or other seasonal offerings such as Hiyaoroshi or Shiboritate there is no technical definition for natsuzake (summer sake) so it’s pretty much up to the brewers’ interpretation as to what makes a sake suitable for summer marketing. Generally the sake offered around this time of year is not so much about depth or complexity but simply about easy drinking fresh sake that goes down easy as a quencher to the ridiculous Japanese summer heat. Many varieties are nama, or once pasteurized to give that fresh zip and the fragrant ginjo style also often lends itself nicely to the theme but of course none of these are requirements as such.
One of the more interesting summer sake to come on the scene this year was from Wakayama brewery Saika 雑賀. Their junmai ginjo appropriately named “Cool Down” gained a fair bit of attention this year. Low-alcohol ginjo styles are fairly common this time of year and of course the easiest way to make a low-alcohol sake is dilute it down with water. However Cool Down is actually a genshu with an alcohol content of 12%. This leaves us with something of an oxymoron as genshu of course means there was no dilution involved as is normally the process for most sake and especially for low-alcohol content sake. Genshu on a label will usually put a sake at somewhere between 17-20%. How Saika achieved this alcohol content is pretty much open for speculation as the brewery isn’t revealing how they pulled it off. Personally, I’d guess it had something to do with halting the fermentation process early before the alcohol content climbed to high as there is still quite a bit of residual sugar evident on the palate which normally would have been chewed up if fermentation was allowed to carry on longer. Profile-wise the sweetness actually goes a little against the concept of refreshing summery sake which to me evokes images of dry, crisp sake. However it does deliver a fruity punch which more than wakes up the senses and would have been a great “by the pool” drinking sake. Alas, I have no pool…..
In the somewhat more “traditional” summer category (if there is such a thing) Shizuoka prefecture brewery Kaiun 開運 presented a lovely tokubetsu junmai full of soft fruit salad aromas and a light fleeting mouth-feel that actually went very well on a steamy summer evening with a bowl of salted watermelon.
Finally, possibly my pick of the season was an old favorite from Kochi prefecture, Akitora 安芸虎. An unpasteurized junmai ginjo pressed by fune (as per all their sake) tonnes of character, brightness melon and apple aromas with a crispy acidic finish and that exquisite summery freshness that cooled and satisfied in a way that’d give your favorite beer a run for its money.
Summer’s not over yet and we’ve still got a few more weeks before the serious business hits and we see this year’s Hiyaoroshi sake (although there are apparently a couple of early birds out there) so till then it’s a matter of persevering with the humidity, sweat and lethargy. Although the summer sake helps!
Any industry whether it be movies, music, wine or art gives birth to a few creations that garner a cult-following. The sake world is no different. In fact, the small size of most sake breweries and the lack of national (and of course international) distribution of many sake further fuels the cult-like following for these sake. I’m talking about those sake unicorns that inspire fanatical devotion where drinkers clamor over themselves to track down a sip of this sake they’ve heard about through mass media, instagram tweets or bar room chat. Likewise, the establishments that get their hands on these white-whales often waste no time in letting all and sundry know that they have procured a bottle or two of these mysterious elixirs providing them with a solid claim to being a credible sake bar along with a juicy carrot to dangle in front of prospective customers. Indeed, there are a few of these cult-sake however few have reached the status of the revered Juyondai.
Located in northern Japan in Yamagata prefecture, brewery Takagi Shuzo was established in 1615, so although they’ve been around quite a while it’s only in the last few years or so that they’ve hit their dizzying heights as Juyondai. In fact when their last toji (head brewer) retired 18 years ago the brewery faced uncertainty as there was no one to take over the reigns. Like most breweries, the toji was a hired gun who would come to the brewery in the winter brewing season and return to his home once the season was done. In what seems to be a fairly common tale lately, with a lack of successors to the toji the responsibility was picked up by a member of the breweries’ family. In this case the president’s son Akitsuna Takagi, at the time a 21 year old agriculture student. Takagi-san took the somewhat unprecedented move of brewing sans toji. Learning from others around him and studying as much as he could about the technicalities as well as the intangible aspects of sake brewing, Takagi turned Juyondai around in a way few could have foreseen. What seemed a gamble at the time became a masterstroke that saw the brewery’s future guaranteed . In a time when the tanrei karakuchi (light and dry) style of Niigata was all the rage, Takagi-san introduced their new range of bold fruit driven sake. Even these days Takagi Shuzo only brews around 2000 koku (koku 石 is the measuring unit for brewed sake. 1 koku equals about 100 x 1800ml bottles) meaning roughly 200,000 or so bottles. Which for a sake in such demand really isn’t much especially considering some of their 20 different sake including their often experimental limited brews aren’t even available outside of Yamagata prefecture. However, this small production sees demand remain high and seemingly guarantees sold out stocks every year. Today, Juyondai is the kind of sake fans travel for. Although there might be a dozen sake bars closer, drinkers will travel that extra distance to get their hands on some Juyondai.
I’ve tried Juyondai quite a few times and have always been well impressed so when the offer came to attend a special dinner which would see an unrivaled selection of 13 Juyondai sake open on the table it was too much for my inner (and outer) sake geek to resist. The line-up did a wonderful job of cementing the image that Juyondai are producers of outstanding sake. I’ve resisted the urge to bore you with my tasting notes on all the sake so I’ll just comment on the ones that really stood out for me, bearing in mind that there honestly wasn’t a dud in the bunch. As follows:
Funatare Origarami Junmai Ginjo Nama(3 yr aged) 槽垂れ おり絡み 純米吟醸
Slightly cloudy. Spritzy, gentle sweetness and highly acidic. I originally assumed this had been made with a white wine yeast as it was so reminiscent of New Zealand Pinot Gris. As usual I was wrong however. Most Juyondai is brewed using locally cultivated Yamagata yeast and occasionally Association Yeast No.15.
Junmai Ginjo Yamadanishiki & Dewasansan blend Nama 純米吟醸 山田錦・出羽燦々 生
Junmai Muroka (unfiltered) Naka-dori Nama 純米無濾過 中取り 生
Junmai Muroka Naka-dori Pasteurised 純米無濾過 中取り 火入れ
Exactly the same as the above sake but pasteurized and this made all the difference. While nama sake can be fun, the overt aromas and cloying flavours can be well tamed by a bit of heat treatment. This sake showed an impeccable balance of melon and stone fruit aromas with some soft floral notes. Surprisingly bright and expressive for a junmai. Smooth, low-key but well-balanced.
Ryu no Otoshiko Junmai Ginjo 龍の落とし子 純米吟醸 火入れ
This threw me as it was significantly earthier than the other sake with less fruit aromas and more rice driven grit despite the ginjo grading. Umami rich and moreish.
Junmai Ginjo Yamada Nishiki 純米吟醸 山田錦 火入れ
Junmai Ginjo Omachi 純米 雄町 火入れ
Ginsen Daiginjo Type 吟選 大吟醸タイプ 火入れ
Junmai Daiginjo 40% Hyogo Toku A Yamada Nishiki 純米大吟醸40％ 兵庫特A山田錦 火入れ
Ryugetsu Junmai Daiginjo Hyogo Toku A Yamada Nishiki 龍月 純米大吟醸 兵庫特A山田錦 火入れ
The Toku A refers to highest grade of Yamada Nishiki money can buy from Hyogo. Powerful but elegant floral aromas punch out hints of aniseed. Impossibly smooth and delicate. Just exquisite. Falsely rumored to be blended with the sake they submit to the National New Sake Competition.
Honmaru Ginjo Type Gohyakumangoku Nama 本丸吟醸タイプ 生 五百万石
Tensen Asahitaka 天泉朝日鷹 火入れ
Only available in Yamagata. This is their everyman/workhorse tokubetsu honjozo. A sturdy, earthy, mushroom and rice driven sake that worked nicely slightly warmed and even room temperature. Not labelled as Juyondai.
Kuronawa Daiginjo 35% 黒縄 大吟醸 火入れ
Also only available in Yamagata. This was a gorgeous representation. Soft and fleeting. Bright with tingling acidity and lovely fresh pineapple and melon flavours this proved to be a crowd favourite.
Interestingly, most of the sake was from the previous brewing season. Most Juyondai sake, even their unpasteurized nama are rested for a maturation. Juyondai are reluctant to reveal the details of their maturation methods but it’s believed to be around a year. Also their pressing methods are for some reason kept under wraps. However after seeing a broad range like the other night it’s probably fair to guess they use all three of the standard types; Yabuta pressing, Fune-Shibori and Shizuku drip-pressing. But who knows, they may have another trick up their sleeve. Despite Juyondai’s popularity it can be difficult to find out much about them as they don’t have a website (who needs one when your sake sells itself?) and brewery tours are strictly off-limits. Even if one were to attempt a visit, there is no road signage directing to the brewery and even then the brewery itself bears no signage indicating it is indeed the home of Juyondai.
I like to consider myself impervious to trends and hype but make no mistake, Juyondai produce seriously wonderful sake. In this cynical world there will always be those to cry that it isn’t worth the hype (or the price) and that there are better sake makers out there if you’re willing to look. True, there are plenty of sake brands out there thoroughly deserving of the plaudits breweries like Juyondai receive and I wouldn’t go so far as to say you haven’t tried good sake till you’ve tried Juyondai or even that it’s my favourite sake but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the sake in the bottle. The line up I saw the other night was a master-class in style, balance and quality.
Would I recommend trying Juyondai if given the opportunity? In a heartbeat.
I love hearing the success stories of breweries that re-invented themselves to take on the new world. Many of the sake brands you see on the shelves and on menus were not around 10, 20 years ago. The breweries were, but the label may not have been. A lot of breweries put aside their old monikers and rebranded at the same time they decided to change strategy, in terms of marketing as well as production. One story that stands out is the success of Tochigi brewery Senkin.
Established in 1806, Senkin are actually the oldest brewers in Tochigi. However, it was the forward thinking of the 11th generation Usui brothers that saw them shift into a the cult brewery they are today. Around 11 years ago Kazuki Usui decided that if Senkin were to survive into the new era they needed to change tact in a drastic way. And change they did. With something of a re-launch in 2008 Senkin hit the market with their unique, stand-alone sake of full-bodied sweetness and high acidity marketed to match well with cuisines other than Japanese. To further distinguish themselves from other sake they decided to completely shun the ubiquitous sake rice king Yamada Nishiki, instead opting for the more peculiar Kame no O, Omachi and Aiyama, now even going so far as cultivating a lot of the rice themselves. They are also one of only a handful of breweries that doesn’t dilute their sake with water (genshu). Usually that would be a warming bell of a high-octane alcohol bomb but in the case of Senkin it is about tapering off the brewing process at just the right moment to achieve the desired alcohol content which also provides the natural sought after sweetness of Senkin’s style. If that wasn’t enough, as of 2011 Senkin decided to do away with Tokuteimeishoshu (special designation) labelling. According to the brothers, the labelling of Ginjo, Junmai, Tokubetsu, Daiginjo etc. succeeded in nothing more than confusing the consumer. If a sake is made with rice milled to 50%, in theory, it could be Daiginjo or Tokubetsu or even Junmai. They figured they’d just tell people what’s in the bottle, how they made it and forget about grades. A very interesting and refreshing approach. Personally, I think they could be onto something…
Naturally, when sake with high acidity is the goal, Yamahai and Kimoto style sake feature quite prominently in the Senkin line-up. The prevalence of naturally occurring bacteria in the brewing process of these styles are known for resulting in tangy, acidic flavour profiles. Also all brewing is conducted using wooden tanks as opposed to the common use of enamel tanks to give something of an “old-world” feel that paradoxically sets them apart as new age “slow” brewers.
A great place to start with Senkin is their “Classic” series. A selection of sake of various seimaibuai, rice varieties and style with the purpose of showcasing the rice variety and or the style eg. kimoto/yamahai.
仙禽 山廃クラシック Senkin Classic Yamahai
Rice: Kame no OThe Classic Yamahai brewed with Kame no O rice at a rugged 80% seimaibuai is simply one of my favourite sake. Best at either room temperature or slightly warmed, the classic yamahai shows voluptuous aromas of caramel, black cherry, and marron. On the palate it delivers a chewy, umami-rich, rice sweetness balanced with that trademark Senkin tang. I’ve made no secret of my love for Kame no O rice and this is the perfect kind of vehicle to show the depth of character this rice can show.
The balance of traditional methods with practical approach and the unwillingness to compromise has placed Senkin on stage as one of the true rock stars of the sake world. An act worth following.
Usually “never judge a book by its cover” would be considered sound advice. Whether buying wine, beer or of course sake, choosing something solely based on the attractiveness of the label can be a bit of a gamble. However in the case of Miyoshikiku, their bright, comic-esque, wild and occasionally humorous labels give the impression that the sake within is also wild, unconventional and vivid. And indeed it is.
Located in the sleepy town of Ikeda in Tokushima prefecture on the island of Shikoku off the eastern coast of Japan’s main island Miyoshikiku Shuzo is a tiny brewery with a staff of three producing around 400 koku (72,00 litres) a year. Despite the small output they are in fact the third largest brewery in Tokushima giving an indication of how small the overall output is of the area despite having 30 breweries. Around thirteen years ago, current kuramoto 5th generation Mamiya-san decided to (in an all too familiar tale) dispense with the Toji system and take on the brewing himself. What he has since brought to the table is simply some of the most exciting, modern and funky sake going around.
As mentioned, the first thing anyone thinks of when they think of Miyoshikiku is the labels. Influences of manga, pop-art and Mamiya-san’s love of punk and classic glam rock (he plays guitar in a band doing David Bowie and Velvet Underground covers) abound in a colorful, eye-catching portfolio. Interestingly, some of the labels are designed by an old artist friend of Mamiya-san who makes his living as a cop of all things!
But make no mistake this is no case of style over substance. After all it’s what’s in the bottle that matters most right? “Sake for people that don’t like sake” is a phrase I’ve heard used to describe their sake before but I feel that undermines their appeal to folks who do know their stuff and appreciate sake of all types. It just may not be sake that grand-dad likes as evidenced by the reason behind some of their sake being in somewhat non-traditional blue bottles. Mamiya-san explained it is a conscious effort to be unappealing to some of their local drinkers of old school sake that are put off by the the bright, fruity flavors Miyoshikiku is more recently known for. For the old school local market they do actually still make some old school style sake with less obvious labeling. Miyoshikuku is lively, bright, extravagant even. Although I’ve been a fan for years it was at a recent tasting I was lucky enough to get an up close and personal look at a wider selection of their range. The common thread throughout the range is aromatics. Miyoshikiku jumps out of the glass.
The Wild Side Tokubetsu Junmai (muroka nama genshu) was bursting with pineapple, mango and fruit salad aromas and hit the palate with a kiss of sweetness while maintaining an elegance possibly attributable to the shizuku-style pressing.
From their interesting range of sake made with ungraded Yamadanishiki rice (therefore ungraded under tokuteimeishoshu regulations) from Hyogo, the Another View muroka nama genshu was a revelation of soft, fleeting florals followed by a sweet, sexy profile hinting at its 55% seimaibuai. But far from being a one trick pony the ungraded Awa Oga* made with local organic koshihikari (table rice) milled to 80% was an umami-rich, chewy, rice driven workhorse with only background licks of floral aromas. Then it was back to Awa Yamadanishiki Origarami (semi-nigori) a pretty, feminine style with notes of ripe melon; soft and supple.
Like several other breweries, Miyoshikiku have also had a stab at the wine yeast game with their intriguing Marionette, slightly nutty with lemon rind flavors and shades of tea, slightly reminiscent of an aged Hunter Valley Semillon.
While I said before I’m not a fan of the “sake for people who don’t like sake” moniker, I’d agree that for anyone who thinks they’ve tried sake and didn’t think much of it, Miyoshikiku could well be an eye-opener. Equally for those that think they know what sake is all about, Miyoshikiku is a fresh look at how rice, yeast, koji and water can produce vastly different results depending on who and where it comes from.
* Awa 阿波 is the name of the area in northern Tokushima where the rice is sourced