Cooling off with Natsuzake

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…..
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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.
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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!