Japan Eats

Boozehound: Kuroki Honten Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini tours Kuroki Honten in majestic Miyazaki Prefecture.

Click here to read the first Boozehound report from our recent trip to Kyushu.

After a day and a night in Kagoshima City, we hopped on a northbound train headed for Miyazaki Prefecture. Our ultimate goal for the day was to visit Kuroki Honten, the makers of well-respected shochu labels such as Kiroku, Nakanaka, and Hyakunen no Kodoku.

Planting sweet potatoes.

To our pleasant surprise, we were in for an incredibly educational and inspiring tour conducted by the president of the shuzo, Mr. Toshiyuki Kuroki himself.

Mr. Kuroki is the fourth generation to have piloted the family distillery, and it was under his watch that business flourished during the past 15 years. A trim and jovial family man, Mr. Kuroki is an executive with a serious hop in his step. He’s difficult to keep up with.

One thing that stood out about Mr. Kuroki is that he has a clear affection for his employees. That evening, and the next day, we observed countless instances of him talking to and joking with the distillers, bottlers and field workers. Solid sales will put smiles on many people’s faces, but it was obvious that the working culture at Kuroki Honten is buoyed by workers who share Mr. Kuroki’s passion and believe in his vision.

And another thing that grabbed our attention, and something that Mr. Kuroki is very proud of, is the shuzo’s determination to recycle everything they possibly can. This includes using the lees from the distilling process to make both fertilizer and livestock feed. Their efforts to make the shochu production process as circular and socially responsible as possible are detailed on the Kuroki Honten website (Japanese).

We later tasted several of the shuzo’s less widely available brands, such as their unfiltered Kiroku and Bakudan Hanatare. The latter, an 88 proof imo shochu that is best kept in the freezer, is supposed to be consumed like a shooter even though there tends to be served in vessels much larger than shot glasses. That might have been the highlight of the visit, but I don’t recall.

Casks of mugi shochu.

While Kuroki Honten doesn’t normally do tours, shochu fans can take solace in the fact that the shuzo’s exemplary products are easily locatable around Japan. In Tokyo, for example, one can purchase Nakanaka, the company’s smooth sipping mugi shochu, at vendors as diverse as Shinanoya (chain liquor store) and Bic Camera (chain electronics store).

Anything made by Kuroki Honten or their sister shuzo, Osuzuyama (the shuzo detailed in my next Boozehound article), is well worth your time and hard-earned cash.

Boozehound: Satsuma Musou Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini visits Satsuma Musou Distillery in Kagoshima City

Doing the research part of writing a book is arduous, especially when there aren’t any resources available in one’s own language. I’ve read nearly everything that exists on the subject written in Japanese, but there just really isn’t that much content out there in general.

So I decided to go straight to the source. Kyushu, that is. Because I’m writing a book about shochu.

Mai Miyauchi of Satsuma Musou Shuzo.

Mai Miyauchi of Satsuma Musou Shuzo.

About a 20 minute walk from Goino train station in Kagoshima City is Satsuma Musou Distillery. Partly supported by the prefectural government, this distillery is an ideal place for tourists as it has a well-planned tour and large gift shop/tasting area. Much to my surprise, I was treated to a tour of the facilities entirely in English by the knowledgeable Mai Miyauchi who has gone so far as to attend industry-related classes at Kagoshima University.

The distillery that we toured is a smaller operation set up for the benefit of tourists. They were still working on batches of imo shochu even though the season ended in February or March for most other distilleries in Kyushu. This meant that we were still able to see the workers unload check frozen potatoes before they were dropped into the steamer. We also had a chance to see the mash bubbling away at different stages of fermentation in open earthenware pots half submerged in the facility’s concrete floor.

And of course, we sampled several of the distillery’s liquid treats. Even if you can’t travel to Satsuma Musou in Kogoshima Prefecture, you can probably find their Satsuma Musou ‘Red Label’ (Aka Raberu) or Kuro Mugi at finer liquor shops around Japan.

Satsuma Musou is recommended as an introduction to the complex process of making Japan’s wonderful distilled drink, shochu.

Website (Japanese): http://www.satsumamusou.co.jp/

Boozehound: Suntory’s Yamazaki 1984 Wins Int’l Whiskey Prize

It was recently reported that Japanese beverage giant, Suntory, brought home top prize at the recent International Spirits Challenge held in London, England.

Entered in the ‘Whiskies – Other’ category, Suntory’s Single Malt Yamazaki 1984 won one of several gold medals awarded to whiskey distillers from around the world. Later on, in a second round of blind tasting by several international judges, Yamazaki 1984 was awarded top prize in the category.

While this category does not include Scotch, which has a category of its own, Yamazaki 1984 beat out major competition from several Irish labels (Jameson, Bushmills, etc.) in taking the trophy.

Suntory was then awarded “Distiller of the Year” honors for its contributions to the global spirits industry. And on top of that, Yamazaki 1984 came away with the “Supreme Champion Spirit” award. Both honors are a first for a Japanese distiller and product, respectively.

Yamazaki 1984 sells for nearly 100,000 yen per bottle (700ml) in Japan, and Suntory actually had several other entries in the same category that were also assigned gold medals by the auditors.

Asahi also managed to score two gold medals for Japan in the same category with its “Taketsuru 21 y.o.” and “Yoichi 15 y.o.” labels.

Boozehound: The Joy of Sake

Christopher Pellegrini takes in The Joy of Sake

Tokyo’s installment of Honolulu’s Joy of Sake party was packed by legions of professionals from the nihonshu industry and the well-heeled business folks from the southwestern section of the Yamanote train line. Also in attendance were some of sake’s biggest supporters outside of Japan, namely author John Gauntner and sommelier Ake Nordgren, and the air in the two tasting halls was one of a giant reunion made possible by the continuing success of one of this country’s most recognizable exports.

Bottles of Daiginjo 'A' waiting in the TOC Main Hall.

And then there was me.

To be fair, I wasn’t the only nihonshu nerd in attendance, but very few others felt brave enough to whip out their notebooks and scribble tasting notes as they worked their way up and down endless banquet tables of daiginjo. And I must admit, it was truly a joyful experience.

Curiously, many guests chose to ignore the TOC Main Hall where all of the daiginjo ‘A’ bottles (rice polishing ratio of 40% or less) sat vulnerable to unlimited perusal. The other, more brightly lit hall had more food, but no daiginjo ‘A’.  With everyone busy munching away, I was allowed ample elbow room to compare some of the best sake currently known to the world. In fact, there were no less than 329 labels from 166 breweries on display, and the main hall also featured a good selection of yamahai and kimoto sake.

No, I didn’t try them all. I’m only human. And there were no spit buckets.

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Australian Ginjo.

All 329 varieties of sake were in fact entrants in the 2010 US National Sake Appraisal which took place in Honolulu back in August. That includes all of the daiginjo ‘B’, ginjo and junmai labels on the tables in the Tokubetsu Hall. The two day event sees ten judges run through all of the bottles as they attempt to find imbalances in each of them.

Of the 83 daiginjo ‘A’ bottles, 27 were gold award winners with top honors going to Kizakura’s “Daiginjo”, Kodama Jozo’s Taiheizan “Tenko”, and Nagurayama Shuzo’s “Kanpyokai Shuppinshu.” My favorites were Asahi Shuzo’s famous “Dassai 23″, a sake with the unimaginable polishing ratio of 23%, and Ume Ichirin Shuzo’s “Kanpyokai Shuppinshu.”

The former didn’t make it to the final round during the panel’s blind tasting, but the latter did and earned a gold award in the process. Interestingly, Ume Ichirin Shuzo is located in Chiba Prefecture, a region not typically associated with sake brewing excellence.

Other bottles that caught my attention were “Hana no Youna” junmai ginjo from California and “Go-Shu Blue” ginjo from Australia. Neither won plaudits from the contest’s auditors, but Australia’s entry was noticeably more enjoyable than America’s.

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Several top notch restaurants offered small portions of their finest sake-paired appetizers.

More than anything, Joy of Sake is an excellent opportunity for the nihonshu-curious to figure out what they like. By using the mini-siphons to import two thimbles of sake into one’s tasting cup, it’s possible to keep inebriation on the back burner and slowly sample everything from the refined to the complex, the clean to the more cloying.

And of course there was food there, too. Twelve top-notch restaurants from both Japan and America provided appetizers to the buoyant guests. Takao (Los Angeles) served their Maguro Spring Roll with Avocado and Sweet Spicy Miso Sauce while Al Porto (Tokyo) offered Bruschetta di Prociutto Crudo e Caponata.

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Volunteers begin uncapping bottles before the start of the festival. Notice the small plastic syphon used to transfer sake into guests' tasting cups.

Through conversations with other guests, it became clear that many were enthusiastic about Nobu (New York) and their Fresh Sashimi from Niigata with Yuzu and Dried Miso. Hoku’s (Honolulu) also had a long line waiting for bowls of its Sake Braised Black Angus Beef Short Angus Beef Short Ribs with Hawaiian Chili Pepper, Spiced Crispy Onions and Lomi Pineapple Tomato.

Judging by the 8,000 yen ticket price, Joy of Sake is not an event targeted at the 20-something crowd, and that observation was easily supported by a quick look around the audience. The average age of the guests was likely late 40s, which is not meant to imply that this sake celebration was a sedate affair. Anything but. Several couples old enough to be my grandparents kept up and carried on just like the small groups of young women four decades their junior.

If this party returns to Japan in the future, indeed if sake is to survive at home, this generational imbalance is something that they will hopefully choose to address. In the meantime, let’s hope that this event continues to turn heads and change minds overseas as sake brings its special brand of Japanese joy to a wider audience.

Boozehound: Joy of Sake Does Tokyo

This is one that you shouldn’t miss. Purchase your ticket online now.

THE JOY OF SAKE is finally coming to Tokyo!

Tuesday November 2nd, 2010, from 6-9PM on the 13th floor of the TOC Building in Gotanda (Tokyo).

Click here for a map.

Tickets are 8,000 yen and will allow you access to more than 320 sakes and appetizers courtesy of Nobu (New York), Yoshi’s (San Francisco), KomahachiRestaurant J, and other gourmet chefs.

The Joy of Sake has held tasting events in San Francisco, New York and Hawaii in the past, and this is the first time that the party, which typically hosts 2,000+ sake-loving guests, has come to Japan.

These events have been pivotal in opening North Americans’ eyes to the wonders of the sake world. Please join Japan Eats in supporting this non-profit organization’s quest to bring sake to the masses!

Reserve your ticket here.

Boozehound: “Taste of Akita” with John Gauntner

Several industry insiders came together to bring the nihonshu-loving public “Taste of Akita” on Saturday

John Gauntner, author of The Sake Handbook, answering questions at each table.

October 23rd at Akita Bisaikan. And 40+ fortunate souls were treated to an evening of Akita’s finest, all while being guided every step of the way by nihonshu author and expert, John Gauntner, bilingual guide and brewery tour organizer, Etsuko Nakamura, and brewery representatives such as Saiya Shuzo’s Akihisa Sato.

Starting with a quick introduction to the history of sake production in Akita Prefecture, Gauntner simultaneously espoused on the mystery sake, a unique unlabeled contest sake given to each table. From there the food began to arrive. First, a hinaidori chicken liver pate followed by broth-simmered Azuki Babylon Shellfish.

And by this time sake number two had already been delivered, again one bottle per table, but this time every table got the same thing–Mansaku-no-Hana Daiginjo. Aged for two years and much more refined than the contest sake, this sake was an excellent counter point to the far richer flavors found in the shellfish and pate.

Next up was the Kariho Hiyaoroshi (fall seasonal sake), a junmai ginjo that nicely complemented the fresh sashimi selection with its pronounced and bright aroma.

Mr. Sato from Saiya Shuzo sat with the guests for much of the evening.

Right on Kariho’s heels was crowd favorite Saiya Shuzo’s Yuki-no-Bosha which is actually a genshu at 16%. Genshu is the result of a brewing style that doesn’t involve using water to dilute the sake, and the fact that this sake peaked at 16% means that the toji (master brewer) is one of the best in the business. Most genshu end up being several percentage points higher in alcohol content.

Last but not least, and as the small dishes of food continued to appear in front of the six people at our table, a tokubetsu junmai sake by the name of Ama-no-To Umashine appeared. Teamed with Akita’s specialty, Kiritanpo Nabe, this sake from Asamai Shuzo added liquid notes of raisin and butter to the end of the meal.

From start to finish, “Taste of Akita” was a wonderful experience for both the uninitiated and experienced sake tippler. The Akita cuisine matches easily with what Gauntner calls the “fine-grained” nature of the sake produced in that region, and there were ear to ear smiles on everyone’s face as they left the restaurant to take pictures with the two namahage waiting outside.

This was the first time that Gauntner and Nakamura have teamed up with a prefectural government to help sake reach a wider audience. To make sure that you don’t miss future events like “Taste of Akita”, subscribe to Gauntner’s monthly newsletter.

Boozehound: Bar Albatross (Shinjuku)

If it weren’t for Tokyo’s ongoing economic troubles, Golden Gai – that shanty town wedged between Shinjuku’s Hanazono Shrine and Kabukicho – could well have been turned into condos or (worse!) a Mori-style shopping precinct. After all, it was repeatedly targeted by developers in the bubble years. Somehow this ramshackle collection of bars (about 175 at last count) survived the heady 80s and early 90s. Hanazono Hills was not to be.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Golden Gai is that it manages to be both determinedly nostalgic whilst never lapsing into self-parody. Anyone who has visited Harajuku or Yokohama’s Chinatown will be familiar with Japan’s penchant for Disneyfication (take something unique, extract anything controversial and wait for the tour buses). Thanks to a new generation of bar owners, however, Golden Gai retains what made it interesting in the first place – individually-themed bars, cramped seating and the whiff of a sordid past.

Hidden on dimly-lit 5th street is a two and a half storey wooden building that enjoys all of these qualities. Bar Albatross resembles a dolls-house with its scaled down furniture and narrow wooden stairways. Burgundy walls are adorned with picture frames and a chandelier hangs from the upstairs ceiling. Make it all the way to the ‘attic’ space above the second floor and you’ll get a great view of the regulars chatting and drinking below.

The bar has a fairly extensive menu mostly priced around the 700 yen mark. There are beers, shochu and a wide variety of spirits on offer. On my last visit I stuck to the relatively unadventurous Moscow Mule, but you’d do well to sample some of the bar’s other cocktails.

The staff are friendly without being overbearing. If downstairs is full, latecomers are encouraged to go upstairs where there is a second bar with space at one long counter. It can be somewhat nerve-wracking watching tipsy guests wobbling up the rickety wooden stairs to the second floor, but most seemed oblivious to the threat of falling.

Given that the seating fee is a low 300 yen per person,  the bill works out to be inexpensive. And the sit-down charge includes a small otooshi – nimono or some similar nibble to balance all that alcohol.

With places like Bar Albatross, Golden Gai’s future has never looked brighter.

Bar Albatross is located in Golden Gai, Shinjuku. Go out of the East exit of Shinjuku Station and turn left. Cross Shinjuku-Dori and make your way to Yasukuni-Dori. Turn right and then left into the park beside Mr Donut. Go through the park and then continue past Champion. The bar is on the right side of 5th street, four narrow alleyways after the karaoke bar. Look for the sign above the door.

Address: Kabukicho, Golden-gai (5th street), Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Telephone: 03-3203-3699
Home Page http://www.alba-s.com
8:00pm-05:00am

Boozehound: Keel (Shibuya)

It’s Men-Only (except on Sundays), we’ll put that up front.

Keel is a nice combination of local and stylish. The owner hangs around dispensing wisdom and recommendations on shochu, which is what this bar is all about. (Umeshu – including a lovely yuzu-infused delight – and beer are the other options. The only other options.) Read more

Boozehound: Shimo-Igusa Ni-chome

I may be stealing Marcus Lovitt’s thunder by reviewing this little gem, which he recommended to me, but he’s busy with Japan Booze, Blind and all that food porn, so I got dibs on the aptly and simply-named Shimo-Igusa Ni-chome. Read more

Boozehound: Tara no Oka (Nakano)

While Tokyo’s urbanization works its way West and the chain shops of the suburbs work their way into the center of town, variety and smallness go the way of Tora-san films and doing research in libraries – things people over a certain age remember and talk about, but things that just aren’t really around much anymore.boozehoundarticlelogo copy

Thankfully, there are some pockets of interest left around the city and one of those is the area North of Nakano Station east of Nakano-dori and south of Waseda-dori, centered on the narrow, pedestrians-only Fureai Road.

Go one block East of Fureai Road (make a right, then a left if you’re walking from Nakano Station), and two blocks South of Waseda-dori, on a corner on your left-hand side, facing you, you’ll see a green door and an unassuming green shingle reading: Tara no Oka. The Hill of Tara. Read more