Japan Eats

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.

What We’re Drinking: Daimaou Imo (sweet potato) Shochu

This was another bottle that I received in the mail. It’s one that I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while as I’ve seen it a few times before at Seiyu, so I was very happy to see the shiny gold label and foil when I popped the box open.

This is another decent imo-jochu from Kagoshima prefecture, but it surprised me a little because it doesn’t smell like an imo-jochu. It’s more refined than the imo-jochus I’m accustomed to drinking while carrying some light fruit on the nose. Before ever putting it in my mouth this shochu was living up to its deceitful name, “Great Devil King.”

Enjoying Daimaou neat, it has a round, medium-bodied mouthfeel. There’s a sweetness to it that is understated to the point of being dry. The yellow mold (essential to the process of breaking the potato starches down into fermentable sugars) used prior to distilling obviously has something to do with this sweetness. The effect is very pleasant. Yellow mold is what is used in the nihonshu brewing process and is somewhat less common in the shochu industry where white mold prevails.

There’s something about this shochu that reminds me of drinking brandy. Try it neat and see for yourself.

I also highly recommend this shochu on the rocks. It’s light, refreshing and easy to drink–definitely one of the better imo-jochus I’ve had that retails in the 1,600-1,800 yen range. And as I alluded above, Daimaou is distributed widely enough by Hamada Shuzo that you can find it in major supermarket chains such as Seiyu.

What We’re Drinking: Waseda Beer

Waseda, the lauded private university in downtown Tokyo that fields roughly 130,000 applications for admission each year, has a lot going for it–tradition, influence, and most importantly a very good baseball team.

One thing that it still needs to work on, however, is its beer.

Unfortunately, Waseda Beer (5% ABV)  is strongly yeasty from the moment you pry the cap off it. Then the yeastiness on the nose is backed up by an immediate and somewhat sour yeast dominance on the palate.

The result is a low-wattage sour middle that is not really all that welcome. This means that the hops are nearly undetectable. It would probably go down better, and feel more balanced, if the yeasty nose translated into a medium-bodied, bready mouthfeel.

I cracked two separate bottles to make sure that this was not an errant representative of the Waseda beer brand, but alas I cannot guarantee that they weren’t from the same batch since the same ‘drink by’ date (October 29, 2010) was stamped on the back of both of them.

Given the possibility that I drank two bottles of the real deal, I’m willing to acknowledge that it’s possible to get used to this beer, but it’s really not for me. The one thing that it has going for it is the somewhat dry finish that makes you nearly think the word “refreshing”. The only other plus I could come up with is the cool beer-pouring sound it makes on its way into a glass due to the stovepipe neck on the bottle.

In short, this beer does not do the proud history of Waseda University justice, and I will not be purchasing another one of them until someone assures me that a different experience is in store.

Waseda’s star pitcher, Yuki Saito, would surely be pissed off if he knew that this stuff was being served on campus.

More info about this beer can be found (in Japanese) here: http://waseda-beer.com/

What We’re Drinking: “Tokyo Beer” by Tama no Megumi

This bottle conditioned beer by Ishikawa Brewery out near Haijima station in Western Tokyo is an easy step up from what one normally consumes by way of Japan’s macro-breweries.

I’m not sure how much my bottle was shaken, but the pour was pretty hazy and could be best described as having a murky straw hue to it. The off-white head was thin and disappeared quickly on my pour from a 500 ml bottle into a pint glass.

The bottle was dated October, 2009. Not ideal, but within the realm of acceptability. Also of importance, it’s labeled as being 5.5% ABV.

Fresh out of the fridge, the mouthfeel on this beer was neither harsh nor special. It’s a medium-bodied brew that is perhaps a bit too shy on hoppiness, but at the same time balanced in terms of the light barley sweetness that highlights the start of the short trek from the front to the back of the palate. A few gulps later, once room temperature has started to assert its influence, a bit of breadiness starts to creep in and a bit of astringency (not unpleasant) colors the aftertaste.

This beer would benefit from a stronger hop backbone in my opinion, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. I suspect that, if you can get past the price tag, this beer will be popular with the Tokyo masses that wouldn’t mind something a little more complex than what is commonly found in the supermarket or convenience store cooler. Expect to pay around 400 yen for a half-liter bottle.

What We’re Drinking: Nakanaka Mugi (barley) Shochu

This bottle was a birthday present from my friend Karen who knows that I’m studiously perusing the range of barley shochu offerings available in Tokyo. It was a very welcome addition to my home bar!

This bottle, Nakanaka, is a good place to start one’s exploration of honkaku mugi shochu. When drinking it straight, Nakanaka starts with a slight, honey sweetness on the tip of the tongue before giving way to an assertive barley-alcohol twinge at the back.

With an ice cube or two thrown in this shochu loses a bit of the sweetness up front and experiences a slight drop in alcoholic bite as well. Taking a good drag of air to mix with a mouthful of Nakanaka will help revive the sweetness that is easier to find when enjoying this drink neat.

Most industry folks recommend that this drink be enjoyed either on the rocks or with a bit of warm water (oyuwari in Japanese). The latter is advised especially if you want to get more out of the nose. Cold water (mizuwari) is also an option.

Drinking Nakanaka straight is not to be discouraged, even though I seem to be the only only openly recommending that it be consumed that way.

At around 1,050 yen for a 720 ml bottle the regular stuff (it’s usually found in a brown glass bottle), you can’t go wrong with a bottle of Nakanaka.

World Cup Sake, Match 1

Hasegawa, purveyors of fine sake and savvy marketers of products such as the Tokyo Swallows baseball beer, have outdone themselves for the 2010 World Cup.

Rather than produce new libations, Hasegawa has repackaged some popular sake, shochu, and umeshu in fancy 2010 World Cup South Africa-themed bottles. While there were 13 different sake, two shochu, an umeshu, and a lemon liqueur thus bottled, we here were able to get our hands on six nice sake selections. Read more

What We’re Drinking: England vs. Germany

Yes, the 2010 World Cup is infecting Japan Eats, too. While we have a little Japan-centered FIFA-related tippling on the way, tonight England, home to a good chunk of our friends out there, take on Germany, also a quite Japan Eats-friendly country.

So, what’s on tap tonight is not only what’s on tap, but what’s in bottles: the least scientific head-to-head imaginable. Battle of the beers! Read more