Japan Eats

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: “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: Nanbu Bijin

After a long day on the set of Japan Booze, Blind or Tokyo Bites, when meeting to write or plan the next step for Japan Eats, amid the vicissitudes of fortune, there is one constant; one thing in which Marcus, Christopher, and I can always find comfort, solace, and enjoyment: The Beautiful Southern Lady. Read more