The Sake Girl

{August 5, 2008}   Sake Sales Double in the UK

by Natasha Hughes

Sales of sake in the UK have more than doubled in the past two years and are now worth well over £2m per annum.

According to Nobuaki Tanaka of Tazaki Foods, a major UK importer of Japanese food and drink, the reasons for the growth are twofold.

‘One is the increase in popularity of Japanese cuisine here, where sake provides the final touch to a meal, and the second is the growing recognition of sake among wine and restaurant professionals.’

Kosuke Kuji, vice president of the Nanbu Bijin Sake Brewing Company, said there is still have a long way to go before the popularity of sake reaches a similar level to that enjoyed by rice wines in the USA.

‘The Americans drink a lot more sake than Europeans do. And where in the UK most sake sommeliers are Japanese, in the US they’re just as likely to be American.’

He added there was no figure in the UK like John Gauntner [an American sake expert who has written numerous books and articles on the subject] to interpret sake for the European audience.

Kuji agrees that wine lovers have a head start in appreciating the nuances of rice wines, but he warns that the disciplines of tasting wine and sake are different.

‘What you’re looking for in sake, above all, is purity and clean aromas.

‘A long aftertaste is not considered desirable because sake is meant to cleanse the palate. A rice wine with strong flavours and a distinct personality would not allow you to do that.’


{August 4, 2008}   Can New Yorkers Save SAKE?

Sake is not so hot in Tokyo – but now it’s cool with trendy New Yorkers

The ancient craft is under threat unless it can turn the tide on its own shores

Centuries after their ancestors first turned rice into wine, the Japanese are falling out of love with their traditional tipple.

Once a staple in homes and restaurants, sake is being squeezed out of the affections of the average drinker by imported wine and shochu, a fiery local spirit that is undergoing a renaissance in the trendy bars of Tokyo.

Now that sake’s central place in Japanese social occasions is under threat, the country’s struggling breweries are pinning their hopes on growing interest on the other side of the Pacific.

According to finance ministry figures, sake exports rose to a record high of 11,334 kilolitres last year, up from 7,051 kilolitres in 2001. About a third goes to the US, followed by Taiwan, Hong Kong and, more recently, China, where shipments doubled to 426 kilolitres between 2002 and 2006.

While sake is enjoying unprecedented popularity overseas, at home it is in terminal decline. Since peaking at 1.7m kilolitres in 1975, sake consumption in Japan has fallen every year since 1995 to a record low of 700,000 kilolitres in 2006. The Japanese drink just a third as much sake as they did 30 years ago, when it accounted for a quarter of all sales of alcoholic drinks. Today the figure is closer to 7%.

Sake’s stateside renaissance is being driven by a handful of family-run breweries quick to realise the dangers posed by their compatriots’ waning appetite for their national drink.

“People ask if we alter the flavour of our sake to suit the American palate. We do not. We are just selling them sake that we believe is the best around,” says Yasutaka Daimon, the sixth-generation head of Daimon, a sake brewery in rural Osaka prefecture.

Matter of survival

Daimon, whose family has been brewing sake – a rice-based fermented beverage – since 1826, was among 20 breweries that co-founded, a group to promote their products overseas.

The results have been dramatic. After sending their first batch of sake to the US in 2003 the breweries recently sold their 91st container, each holding 1,250, six-bottle cases. Their premium sake is now available in 45 states. For small-time brewers like Daimon, cracking the US and Asian markets is not simply about higher profits margins; it is a matter of survival.

He now exports a third of the sake produced at his brewery, where brewing methods have changed little for almost two centuries, and recently sold his first case of a high-end sake in the emerging luxury-goods market of Russia.

Sake has even won over the world’s most notorious wine snobs: the French. Jean-Paul Hévin, the renowned Paris chocolatier, regards Kawasemi no Tabi, a sweet sake brewed in Niigata, as the perfect accompaniment to his confectionery.

But consumption in Europe still lags far behind that in the US. “Whereas Europe is traditionally wine country, the US is not traditionally anything,” says John Gauntner, a sake expert and author of five books on the subject.

“Americans like their wine, but it’s less established, so the country is more open to new trends. Europeans taste sake and say ‘yes, it’s good and clearly a quality product’, but the next drink they have is wine.

“But this too is slowly changing. There is more potential [in the UK and Europe], as Europeans surely have a more refined palate than North Americans.”

While sake’s spread has benefited from the global popularity of Japanese food, its decline at home has been quickened by a shift from the traditional diet of fish and rice to one that includes more meat and dairy products.

The industry was also hit by the tax agency’s decision, 20 years ago, to stop issuing new brewing licences when existing master brewers retired and were unable to find successors. In the 1980s there were an estimated 3,500 breweries; now there are 1,350.

Style-conscious drinkers

For brewers like Daimon, the best hope of a revival in the domestic market may rest on triggering a knock-on effect among ambivalent Japanese who decide to give sake another chance once they see how well it is going down among the style-conscious drinkers of London, New York and, increasingly, Moscow and Beijing.

“Young people who come here to drink my sake say they didn’t realise it could be so good – they thought it was an old man’s drink,” said Daimon. “The Japanese are very concerned about what foreigners think of their country, so if we have more success in the US market, then Japanese consumers may give it another try.”

But insiders believe the industry can no longer depend on the legions of Japanese office workers who habitually punctuate their daily commute home with a visit to the pub.

“Sake is finally coming into its own as a connoisseur beverage [overseas], so I do not think the novelty will wear off,” Gauntner said. “Its roots and true quality are too deep.”

This article appeared in the Guardian on Monday August 04 2008 on p23 of the Financial section. It was last updated at 00:06 on August 04 2008.

{July 16, 2008}   when Cork’d goes sake

So any wino will tell you, this Gary Vaynerchuck from Cork’d knows his stuff. It may be a bit much to watch him suck, swirl, and spit wine after wine, and his voice (much like Rachel Ray’s) may get a bit annoying after a while, but there is no doubt he’s got a huge personality and an even larger set of opinions…

Gary has become a daily staple in the life of the average vinophile, and although I have yet to see him review a sake himself, his site lets members add their own reviews, and a few people have added their tasting notes on a number of sakes.

While some use this as a soap box to wax philosophical on the drink of the shinto gods:

“It [Organic Nigori from SakeOne] was not as chalky and sweet as most nigori sakés in it’s class and the parade of flavors from a tribal drum beat to a horn section to swirling vocals reminded me of Duran Duran’s Rio. The rollercoaster melody of snared my tastebuds and the 80’s pop culture sounds went from tart, sweet, floral, dry, fruity, and then to a moss. This smoother nigori made me want to dance like Molly Ringwald in Breakfast Club. Like Rio I could enjoy this at the right moment or by surprise – but would not seek this out to play it. If I tried it again, I would recognize it and would bring back good memories. From both the saké, and the 80’s.”

Others are less revealing:

“Rice wine. tastes like a light vodka.”

In any event, there is at least another forum for sake peeps to spill down some knowledge (or lack thereof).

{July 15, 2008}   cedar sake cups

Of all the sakes that I love, there is a special place in my heart for the TARUZAKES.. the sakes that have been aged in cedar casks (taru). I love the warm earthiness that permeate even the most perfectly chilled taru sake. I adore the complexity and depth that is added by the cedar casks, much like the flavors that oak barrels impart on wine.

And on that note, I have come across an interesting item: cedar sake cups.

I find the idea of giving a cedar flavor to fresh, non-taru sake quite appealing; not only are taruzakes a bit pricier than non-aged sakes but these cedar cups could potentially pimp up some rather dull or low-grade brews.

No doubt this is a more modern embodiment of the masu –the wooden box historically used as the primary drinking vessel (due to its abundance, because its original purpose was for buying rice, as 1 masu of rice was 1 person’s portion of rice for the day)

And although I love the awkward complications from trying to cup my lips around these corners while hoping to slurp more sake than I spill, I am very intrigued by those cedar cups and I look forward to an imbibing adventure with those bad mamma jammas.

Sake Tasting @ Naomi Sushi in Menlo Park: 6 sakes paired with 6 different dishes

Hosted by Iwa

First Course: Salmon sashimi with Japanese eggplant and minced pork in a spicy garlic & peanut sauce

Sake Pairing: Ozeki “White Rocket” from the Nada/Kobe region

Review/Comments: Overall this was probably my favorite dish of food— the beautiful, buttery raw salmon played with savory spiced meat and eggplant, and the sweet hint of peanuts just made the dish sing. The sake it was paired with was perfectly suited to take on the big flavors in this dish.

The sake alone was dry and slightly astringent. The nose was floral, yet the taste was not. At this point it was only like a 65, however once paired with this dish, the sake became fuller, rounder, softer, and sweeter. This pairing was an amazing example of how effective food can be when tasting sake. Score of the sake jumped to a 75 when paired with food.

Second course: Spicy shrimp rolls in deep fried rice paper over a bed of lettuce with diced raw onion, tomato, and jalapeño

Sake Pairing: Ban Ryu “Ten Thousand Ways”

Review/Comments: The name of the sake “Ten Thousand Ways” is in reference to how you can enjoy sake. It is from the Yamagata region near Mt Fuji and the brewery was established back in 1778!

The color is a slight hint of yellow and the nose has light floral notes; the flavor, however is much deeper. There is a dense, big flavor that is somewhat sweet–notes of dried or candied fruits, apricots, flowers, and just plain sugar. The taste becomes bigger, fuller, rounder, and there is a long substantial aftertaste. Overall score of 80.

The shrimp have been dressed in a wonderfully sweet and spicy chili sauce, and avocado is discovered in the role– the smooth buttery texture of the avocado was a bit disconcerting when expecting the crunch of a nicely cooked shrimp–but after I realized what I was getting, it was quite delicious. The bed of lettuce was covered in oil and salt and other tightly diced veggies and tasted great, offering a spicy and savory balance to the sweeter sake.

Third Course: Clam risotto

Sake Pairing: Wataribune Junmai Ginjo

Comments/Review: Wataribune is the name of the sake rice that is used to make this sake. This particular rice had fallen out of use for over 50 years before this brewery revived it. The color is mostly clear but with a hint of yellow (or maybe it is the reflection of the wooden table?!); the nose is a bit musty, musky, earthy– like straight up fermentation. I am expecting an equally earthy flavor, perhaps something nutty.. but instead am surprised to taste something that is rather delicate, smooth, and quite decadent; hints of ripe cantaloupe and honeydew shine through. There is also is a bitter flavor I can sense– like a gin martini with an extra dash of vermouth. Score: 76. I just was not a fan of this nose nor did I love the overall flavor, in addition, I did not care for this pairing overall, which definitely affected my score. I would understand if a person gave this a 90 and would also understand a 70–it is one of those marginalizing love it/hate it sakes.

As for the food, unfortunately I have had a few bad risotto experiences in my life, and can only handle its richness in small portions (ie I would have a taste of someone else’s, but would never order it myself). This particular risotto, was super-rich and creamy and there was definitely an abundant clam flavor that I was not a fan of. Overall this was my least favorite dish and pairing of the evening.

Fourth Course: Here is where things begin getting a little hazy.. so much sake and food… Here we have some hamachi (yellow tail) and ahi (tuna) sashimi,

Sake Pairing: Kasumi Tsuru Yamahai Ginjo!

Comments/Review: The rather generously sliced fish were garnished with mangoes, baby watercress, cucumber, blk pepper and a slightly spicy sauce. Rich and buttery, this dish is a winner and sure to bring out the best in any sake–and boy did it ever.

This Yamahai sake is from Hyogo, an area famous for their crab and seafood, and so I expect that this yamahai will be made to go with this clean yet rich sashimi dish, although yamahais are known for their nuttier, earthier flavors.

The nose is already surprising–Yamahai sake is sake that is made with the naturally occurring yeast in the brewery, which typically offers it an earthy musky scent–but this nose is actually light and fruity, with hints of apple and pear. The taste is more complex, but still in the area of melons.

Overall the sake was round and floral and fruity, but with the added complexities earned through the yamahai brewing technique– you could taste the underlying richness from the natural yeast. A neighbor next to me remarked that this sake was “the salt of the earth”. I couldn’t agree more. Score: 89.

Fifth Course: Chirashi (mixed sashimi over rice) !

Sake Pairing: Eiko Fuji Namazake Junmai Ginjo, Yamagata, SMV +3, Acidity 1.2

Comments/Review: The Chirashi was fantastic–salmon, tuna, yellow tail, clam, everything except the rice cooker. Really, who knows? By this point I was two sheets to the wind. There was perfectly moist and fluffy rice and some black sesames and raw veggies–avocado, onion, radish, maybe jicama? mango, ginger, mint? wow.

This was different and much lighter than the namas (unpasteurized sakes) that I am used to. Again, I was expecting a heavy-hitter with grass and earth tones, but instead was pleasantly surprised by the candied, buttery flavor. The nose was sweet and the taste was rich and creamy. It had the perfect blend of nuttiness and fruit; a wonderful sake the easily drank like chardonnay. Score– I am going to guess 90, but honestly I forgot to write it down… so much sake 🙂

Sixth Course: Amazingly cooked sirloin with mushrooms and peppers

Sake Pairing: Kuromatsu Hakushika “Black Pine, White Deer” Junmai Daiginjo

Comments: Whoops. Clearly I forgot to take the picture in time… oy, so much sake! Alright, here we have a beautifully cooked medium rare steak that is tender and juicy, and so wonderfully covered in a mushroom and black pepper sauce. Definitely a winner of a dish, but can this sake match the bold flavor of the steak?

Yes. This is not a dainty daiginjo– big bold flavors give this sake a strong full body that can and does pair with meat. The sake is a gold medal winner, for 2 consecutive years now. It has been aged slightly in both the barrel and the bottle, giving it a mature, strong, well rounded flavor. My notes read “one big hot sake”! Yes it was. Score: 92.. I think. I drink a second serving.. maybe it is a 94? I lose count…. a helluva night.

Hakutsuru Draft Sake, Japan

$3.99, 300 ml, 14% alcohol

Color: clear, like water

Nose: sweet alcohol water

Feel: almost like water

Taste: slightly sweet alcohol water

Comments: well, as you maybe can guess, this sake tastes like mildly sweet alcohol water. not much sake in there… mostly a distant hint of melony floral sake, as if some sort of sake extract was added to gallons of crisp water before it was bottled and the glass absorbed whatever taste was left. noticeably better when cold and fresh from the bottle, only a few minutes in the glass and the sake began falling apart. the after taste began to be negatively impacted—a long astringent taste that tickled my nostrils. there was a lingering taste of something a bit metallic, about 30 second after drinking. really an odd sake.. it was more a wisp of a sake. the hint of a sake that was, or maybe that could have been… much like the name indicates (draft sake), this sake has the depth of a Bud Light.

Pairing: substitute for Aquafina on your next jog, or cook with it. those are the options.

Score: In-offensively bad: 55

{May 16, 2008}   Beau Timken’s Newsletter

For all of you that don’t know Beau-I can tell you a little something about him.

First of all, he is the founder of True Sake, America’s first SAKE store. He has pioneered bringing sake to the people and can also be credited for heightening the average drinker’s understanding and appreciation for this great beverage. Beau, and the other lovely ladies at True, do a wonderful job bringing over new and incredible sakes each season. You can (and should!) find out more about his sake selection and what sakes are hitting the shelves by signing up for his oh-so-informative newsletter.

Sign up for that thing here:

In this past month’s issue he announced the fresh namas to arrive:

New Store Arrivals – Spring Nama Second Flight

Well buckle down the hatches as the “second flight” of seasonal nama zakes have blessed True Sake. This is the same second flight as last year and has some great brews to choose from. For those of you looking for a more dry and clean nama experience jump on the Otokoyama. If it smoothness personified then look no further than the Dewanoyuki. If you like it rich and raw with layers of complexity seek out the Gokyo. And for those seeking the massive nama experience with tons of attitude and explosive flavor reach for the Kaika. All in all this flight is drinking equally as well as last year and a couple of the brews have changed for the better.

Otokoyama Yukishibare
From Hokkaido Prefecture.
Tokubetsu Junmai Nama.
SMV: +4 Acidity: 1.4
This unpasteurized seasonal sake has a unique nose filled with kiwi, peach and fresh cut grass aromas. Think light bright and dry – a Nama that speaks to those who like clean and compact brews with subtle fruit elements of green apple and white grapes. The balanced delivery is dry and so to is the quick finish. More Granny Smith qualities come out in a smaller vessel.
WINE: Crisp Reds/Dry whites
BEER: Tight ales
FOODS: Very clean cuisines.
Dewanoyuki Hibirakujitsu
From Yamagata Prefecture.
Tokubetsu Junmai Nama.
SMV: -1.5 Acidity: 1.8
The nose on this unpasteurized seasonal sake is filled with blueberry, peach, tropical fruit, and a hint of chocolate aromas. Wow – talk about a velvety smooth Nama sake! Round, fat and chewy this brew is loaded with tropical fruit flavors including fleshy papaya and mango, but the elevated acidity brings out more richness than sweetness. Big, soft and well-balanced this sake drinks like a hug in your mouth. A bigger vessel brings forth more fruit tones.
WORD: Smooth
WINE: Deep Pinot Noir/ Fat whites
BEER: Creamy Ales
FOODS: Grilled fare, tofu, avocado salads, creamy cheeses.
Gokyo Arabashiri
From Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Junmai Nama Genshu.
SMV: 3.5 Acidity: 1.7
This fresh seasonally released unpasteurized sake has a fragrant nose with apple, vanilla, sweet rice aromas. Gokyo is back and as vast as ever – deep flavors ride a massive fluid that carries a complexity founded on the strong legs of umami. Behold a gripping brew that is a marathon of layered flavors such as honey, figs, burnt sugar and a hint of butternut squash. Chewy, ripe, and expansive this is a full-bodied drinking experience.
WORD: Complex
WINE: Huge reds/ Massive whites
BEER: Stouts
FOODS: Kitchen sink – throw anything at this sake!
Kaika Shiboritate
From Tochigi Prefecture.
Tokubetsu Junmai Muroka Genshu.
SMV: +3 Acidity: 1.6
This unpasteurized seasonally released sake has a deep aroma offering filled with cherry, mineral, bamboo and ripe banana elements. Talk about a massive Nama sake – this brew screams huge flavors on a deep and robust acidity slide. A virtual puppet show of flavors such as rich fruits and sweet rice pop up and down at different times. The elevated alcohol content produces a feisty finish with a long goodbye. Expansive and gutsy this non-charcoal- filtered (Muroka) sake relaxes more near room temperature.
WORD: Massive
WINE: Huge Zins/High acidic whites
BEER: Stouts
FOODS: From spicy to meaty it all works!

For anyone that is dying to try some of these goods, and lives in the SF area, then please come to SF Sake Meetup, where you can try one of these special namas, along with some other fine sake from True Sake, of course.
Sign up here!

Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) has a busy life. Making weapons, earnings millions, playing with Playboy playmates. He is the guy every guy wants to be– the quintessential man living the good life. And what does Tony Stark request once aboard his private jet? A hot sake.

Even though I prefer to have mine chilled, who’s gonna argue with Iron Man?

SAKE: Narutotai “Ginjo Nama Genshu”,720mL; $28, 18.5% abv; Tokushima Prefecture

SMV/Acidity/Dryness: I am unable to discern them from the label..

Color: Clear and beautiful, perhaps just the slightest touch of cloudiness.

Nose: Cedar, melon, light flowers. The cedar is almost earthy.

Feel: Doesn’t quite make it to viscous, but comes quite close. Healthy, well-built, round and full. A very strong feel.

Taste: Cedar, earth, spice, almost oak, grass, melons.. do I taste some anise or leather? There seem to be fruits and flavors I can’t quite put my finger on– something spicy and sweet, maybe over ripe melon, or maybe some kind of nut. Hints of banana? Freaking good.

Comments: Absolutely awesome. Clean, rich, complex and a pleasure to drink. Will match up to whatever full-flavor meal you might be having (steak, burger,etc) Even the cylindrical tin can is indicative of this hard-core flavor profile. Overall, an amazing sake.

Nama–Japanese for “unpasteurized”, means that the sake will undoubtedly taste more earthy. Sakes that are not namas typically get pasteurized twice (once upon bottling and once again before shipping). The high heat of the water that the bottles are submerged in, act to denature the yeast, thus halting the fermentation process. Sakes that have not been pasteurized are still “alive” and must always stay refrigerated to keep their taste in tact. There has been a real growth in the market for namas recently, because the flavor is so boisterous, it makes it a natural pairing for bigger bodied meals.. which, as we all know, us bigger bodied Americans love our big-flavored meals

Genshu–means “undiluted”. Sake typically has water added in the final steps before bottling. This helps open up the flavors of the sake, and even the sake purists don’t seem to disagree with this. Sake has the highest alcohol percentage of any naturally fermented beverage (up to 21% even!), so diluting it a bit helps make the different flavor features more distinctive. Anyway, this particular genshu was brewed to remain undiluted at the end of the process, leaving it at a cool 18.5% alcohol. That’s what I’m talking about.

(Oh in case you were wondering beer is between 4-5% and wine is around 12%)

Pairings: Anything with a bold flavor–Burmese Festival Rice (Rice with cinnamon chicken, bay leaves, and raisins), Pad Thai, Korean BBQ

Score: 90+

SAKE: Sho Chiku Bai Premium Ginjo, 300mL, $4.99, 15% alcohol

SMV/Acidity/Dryness: Not written on the label (Why? Perhaps they thought “Chill before serving” was enough information for us?!)

PREFECTURE/RICE: Made in Berkeley California–not Japan. Not sure what rice they used. There is very little information on this bottle

Cute bottle. Cheap price. Good sake? Not bad.. but not especially good either.

For people with limited experience with sake, or whose only experience is drinking it piping hot, well then this is a great cold sake to jump into. It is cheap, easy to understand, and indicative of basic fruity floral junmai ginjos.

Color: Clear as vodka

Nose: Soft, gentle, rolling nose. Scents of cantaloupe and melon rind, hints of sugar, and floral gardenia. Touch of candied berries.

Feel: Nice, smooth, solid, rich.. maybe just a wee bit on the syrupy side.

Taste: Ripe melons, sweet hints of fruit, a very slight bitterness or metallic taste that might be indicative of licorice

Comments: Slightly balanced–not too dry, perhaps just a bit too sweet. Lacks the subtle richness and flavors of a fine sake.

Flavor bursts in the front and middle of the mouth and dissipates towards the back end. Taste lingers for about 5 seconds. The last lingering flavors on the tail end of this sake are pretty great, but the initial finish is slightly too astringent and bitter. Overall, a totally average sake.

If we were to have this in a fancy restaurant paired with some fresh saba or ahi, it might be more enjoyable; likewise people that are not so familiar with sake may find this to be great.

Pairing: General Asian food, pizza with caramelized onions

Score: 75 at home, up to 80 at restaurant with good food.

et cetera