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Sake is undeniably becoming more popular in the US market. We are seeing more of our colleagues in the beverage industry becoming interested in the drink, posting about it on Instagram, and generally becoming more excited to talk about sake. Publications that have previously been devoted to wine, spirits, and beer are now featuring sake in their content. Our friends at various importers and distributors are taking note as well, and companies that have previously focused exclusively on wine are now building sake portfolios of their own. For folks who have been working for years in the sake market in the United States (and must have been growing tired of having the same conversation about: "how do we get more people drinking sake on an everyday basis") this increased spotlight is a boon, though the jury is still out on if it will translate to any sort of sustained business in the longer term.
With increased interest in sake from wine professionals, there is also an increasing tendency to think about sake in wine terms. This is particularly apparent in the natural wine crowd, where more and more we hear about the natural wine equivalent of sake: a tendency to gravitate towards styles that imply a more "natural" method of production (yamahai and kimoto for example) or to quickly jump on namazake (unpasteurized) as a less-manipulated product, and therefore better, more authentic. This approach, in our opinion, feels false, slightly dogmatic, and totally disregards the history, production methods, and inherent qualities sake possesses. Simply superimposing the rules and ideology of wine onto a drink that shares little parallels not only feels unfair, but also strips the joy of discovering the characteristics that make sake unique and wonderful in the world of alcoholic beverages.
Speaking to toji (master brewers) who come to New York, there is an amusing twinkle in their eyes when the sake vs wine comparisons are put to them. Wine, they explain, is easy. Grapes naturally have a lot of sugar in them, not much has to be done to promote fermentation and create alcohol. You can crush some grapes, leave them out, and fermentation will occur, creating something approaching wine. Yet no matter how long you leave a bowl of rice out for, it will not become sake. It's quite staggering to think of the developments over the past thousand years, that have coaxed a beverage of such diversity, nuance and style, from a humble grain of rice. The use of koji, a mold from the Aspergillus family, to promote a process known as saccharification, through which the starch in rice is converted to a fermentable sugar (glucose) was discovered centuries ago, and is just one example of the unique and fascinating process of sake-making.
I first started drinking a lot of sake when I was studying for an intense wine exam. Blind-tasting wine was becoming a chore, and I needed something fresh, something completely different to enjoy when I went home. Sake provided a compelling stimulus; it was new, it tasted new, and because I knew nothing about it, everything was pure discovery. As I've tried to educate myself further, that feeling of pure discovery may have diminished slightly, but it was only replaced with a profound respect for the craft and hard work of the people who make it. Yes, there is a lot of intervention in sake production, it isn't as hands-off as no-sulfur, no-additive natural wine, but that’s only because there needs to be. To disregard the process of sake feels like such a disservice, both ideologically, as well as for the pure pleasure of the drinker.
Today we're happy to offer a few selections that have made us excited in the past few months, hoping that you can find something new and stimulating in them as well. A variety of different styles are represented here, and we are confident there is something for everyone. Oskar Kostecki
Located just south of Tokyo in Kanagawa prefecture, Izumibashi is a sake brewery dedicated to their farming practices. While most producers buy their sake rice through a government controlled apparatus, and the ones that work with local farmers are few and far between; it is almost unheard of for a sake producer to also farm all of the rice they use. As a registered "Cultivation Brewery", Izumibashi oversees every aspect of the sake making, from growing the rice, to milling, to the brewing process. Their sake is hearty and deep, with the junmai ginjo expressing balance and poise, as well as great intensity. With notes of under-ripe melon, sugar snap peas, faint citrus, lemon and lemon peel, a gentle aroma of steamed and toasted rice, it carries great texture. Very dry, full-bodied, and becoming more expressive as it approaches room temperature, there is also a certain rocky minerality expressed on the long finish. There is a sharpness and directness to this sake, but it's also palate-filling and generous, and certainly delicious. Definitely one to try if you are looking to expand on the more classic junmai ginjo profile. OskarKostecki
I'm not always the biggest fan of genshu (undiluted) sake. Due to not being proofed down post fermentation, these sake can be quite intense, and occasionally be marred by the taste of alcohol. Not this one though! The nose and palate are both savory and earthy, showing notes of toasted rice, toasted sesame, a hint of banana peel, dried lemon peel, cedar, underbrush, a hint of nuttiness and dried mushrooms. Viscous and unctuous, this is an incredibly rich and palate-coating sake, with really good acidity to balance all the bold and dense flavors. Pair with fried foods, soba noodle dishes, creamy pungent cheeses, or, and this might seem a bit wild, I think this sake would go beautifully with a dry-aged steak. Oskar Kostecki
Made from 100% Miyamanishiki rice, this is a wonderful example of yamahai sake from Kokken, a renowned brewery from the south of Fukushima prefecture. While most sake is made by adding lactic acid to the moto (mash of rice and koji that is a "starter" for fermentation) the more time-consuming yamahai method allows ambient lactic acid bacteria to influence and proliferate within the moto. While the population of lactic acid bacteria is building within the starter mash, it comes under the influence of other ambient yeasts and bacteria. Once commercial yeast is added and fermentation properly starts, those ambient yeasts and bacterias are quickly overtaken, but their influence remains in the finished sake, giving yamahai sake a distinctly savory, wild, and gamey character. An "old-school" way of making sake, yamahi is prized for its robust character and deep flavor. That being said, this example by Kokken is quite a delicate and easy-drinking yamahai, with a slight savory profile, a hint of fresh cut grass, nice citrus fruit on the palate, and a bit of a lactic quality. With good acidity and a slightly more robust mouthfeel, this is a wonderful food sake which will pair with a number of different dishes, but is also delicious on its own. Oskar Kostecki
Another wonderful sake from Kokken, this Tokubetsu Junmai is make from 100% local Yume no Kaori rice, a specialty of the region. Polished to 60%, this is a very fresh and lively sake, with juicy fruit notes balanced by a hint of toasted rice and a slight savory edge. A bit softer on the palate than the Yamahi, this is very sessionable, and very delicious on its own. Oskar Kostecki
A new batch of the Junmai Ginjo Nama from our friends at Brooklyn Kura. This sake is aromatically very complex, with cantaloupe, cantaloupe rind, banana, citrus, lemon rind, yellow flowers, yogurt, and a slightly green, grassy quality all present on the nose. The palate is bright, with great acidity, but still has the mouth-coating quality I've come to associate with Brooklyn Kura sake. It is drier than previous versions, but still comes in at a Sake Meter Value (Nihonshudo) of -1, making it just a tiny touch off-dry, though this is balanced fantastically by the vibrant acidity. This sake is perfect as an apéritif, or with light fare, salads, crudo, or creamy cheeses. Oskar Kostecki
Omachi is quickly becoming my favorite sake rice. It is the oldest known pure (i.e. non-crossbred) variety, and when brewed to its full potential is wonderfully balanced. Integrating earthy and herbal tones with a subdued fruit profile; less flashy and effusive than Yamada Nishiki, but with depth and complexity. This beautiful namazake from Rihaku Shuzo in Shimane Prefecture is one of the most elegant namas I've had, with notes of white blossoms, pear, white peach, and fresh cut grass on the nose. For "Origin of Purity" they are using flower yeasts, isolated from Japan's natural flora by the crazy cats at Tokyo Agricultural University and used in sake production since the late '90s. Flower yeasts add a heightened aromatic quality, which coupled with the savory undertones of the Omachi rice makes this a very complex sake. The palate opens with more earthy tones of radish and steamed rice, along with citrus and citrus rind, and a slight lactic quality I associate with nama. It's vibrant but elegant, with notes of raw cacao and hazelnut as it warms up in the glass. Very limited in quantity, this is a must-try on my list. Oskar Kostecki
Asamai Shuzo is located deep in Akita Prefecture, in the northern part of Honshu, Japan's largest island. Akita is known as snow country, with very cold winters due to to winds blowing off the Sea of Japan-perfect for sake brewing. Asamai Shuzo uses only Akita-grown rice, which is quite rare; many breweries will source rice from all over Japan. Each year they produce a small amount of sake, but it's very well regarded both locally and nationally, and we're very happy to find some here in New York. The Amanoto Tokubetsu Junmai is a blend of Ginnosei and Miyamanishiki rice polished to 55%. The nose explodes with notes of fresh-cut grass, melon, grapefruit zest and a medley of floral tones. The palate is equally vibrant, introducing more herbaceous green notes. This sake has great acidity, and equally great resonance on the palate. Delicious on its own, this would also be great with a variety of spring salads, greens, or lightly-fried fish. Oskar Kostecki
A richly textured nama (unpasteurized) sake from Fukucho, a small brewery in Hiroshima prefecture operated by Miho Imada, one of the only women to hold the title of both toji (head brewer) and brewery president. Made from 100% Yamadanishiki rice, polished to 55%, this junmai ginjo shows beautiful tropical fruit notes (pineapple, mango, melon) along with pear and a hint of spice, pepper, and anise. The rich and palate-coating texture is balanced by bright acidity, and a hint of effervescence. Very lively and engaging. Oskar Kostecki
This sake is part of a series of Junmai Daiginjos made using the same yeast strain, water source, and rice polishing rate, altering only the rice variety. Nanbu Bijin "Shinpaku", named for the starchy white heart of the rice grain, is made using Yamadanishiki, a rice known for its concentrated starch content and ability to hold its shape after extreme milling. Showing the classic junmai daigino aromas of tropical fruit, particularly cantaloupe and pineapple, it's the velvety texture of this sake that makes it stand out. While this is a sake that can be enjoyed on its own as an apéritif, it also goes well with white fish or other delicate foods. Oskar Kostecki
Kubota Tokubetsu Honjozo is made with a combination of Gohyajumangoku rice and local Niigata rice milled more than is required to earn the classification of honjozo, hence the "tokubetsu" or special distinction. A light and dry sake, it exemplifies the Niigata style. Muted aromatics make it a sake that is easy to pair with a variety of dishes and a pleasant green bell pepper note gives it a dry and lightly spicy finish. This is a versatile sake that can be served lightly chilled or warmed up. Oskar Kostecki