When I sat down with my friends Chizuko Niikawa and Akiko Ito today, both Akita natives, both sake experts, I posed a simple question: What makes Akita sake so special?
Akita sits in the heart of Japan's far northern snow country, a breathtaking, rural region of forested mountains and rugged coastline. It's one of the snowiest places on earth, famous for its harsh winter, prized rice, and sake.
"Our food culture is so different from the rest of Japan," said Chizuko, the sake sommelier of Sakagura. Because of the rough climate, people in Akita have traditionally relied on fermented and naturally preserved foods that could last through the long cold season. These foods are strong and flavorful, Chizuko explained. "And as a result, our sake is richer and more flavorful to match."
Akiko pulled out a bottle from her bag. She works for the Dewatsuru sake brewery and is here in New York to lead tastings. I met her and her gracious colleagues last year at their historic brewery, founded in 1865. Her sake can stand up to Western foods, too, she explained. "It's also great warmed up" Akiko added. Even their diginjo, the highest quality sake that's often very delicate, can be enjoyed warm.
The bottle pictured is called "Matsukura," a sake brewed from organic rice that will be available in the USA starting in June. I can't wait. Rick and Hiroko of Sakaya carry Dewatsuru sake, if you want to try a bottle. You can also taste Akiko's sake at Sakagura, Matsuri and En Japanese Brasserie.
(By the way Akiko mentioned that Akita just hosted Japan's annual "Fermented Foods Summit" - I have to make the next one!)