(First, a note to JFR readers: Apologies for the silence these past several weeks, as Chef Tadashi Ono and I furiously finalized our "Japanese Hot Pots" cookbook. The manuscript's done! A huge thanks to readers around the globe who meticulously tested recipes for us. Your thoughts were truly invaluable. Ten Speed Press releases the book this October. Much more on hot pots to come. In the meantime, I'm itching to blog again, so here we go...)
One nondescript conference room. Sixteen bottles of sake. A half dozen of the best sake-tasting palates in New York. Henry Sidel, who runs Joto Sake, pulled together this group last week to evaluate a bunch of brews he recently brought back from Japan. He invited me to join in and observe.
Joto Sake imports a select few small-batch, artisanal brews from traditional producers across Japan, all incredible sake. Henry's always on the lookout for more great labels to import, but as he told me, he can't taste twenty five sakes by himself. So, sake tasters to the rescue! It's a fluid group, so to speak; that night it included Kadoi-san, the manager of Sakagura, Rick Smith of Sakaya, Tim Sullivan, of Urban Sake, the sake sommelier Chizuko Niikawa and Yasu Suzuki, a restaurateur and sake expert. We gathered around a conference table in Henry's office, as he pulled bottles out of a carton and tagged them in English. None of the sakes were available in America, all came from tiny brewers across Japan.
Here's some of what I learned from listening to the sake mavens:
We first tasted sakes from the Hiroshima Prefecture. What was interesting to me was how these particular brews all had the same regional fingerprint. Just like a wine aficionado understands the characteristics of, say, an Alsace riesling versus an Austrian one, the tasters knew exactly what to expect from a Hiroshima sake: A crisp, dry and light brew, one with a refreshing acidity. In short, a nice, versatile sake. Henry described this brew as "soft," which he explained as textural note, that is, soft on the palate. (Interesting.) Yasu added that Hiroshima sake is a perfect brew for first-time drinkers-it's very easy to like. The sakes we tasted were from one brewer but varied by quality level (junmai, ginjo, daiginjo) and personality, one fruity on the nose, another appealingly grassy. But all had that underlying character. So if you find yourself at Japanese restaurant facing a long sake list, you'll know what to expect from a Hiroshima sake-and your sake sommelier can refine it from there.
A note about sake quality levels. While we tasted moderate to expensive brews, good basic junmai sake was really a delight. The group told me that great junmai sakes are now being exported from Japan in greater numbers (including by Henry). So check them out where you buy sake. They're reasonably priced, so worth trying brews from different regions and producers to see what you like.
The variety in the sakes always amazes me, as I learn more and more about it. The once we taste ranged from a buttery Ishikawa Prefecture brew to a rich, viscous Kanagawa Prefecture one to a punchy, yeasty namazake, that is, unpasteurized. Henry explained that muroka nama genshu is a trend in sake that's now finding its way to America. Muroka means unfiltered, while genshu refers to not adding water to sake, a standard brewing practice (for good reason), and you get what nama means. Sounds like a rough-hewn drink! Can't wait to try it.
Any characteristics of regional sake you can share? I want to know more about sakes from across Japan (and I'm sure readers would, too). What makes a Saga sake different from an Akita one? Please post any thoughts in the comments section.