Saturday, April 05, 2008

4/3/08: The 100-Year History of Saké Appraisal

Ever since Kuji-san mentioned about this event almost 3 months ago, I've been marking the days off my calendar on a daily basis. What's all the fuss? It's a combination of a lecture by John Gauntner, as Kuji-san emphasized, a chance to be the first ones to taste some competition sakés for National Saké Appraisal ahead of the judges.

Thirteen breweries were represented on this landmark occasion: Takasago Shuzo (Hokkaido), Nanbu Bijin Inc. (Iwate), Akita Seishu Co. (Akita), Kaetsu Shuzo (Niigata), Okunomatsu Saké Brewing Co. (Fukushima), Tentaka Saké Brewing Co. (Tochigi), Sudo Honké Inc. (Ibaraki), Daimon Shuzo (Osaka), Marumoto Shuzo (Okayama), Imada Shuzo (Hiroshima), Rihaku Shuzo (Shimane), Asahi Shuzo (Yamaguchi), and Tenzan Shuzo (Saga).

With such credentials, many of my friends in the industry were at the event: Paul Tanguay (Consultant), Chizuko-san (Sakagura), Michael John Simkin (Consultant), Toshi (Saké Hana), Tomoko (Chopsticks), Timothy (, Rick and Hiroko-san (Sakaya), Mike (enthusiast), among others.

The evening began with the lecture in the auditorium, centering on the main theme of the history and process of judging National Saké Appraisals. Some of the key areas of interest include the following tidbits:
  • Majority of the saké are made specifically for the competition;
  • These are typically deep in acidity, high in aclohol (18%), and has added alcohol to enhance flavor
  • One key differentiator is the aroma, and this is affected by the yeast;
  • Many breweries use Yamandanishiki rice because it is easiest to control and use;
  • Because of this, there are Yamadanishiki group and non-Yamadanishiki groups;
  • The rating is simple and fair (except for the tasting part);
  • The key to winning is to be flawless yet standout, a difficult feat;
  • And many judges value balance.
Following a Q&A session (where I asked a "brilliant question" - more on that in a separate post), we were off to try sakés by 13 brewers including some of their competition styles.

As the event was sold out, I knew it would get crowded. Knowing that Saké Hana is hosting a tasting event involving some of the same brewers, my plan was to seek the rare sakés by those who were not scheduled to be there. Naturally, the first brewer I visited was Sudo-san of Sudo Honké, the 55th Generation President of the oldest brewery in Japan (Est. 1141 AD). In addition to Kakunko, Sudo-san had Hana Awase Junmai Ginjo Muroka (unfiltered) Nama, which is brewed using their flagship Yamadaho rice. Unlike the fruity trait common in Yamadanishiki, Hana Awase was sublime, complex, and balanced, with elements of rice, yeast, and faint spices.

The first competition saké of the evening was from Imada-san's Fukucho "Fukuro Tsuri Shizuku" Junmai Daiginjo, made in a trickle or free-run style. When they talk about fruity yet well-balanced saké, Fukucho's efforts were right on the target. By comparison, Rihaku's Tobingakoi Daiginjo was milder with shorer flavor, with some elements of yeast on the palate. For a competition saké, it may be considered milder in style, but it was still very intense compared with your typical consumer sakés.

Somewhere in the bac room, I made couple of new friends in Marlena and Laura, who wanted to learn more about good saké. After describing the virtues of Dassai 23, we were off to see Kuji-san and try his competition "Shizuku Daiginjo." Also made in the free-run style, Nanbu Bijin was complex and balanced with hints of pineapple and lime, and was well received by the ladies.

Right by Kuji-san's table was Kaetsu Shuzo from Niigata, where I found the saké using non-traditional rice (for brewing purposes) in Koshihikari. Compared to most other sakés, Kirin Junmai Daiginjo "Koshihikari" was creamier on the nose, soft on the mid-palate, with firm umami on the finish. This subtle style was a welcome contrast for sure.

As the evening concluded at the Japan Society, we headed off to Mid-town area to introduce my new friends to the fine Japanese restaurants. First stop was Soba Totto (43rd bet. 2nd and 3rd), where we tried Harushika's spring nama release.

Shortly thereafter, we moved next door to incomparable Sakagura where brewers from the event congregated. While we were seated at our own table, when Kuji-san stopped by our table, he couldn't help but to extend a warm invitation to Marlena and Laura, if they ever happened to be "in town" - in Iwate Prefecture. Practicality of the offer not withstanding, such display of spontaneous generosity exemplify what makes our saké community so great.


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MT (from baseball team)

KCinNYC said...

D@mn, you found me!