Saturday, July 12, 2008

In Memoriam: Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki 1938~2008

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of Rocky Aoki on July 10, 2008. He was 69.

While Rocky is widely respected as a pioneer and a giant in the Japanese restaurant industry through his establishment of Benihana and Haru restaurant chains, he also was a key figure in the rise in popularity of saké in the United States.

"Walked outside, summer moon was nearly down. Mist on the fields, holy stillness all around. Death's no stranger, no stranger than the life I've seen. Still I cry, still I begged to get you back again." -Bruce Cockburn

I was priviledged to have known and have worked with Rocky in a small capacity.

In September 2003, shortly after the release of his "Saké: Water from Heavens" book, I approached Rocky about hosting a saké tasting event at the New York Athletic Club where we were both members. Although I have not met him before, he was very gracious in volunteering his services to the tune of sakés and his Benihana restaurant staff.

After nearly six months of planning, the "Fire & Water" event came to fruition on March 25, 2004, with a resounding success far beyond our expectations. While we were hoping for 50 participants, we ended up with the maximum capacity of 105 participants and additional 50 guests on the waiting list. The success was largely attributed to Benihana chef demonstration and pairing of fantastic sakés with Japanese food.

In 2003, Rocky also started RKA Saké Club, which provided "Saké of the Month." In addition, he organized several tasting events and saké-centric trips to Japan for the members, often subsidizing part of the cost of the events to make saké accessible to wider audience. Although his philanthropical approach was not suitable for sustainable growth and the club dissolved after three years, it was an honor for me to serve as member of the club's planning committee.

"The king is gone, but he's not forgotten."-Neil Young

While my contact with Rocky diminished, we crossed paths at industry events. I appreciated the fact that he would always take time to ask how I am doing, even though he was often surrounded by key members of the industry. While I will miss our conversations, his legacy will live on with the continued growth and success of Japanese restaurants and saké industries here in the U.S.

Tonight, I raise my glass of the water from heaven in your honor.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

6/17/08: Tasting Notes on Hiroki, Naraman

Is it ever possible, when going to Sakagura, that you leave having tasted just one saké? I don't think so.

Here are tasting notes on two standout sakés for different reasons:

Hiroki Tokubesu Junmai (SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.6, Rice: Yamadanishiki/ Gohyakumangoku, Seimaibuai: 50%/ 55%, Alcohol: 16/8%). I've tried this Fukushima- brewed saké on two other occasions in the past. In September, 2006 I had a very high opinion of the bottle. Six months later, not so much. Was third time a charm?

Maybe it was the Juyondai I tasted before, but my opinion of Hiroki was more along the less than thrilling 2007 version than the outstanding 2006. (You can be assured that I did attempt to cleanse my palate several times.)

With the aroma of celery and focused flavors of koji yeast, it lacked the fruitiness typically expected out of Yamadanishiki rice (or their earlier incarnation, for that matter.) The depth and umami of Gohyakumangoku is evident. The profile of this saké suggests that it may be best served warm.

I've now tasted Hiroki three different times, with three different results...


Naraman Junmai Muroka Bin-hiiré (SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.3, Rice: Gohyakumangoku, Seimaibuai: 55%, Alcohol: 16.5%). With "Nara" as part of the name, this saké is of course from the prefecture of... Fukushima?!

Anyways, this saké is made in the unfiltered and pasteurized style. Right from the get go, this bottle felt like an "old school" saké, from the design of the label to the gentle aroma of steamed rice. The high polishing ratio translates to smoothness, and earthy koji-driven minerals on the palate provides depth and structure. While this saké flexes its muscle when served chilled, flavors round out nicely when served slightly warm.

This just may be a nice saké to revisit in the fall.