Tuesday, October 31, 2006

In the beginning...

Although it was slightly more than one year ago, I still remember my visit to Nada, Japan in October, 2005. Nada, not to be confused with Nara, is a famed saké production center blessed with perfect water (Miyamizu from “Rokkosan” mountains), the best rice (the famed Yamadanishiki), and geography (port, ideal for trade.) This "perfect storm"-like convergence of ideal elements led to a burgeoning production of Nihonshu, deemed the best in the country. For red wine drinkers, consider Nada as saké equivalent of Bordeaux.

Although the production of saké pales in comparison to the days of yore, Nada is still famous for sakagura (saké brewery) tours.

Thus, it is no surprise that after my trip to Kansai region was booked, Nada sakagura tour was high on my list.

I arrived at Kansai International Airport around 3:45 pm on Friday, 9/30/06. By 1:00 pm the next day, I found myself sitting at a table of Sakabayashi restaurant located inside Shusinkan Brewery, (est. 1751) eating the best hand made tempura soba in the world to start my tour. Between “Wa” influenced interior, freshly grated wasabi, tempura, all the while sitting with your girlfriend… life doesn’t get much better than this!

Appropriately named Shushinkan, which means “spirit of the saké lodge,” gave me a complete guide of their brewery, explaining all aspects of production starting with the video (also available in English), followed by tour of the premises, before concluding with tasting.

The tour guide, former toji (brewmaster) of the brewery, was very informative, and after finding out that I work in NY as a saké consultant, his enthusiasm went up few notches, and delved deeper into technical aspect of saké production, covering such topics as creating koji (yeast starter mold) to shizuku pressing (free-run method).

The part I looked forward to, naturally, is the tasting. Their sakés are released under the label “Fukuju,” and the tasting began with the typical junmai, then ginjo/junmai ginjo, then daiginjo/junmai daiginjo, followed by their low alcohol (6~7%) Riesling Kabinett-like dessert saké “kome kome shu.” To my surprise, he then went to the back to the refrigerator room. “For you,” he said, “you have to try this.” It was an aged daiginjo, still transparent in color. "It's 5 years old," I am told, as I enjoy the clean tasting elixir.

"Hold on," he says as he goes back to the refrigerated room. He comes back with another jug. "This one, it's 10 years old," he remarks as he tips the jug. He notices that there is barely a drink left.

Without hesitation, he emptied the contents to this very grateful visitor. "For you... no problem. Please try!"

While tasting 8 shots of saké can generally get me warm and happy inside, I knew that I did not owe this sensation just from tasting saké. That's when I had a revelation: Great Saké Experience= Rice + Water + Yeast + Friend(s).

I knew that in this day and age (in Japan), when shochu can be more popular than saké especially among the younger crowd, he found a kindred soul, someone he deemed worthy enough to share the last priviledged drops of their sacred craft... when that realization hit me in conjunction with mellow yet clean, fruity, and well-balanced water from the heavens, the event changed from merely tasting saké to a truly Great Saké Experience.

As I realize one year later, Great Saké Experience always involve saké (rice, water, yeast, perhaps brewer's alcohol) and friends. This blog will chronicle my journey as I attempt to seek Great Saké Experience.