Wednesday, February 20, 2008

2/19/08: Tasting Notes on 5 Saké Selections

Generally, post-holiday season is very slow in the U.S. saké industry; now may be an opportune time to post some tasting notes.

The following 5 saké selections were tasted at or purchased from Sakaya during January.


Midorigawa Honjozo (SMV: +4, Acidity: 1.6, Seimaibuai: 60%) from Niigata. I chose this bottle because of the nice looking label. For a honjozo, it is bit pricey at #38, but it's one of those where I felt I had to try. Notes: Clean, subtle hints of creamy rice. Clean, grain, pure. Some sense of sweetness, with long finish rich in umami. It paired very well with the hand-made linguini with mushrooms.

Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo (SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.2, Rice: Miyamanishiki, Seimaibuai: 50%, Yeast: Assoc. #9) from Niigata. The old reliable, but it's been a while since I came across the Junmai Ginjo. This, along with the following 3 selections, was tasted at Sakaya in-store tasting. Notes: Subtle notes of bamboo. Light fruit, clean, with complementary rice/grain. Dry. My favorite Hakkaisan.

Chiyonosono "Kumamoto Shinriki" Junmai Ginjo (SMV: +4, Acidity: 1.7, Rice: Shinriki, Seimaibuai: 55%, Yeast: Kumamoto) from Kumamoto. The label is striking with its bold red type, and for those who read Japanese, very masculine. Two things stand out about this saké: 1) it's from Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu, area known for their shochu, and 2) it is made using Shinriki rice, a varietal I have yet to try. Notes: Mild, creamy, deep umami. Clean notes of grain/rice. It was not as heavy as I had anticipated, but well-balanced with sense of transparency that I enjoyed.

Tedorigawa "Iki Na Onna" Daiginjo (SMV: +4, Acidity: 1.2, Rice: Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 40%, Yeast: Kanazawa) from Ishikawa. I find Tedorigawa style to be fascinating. Based on my limited experience of their selections, I cannot pinpoint their style. The Yamahai Daiginjo is earthy and complex with hints of cheese, and Kaleidoscope" Shizuku Daiginjo is intensely fruity. With such wide spectrum, it was very safe to assume that "Iki Na Onna" would fall somewhere in between. Notes: Mildly sweet, deep. Clean, notes of grain. I found it almost shockingly neutral.

Sudo Honké "Sato No Homaré" White Label Junmai Ginjo (SMV: , Acidity: , Rice: Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 50%, Yeast: Sudo) from Ibaraki. Lastly. I was finally able to taste the elusive Yamadanishiki version of Sato No Homaré. I am a huge fan of the Yamadaho version with its more traditional style and umami-laden finish (note: Yamadaho version has black label with gold lettering), so I had to try the Yamadanishiki. Notes: Highly aromatic and expressive. My first impression was that it was very Kakunko-like. Expressive pineapple/strawberry, nice umami finish. Very interesting demonstration of the difference in rice. Incidentally, this bottle retails for about $55, which is $20 more than the "Black Label."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

2/3/08: Dassai Tasting at Sakagura

February third was an important day. Yes, there was that football game called Super Bowl. But more importantly(?!), there was the Niju-San No Kai ("Event of 23") held at premier saké bar/restaurant, Sakagura. This event is a playful reference to both the date (2/3) and the name of Dassai's "Polished to 23%" Junmai Daiginjo (磨き二割三分). I had the priviledge of translating for Sakurai-san.

The event featured four versions of "23" in total, first three of which are available only in Japan. The first selection was the "Centrifuge" (遠心分離). While the traditional pressing method involves extreme pressure to extract every ounce of fluid, the use of Centrifuge machine helps allow the very best part of the saké to be separated. What does this mean for us? A saké that is softer and rounder on the approach, with gentler finish. Interesting Fact I: Centrifuge machine can process only 40L/cycle (1 hour); at most, they can yield 300L of saké/day.

The second selection was the unpasteurized Nama version, which also was lightly cloudy. This is the New Year's limited release. The Nama element adds vibrancy to the texture, and presence of the lees adds more depth and noticeably longer umami-laden finish. The grapefruit-like flavor was perfect accent to Grilled Live Snow Crab. Interesting fact II: Centrifuge machine spins at the rate of 3,000 RPM ; however, the machine can be adjusted to rotate at upwards of 20,000 RPM which can cause fission. Because Centrifuge can be classified as WMD, it cannot be exported outside of Japan.

Third selection was the Sparkling Nigori (発泡にごり酒, the limited Christmas release that was inspired by the vision of people drinking Champagne with cake over Christmas.. The effervescence also allows the saké to be paired with richer food, such as the Fried Monkfish with Thickened Sauce. Interesting Fact III: while most saké is fermented in open tank, releasing carbonation in the process, Sparkling saké goes through second fermentation in a bottle to retain the bubbles.

Before the last saké, I shared some stories from my visit to Yamaguchi Prefecture, where Dassai is brewed over a slide show. (Note to Yamaguchi Tourism entity: I accept commission in the form of cash and personal checks.)

The last selection was the flagship "23" Junmai Daiginjo. As Sakurai-san said, this is a no-frills, straight-forward saké made to highight the essemce of their brewery. His mantra is, "don't think, just enjoy." With fruity flavors and firmer finish, it was the perfect accompaniment for Sea Urchin Chirashi-Sushi. Interesting Fact IV: Yield rate using Centrifuge is 50%, while Yabuta used for the flagship 23 yields significantly more at 80%.

Afterwards, all heck broke loose including foodfight that claimed Sakurai-san as casuality. Actually, that is an exaggeration, but let me explain. In Japan, we welcome Spring season (立春) by going through a type of cleansing ceremony called Setsubun (節分) the night before. Usually, Spring begins on 2/3 of each year, but on a Leap Year, Spring begins on 2/4. As 2008 is a Leap Year, 2/3/08 is the day to traditionally celebrate Setsubun.

The purpose of the ceremony is to symbolically drive away misfortune and ill-health by pelting the "demon" with pan-roasted soy beans while chanting "Demon out! Fortune in!" ("鬼は外、福は内!”) It is also a custom for people to eat number of beans corresponding to their age. (Some say eat one more than your age for additional luck.) Well, we needed the "Oni" devil. Mr. Urbansaké volunteered, but did not pass the audition as "Oni" don't really have blonde hair. However, we did have someone from Japan in town...

A Gaijin Oni?!

This is more like it! (Poor guy!)

Crowd huddles around the bottles

KC, Kadoi-san (Sakagura), and Sakurai-san


I always loved typing "BREAKING NEWS" on a headline... but I try to reserve such headline for really important news. And for Dassai fans, the news could not be any better: we have learned that Sakurai-san is in the process of registering label for Dassai 39 (photo courtesy of In short, registration is the process that necessary for the saké to go from Japan and into my mouth.

Sakurai-san believes that Dassai 39 may become available by the end of the year; at this time, the pricing information has not been disclosed. (Nihonshudō's suggestion: how about $39 retail price?)

To whet your thirst, here are some past entries that describe my affinity for Dassai 39. Let's keep our fingers crossed!