Monday, April 28, 2008

4/21/08: "Ohanami" Tasting at Sakagura

"Ohanami" means "flower viewing," a concept very dear to the Japanese especially as the Cherry Blossom season approaches. If you get two things out of the "Last Samurai," it's that Tom Cruise isn't completely insane (yet), and that the traditional samurai warrior Katsumoto should've invested in some guns (or at least hired some snipers.) But the point is, I am sure I wasn't the only one whose eyes were bit moist when Katsumoto muttered, "...perfect... they're all so... perfect" right?

Getting back to here and now. This year's event was more expensive than last year's all you can drink event held in April. 2007 event was $35 to taste 35 selections, but for $75, 2008 event featured 50 sakés, assortment of dishes, and Cherry decor, with tax and tips already included. Dollar for dollar, 2008 event was a winner.

Sakagura dedicated all its space for this event. The selections were grouped according to a theme, and here are the highlights from each booth:

Booth number one was NY Mutual Trading in the back room. It made absolute sense to make it one of the first destinations as they were pouring "Kakunko" by Sudo Honke. Of course, Mutual Trading also carry selections by Kuji-san and Sakurai-san.

In the adjoining area was World Saké Imports, represented by Masumi and Dewazakura sakés. I was particularly interested in the Dewazakura "Dewasansan" Nama as it represents local rice by the same name. Although not as fruity as Yamadanishiki-based saké, I enjoyed its depth, vibrancy, and mildly earthy finish.

Niigata Saké selection was next on the list, featuring three selections (Midorikawa, Kirinzan, and Kakurei Umeshu) that I am very familiar with. and I especially liked the gentle and subtle nature of the Kirinzan Junmai Daiginjo which was a contrast to all the expressive styles that dominated the evening.

Across from Niigata Saké was a booth titled "Saké Story," where I encountered 4 sakés from 4 different producers that I have yet to try. The selection that grabbed my attention was Koma Tokubetsu Junmai from Fukushima, made in the Yamahai style. Upon trying this saké, there was absolutely no mistake that this was Yamahai, with its very smokey, earthy, nutty aroma with flavors of nuts, minerals, and mushrooms.

Sakagura had two booths, with Momose-san pouring in the back room and Kimono-clad Chizkuko-san in the front room. There were quite a few sakés from Akita and neighboring prefectures. (Note: comments for these will be saved for Akita Saké tasting that is coming up shortly.) Chizuko-san gave me the best scoop for the evening: Kiefer Sutherland enjoyed Bisuikan Junmai Daiginjo a little too much at a restaurant, and he later got arrested for DUI.

Next up was Joto Saké, where I found two of my favorite sakés of the evening. (Maybe I was biased since Midori-san was pouring the sakés as opposed to Henry!) My favorite of the evening was Wataribune 55 Junmai Ginjo Shiboritate Muroka Nama Genshu, which although was very fruity, showed great balance due to depth, acidity, and vibrancy. My second favorite was the Eiko Fuji Junmai Ginjo Nama. This style was tame compared to Wataribune, Eiko Fuji was notable for its smoothness and balance.

The final booth was Japan Prestige, manned by Yamazaki-san. This booth was exclusively nama. While I had chance to try most of the selections in in-store tasting events in the past, there was one I haven't tried in 2008: Otokoyama Yukishibare from Hokkaido. As usual, the light nigori style provided Otokoyama with depth, balance, and long finish.

With all the sakés, food was an essential part of the evning, and Sakagura really hit it out of the park. The dishes included Seared Beef Sashimi, Crab Dumplings, Japanese Egg Omlette, Chopped Tuna Tartare, Sashimi selection, Grilled Cod and Salmon, Grilled Organic Chicken, Beef with Scallion, Shrimp Balls w/Almond, Fried Soft Shell Crab, Braised Pork "Kakuni," Sushi, and Chirashi Sushi among others.

After Sakagura, the evening continued next door at Soba Totto, hanging out with Mr. Urban Saké and reviewing recent events over glasses of Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo followed by Harushika Spring Namazaké. Of course, their food is great, so we enjoyed some skewered Yaki Tori and Tori No Kara-agé, the Japanese version of the fried chicken. (Many many thanks to Tim, by the way!)

To make the evening even more fun, Henry from Joto Saké stopped by with Midori-san, which resulted in more merry drinking and hanging out. In fact, if you saw happy looking man in a blue happi in the happening area of the town that evening, chances are, you came across Henry.

Monday, April 21, 2008

4/19/08: Kyushu Party

My friend had a problem. She has more saké than she can drink. Naturally, Chie asked me to host a party to help reduce her inventory. Being a gentleman and a good friend, I agreed to help her out with this burden.

She offered two choices, both from Kyushu. Taking this cue, I decided to host a dinner party with Kyushu as a central theme. Designing menu and drink selection around Kyushu can be a challenge, but fortunately, my friend Masa has Kyushu roots.

Nothing screams "Kyushu" like pizza Margherita and 2006 Michel Chiralo Barbera D’Asti junmai red wine. Actually, home-made pizza is pretty much expected when visiting my chateau apartment. While many opt for Chianti to pair with pizza, my favorite choice is Barbera d'ASti.

The official Kyushu portion of the evening kicked off with Masa and Yuka's contribution, Game-Ni and miso-braised eggplants. According to legend, Game-Ni was initially called Kame-Ni, as the key ingredient in this pot dish was snapping turtle. Over time, the intonation changed from "Kame" to "Game," while the choice of meat began to shift from snapping turtle to chicken or pork (including this evening.) Masa and Yuka even took the painstaking measure of braising each ingredient (carrot, potato, bamboo shoot, shiitake, chicken) separately.

For the appetizers, we tried two sakés from Kyushu. First up was the elusive Azumaichi Junmai from Saga Prefecture. Made from Yamadanishiki rice, the saké was bold on the flavor but balanced with elements of rice and mild fruit. It was very well recieved by the attendees. Although it's priced like a Junmai Ginjo, its quality is very well worth the retail value of $32.

Azumaichi was followed by Kawazu Shuzo's "Akigeshiki" saké from Kumamoto Prefecture. I could find very little about this saké on the internet, except that it is made using a local rice called "Akigeshiki." Studying the bottle, it notes added alcohol, and cross referencing that fact with the pricing (in Japanese yen), I believe this to be a futsuu-shu. Compared to Azumaichi, its softness, mildness, and lack of mid-palate was noticeable. Flavor-wise, it had sense of rice, alcohol, and umami. The contrast between two sakés were very notable.

Between meals, we had a Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo interludfe. From Fukui prefecture in the mainland, Kokuryu featured Gohyakumangoku rice. With its balace fruitiness, earthiness, and long umami, Kokuryu seemed to be a consensus favorite of the evening. In fact, some guessed that they would expect to pay $65 per bottle, which is twice its retail price.

Although we were out of Kyushu saké, we had one more Kyushu dish left in Chiken Yuzu Kosho Yaki, which is chicken thighs panfried with a sauce featuring yuzu citrus and hot peppers. Think of it as chicken teriyaki with more citrus and some extra zing. For this dish, we opened Kaika Spring Nama from Tochigi Prefecture in the mainland. Using couple of local rice (Wakasui? and Tsuki No Hikari) made in muroka genshu style (undiluted and not charcoal filtered) with a polishing ratio of 59% this is a saké with deep fruity flavor. The fruitiness and depth paired well with the spicy dish, and pefect saké to be serving towards the end of the meal.

Monday, April 14, 2008

4/5/08: Spring Saké Tasting at Saké Hana

Mere two days after the Japan Society event was the tasting at Saké Hana. As always, Saké Hana does a tremendous job combining quality and value. The theme of the event was “Spring Saké Tasting” which featured 14 saké selections in all- you- can- drink format from 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm. Amazingly, this extravaganza set us back only $20.

I came along with my Baseball teammates, and met up with Sakurai-san, Tony, Lefty and Eric, who introduced me to his friend and saké enthusiast, Kelly.

The event featured these 14 selections:
1. Mukune "Root of Innocence" Junmai Ginjo
(SMV: +2, Acidity: 1.8, Rice: Gohyakumangoku)
2. Mukune "Shadows of Katano" Junmai Ginjo Nigori
(SMV:+5, Acidity: 1.5, Rice: Yamadanishiki and Gohyakumangoku)
3. Tozai "Well of Wisdom" Ginjo
(SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.1, Rice: Nihonbaré)
4. Tozai "Voices in the Mist" Ginjo
(SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.1, Rice: Nihonbaré)
5. Rihaku "Wandering Poet" Junmai Ginjo
(SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.6, Rice: Yamadanishiki)
6. Rihaku "Dreamy Clouds" Tokubetsu Junmai Nigori
(SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.6, Rice: Gohyakumangoku)
7. Tentaka Hawk in the Heavens" Junmai
(SMV: + 3, Acidity: 2.1, Rice: Gohyakumangoku)
8. Tentaka "Silent Stream" Junmai Ginjo
(SMV: +2, Acidity: 1.5, Rice: Yamadanishiki)
9. Chiyonosono Shinriki "Sacred Power" Junmai Ginjo
(SMV: +2.5, Acidity: 1.5, Rice: Shinriki)
10. Chiyonosono "Garden of Eternity" Junmai Daiginjo
(SMV: +3.5, Acidity: 1.4, Rice: Yamadanishiki)
11. Kanbara "Bride of the Fox" Junmai Ginjo "Muroka" Unfiltered
(SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.6, Rice: Gohyakumangoku)
12. Kanbara "Wings of Fortune" Junmai Ginjo "Muroka" Unfiltered
(SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.7, Rice: Yamadanishiki)
13.Takasago "Morning Glow" Tokubetsu Junmai
(SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.3, Rice: Miyamanishiki)
14.Takasago "Divine Droplets" Junmai Daiginjo Shizuku
(SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.2, Rice: Yamadanishiki)

Those selections were preented by representatives of four brewers (Kanbarra Rihaku, Tentaka, Takasago), and consultant Paul Tanguay who explained that Mukune and Tozai labels are produced by Daimon Brewery, with the difference being Tozai is a private bottling made exclusively for the importation into US. (I found that in general, Mukune style was more firm and tighter in structure, while Tozai was milder.)

It appeared that the two of the most popular selections were the Tentaka Junmai Daiginjo and Takasago Junmai Daiginjo. I found Tentaka to be more fruitier and longer on the finish, while Takasago to be milder and well-balanced.

After trying lots of fruity sakés this week I personally found Tentaka Junmai and Chiyonosono Shinriki to be comforting. Tentaka was notable for its earthier style, with crisp and balanced flavors of rice and chocolate standing out among other fruitier selections. By contrast, Shinriki stood out for being subtle, much milder on the approach with long umami on the finish.

After the tasting ended, my teammates stayed behind for dinner, joined by Tony and his friend "A-Rod." The dishes ~ Curry Puffs, Tropical themed sushis, Sirloin Cube steaks, among others ~ were top notch, and was accompanied by Dassai 50.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

4/3/08: The Question

At the Japan Society event, I asked Mr. Gauntner a question, which elicited a reaction of, "brilliant" on couple of occasions. It was a deep question, at least from my perspective, and I feel the need to expand on it a bit further. (***Serious and philosophical post alert***)

The impetus for asking the question was the recurring use of the words "flaw/ flawless," triggering an interesting line of thought in my mind. And interestingly, although I had the opportunity to use the forum to direct the question to Mr. Gauntner, I still am not sure who I really was asking the question - Mr. Gaunter? Everyone in the audience? Or myself? I just knew that it was a question that was meant to be asked.

And as I thought more of it, I wasn't even sure if the question was really a question as much as a reminder. And in a way, this was not only saké-centric, but can apply to any "hobby" as well.

Confused yet?

The question was something to the effect of:

"When you taste saké for competition, do you seek out its virtues or its flaws? And does your approach change whether you are enjoying saké for competition or when enjoying it with your friends?"

Now, it was apparent from the lecture that in the tasting, the judges sought out faults. So why did I ask?

Let us take a step back (way back for some) to when you first got into saké (or any hobby). It's fair to say that you got into it because you liked saké to some degree, although as a novice (at the time), you couldn't tell a differences between Koji and Toji. As you began to enjoy saké, you tried to learn more, so that you can identify and seek out the style that you like. This is a particulary important skill, especially when choosing your bottle at retail stores or restaurants. Let's face it, all 3 of my readers many of my global readership has said to their friend, "you know I'm a Junmai Ginjo type" or "yeah, that Yamadanishiki sure is nice, but I really like sakés made from Omachi."

What am I trying to say? As you can tell by the italics, saké is something many of us study because we like it. But it's apparent that at one of the pinnacles of this profession, one must learn to pick out its flaws. In other words, one must drink saké with the specific purpose of trying to identify why one does not enjoy saké.

Of course, this is a natural result deriving from much studies. After all, as you taste more sakés, you are bound to come across some that do not agree with your palate. and from your enhanced knowledge of the subject matter, you can actually articulate why.

Right around the time you can effectively articulate your self in saké (or any subject matter), your friends recognize you as a saké geek connoisseur or expert. You know you are one when people defer to your opinions, give you drink menu at the restaurant, or ask you to take care of the selection for parties. Heck, you might even have a blog!

I believe this is when you , whether you were conscious and willing or not, began to learn to hate saké (to some degree, of course). "That's preposterous!" you may say, but bear with me a little longer (if you are still reading this.)

When people began to see you as expert to some degree, you are suddenly burdened with expectations. In any capacity involving saké, you may begin to hear people say, "so, what does the expert think?" or they hang on to any comment you make. And you know that making an admission that you like your everyday $20 saké dosn't quite cut it. Worse yet, you go to their homes, and when they serve saké, some might preface by apologizing for it not being "worthy of my palate."

When faced with these type of situations, I often feel conflicted, and I'll try to explain without sounding extremely arrogant. Sure, I recognize there is certain degree of expectations and quite possibly, words of wisdom expected from me to "share my knowledge" to some degree. In actuality, I am quite easy when it comes to saké, and what I aim for is to have a good time. Having tasted many styles and learned about the history, process, and people made me like it even more than from the time when I just began to appreciate the taste of saké.

So, while people might feel bad that they are serving ABC Junmai, I am thinking to myself, "cool, a saké! Thank you for sharing!"

Now, this is just little ol' me speaking. I cannot imagine the type of expectation that someone of Mr. Gauntner's stature must face, and how that impacts his perspective and approach to saké.

The question reminded me that in the way of saké, we need to look back as much as we need to look forward. Otherwise, we may lose sight of where we're going.

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.

Friday, April 04, 2008

3/30/08: It's All About the Food Part II - New York Edition

Back in November, I had a chance to visit Japan. On one fateful day, a friend in Osaka tried to kill me was kind enough to be the perfect host, and show me around town to pig out shamelessly on a quasi-gourmet tour, result in my consuming 5 meals in addition to breakfast. As you can imagine, this came awefully close for me to renounce eating forever allowed me to gain deep appreciation of the local cuisine.

Now, you may not be wondering what would happen if the role was reversed, and I had the opportunity to show my friend around NYC. Well, wonder no more!

My friend Motohiko was visiting NYC on business, and he was available to see the City on Sunday. Of course, I would not miss this opportunity to exact my revenge repay my gratitude. What is the proper protocol to one-upping settle an old debt like this? Why, by eating 6 meals, of course! (5 meals + 20% interest?!)

Here's what transpired:

We began with my favorite ramen place, Rai Rai Ken for their Shio Ramen. (Unfortunatly, the grand opening of Ippudo NY was still one day away.)

After that, we paid a visit to Sakaya, where Hiroko-san let us taste few saké selections. The memorable one was Echigo Den-e-mon Junmai Ginjo from Niigata (SMV: +1), with one of the coolest traditional label I have ever seen. Unlike the crisp, clean, and fruity style of a typical Ginjo-class saké, Den-e-mon was soft, round, and subtle with underlying minerality and yeast. As I explained to Hiroko-san my mission, she made a recommendation for Fried Dumpling place in Chinatown. Before heading to Chinatown, we stopped by Pomme Frites on the way for their famous Belgian Fries. In addition to the standard ketchup and European mayo, we tried the smoked eggplant mayo.

Next on the list was Chinatown. Initially, I had one place on the list, but we ended up going to three places. First stop was 120 Elizabeth Street for their Pork & Vegetabe Steam Bun. As big as the size of my closed fist, it is a tremendous value at 70 cents each.

On the way to Fried Dumpling place in Mosco Street, we walked by Chinatown Ice Cream factory. I told Motohiko about the place, and despite the fact it was 45F, his reply was, "we are here, so might as well." We both went with Lychee ice cream.

After our body temperature dropped about 10 degrees in span of two minutes, fried dumplings were welcome development. Handmade right behind the counter, it really hit the spot. And, with the price tag of 5 for $1, it was another unbeliebable deal.

After all that walking, we headed to Union Square area, and refreshed ourselves with Wheat Beer at Heartland Brewery. Since dinner was on the horizon, we needed to walk off some calories, so I showed him Barnes and Noble, Whole Foods, and Strand Books.

The coup de grace came as a courtesy of my favorite Italian restaurant to the north of Union Square. We started with a fantastic Ca'del Bosco sparkling wine from Lombardy, with its richness, depth, and vibrancy that is closer to Champagne than Prosecco.

As we were full, we feasted family style starting with the appetizers of Mozzarella and Prosciutto and authentic Napolitan-style Pizza Margherita baked it brick oven. The main dish was Tagliatelle Norcina, where the pasta is complemented by cream sauce with black truffles and sausages. We finished the evening off with Chocolate Tart and coffee, one of the best food-drink matches.

To his credit, my friend braved through the whole day finishing anything that was put in front of him. I am looking forward to the third installment of this misadventure, that's for sure!