Sake: Your First Tasting
There's More To Sake Than You Think
Styles & Seasonals
December 4, 2003
Written by Fred Eckhardt
You can amuse your friends, amaze your enemies, and become a "sake expert",
all in one swell foop. The idea here is to sample several of the major styles
of sake in one sitting. Try to include as many of the below listed variations
as possible, and from many different sources. Try especially to include products
from the six currently operating U.S. sake brewers. As you will see it is easy
to combine these possibilities into as few as five examples. Invite friends
to share and perhaps you can prevail on them to assist in financing the operation
<span class=hed2>The Six American Sake Brewers And Their Sake</span>
Last year was the centennial of American sake. The Japan Brewing Company opened
in Berkeley in 1902, and a total of 37 sake breweries have plied their mostly
Japanese customers with sake during the last century.
Today there are six: five in California and one in Oregon.
Takara (Berkeley, CA) is the largest; and owned by Takara, Japan’s (and the
world’s) fourth largest producer. Their main Sho Chiku Bai Sake is ordinary
and reasonably priced, the Nigori (unfiltered) is also well made.
The Sho Chiku Bai Ginjo is their best product. American ginjos (premium sake)
are good but they are not world class.
Ozeki San Benito (Hollister CA), America’s second largest and oldest (1979)
is owned by Japan’s third largest brewer. Ozeki is inexpensive and good. Ozeki
Premium Ginjo, a dai ginjo, may be America’s best sake, if not our most expensive.
Gekkeikan Sake USA, (Folsom CA) our number three producer, is owned by Gekkeikan
of Japan, the world’s largest sake brewer. Their American products (other than
the Haiku, their ginjo), are a bit prosaic.
SakeOne (Forest Grove OR), number four, is our only American owned sake brewer.
Their products range from good to very good, but they vary in quality from time
to time. They aspire to produce high quality ginjo and daiginjo sakes priced
reasonably at around $10/750ml. Momokawa Silver, my favorite, is a nice dry
Number five is Kohnan (Napa CA), and the quality of their Hakusan brands seems
to have gone down in recent years, as have their prices. Hakusan Premium Sake,
a ginjo, is their best. I don’t recommend cheap Hakusan Mild which was 14.5%abv
(alcohol content by volume) in 1991, but is now at only 13%abv.
The smallest American sake brewer is Yaegaki USA (Los Angeles), formerly American
Pacific Rim Sake Brewery. They have America’s only female chief sake maker,
and produce California Ki-Ippon sake. These are available in California, but
are difficult to find outside that state. They import Yaegaki’s wonderful Mu
"Emptiness", a daiginjo from Japan. I certainly praise them for that.
One has to read the labels of American sake carefully. This is especially true
if the price is low. Low prices often mean lower alcohol content. I’m not sure
I can blame any of them all that much, because many states tax "wine" over 14.5%abv
at a higher rate than regular strength wine. The same is true in Europe. But
they rarely warn us that this is a breach of the promise of sake. Sake is best
at 16-17%abv. Alcohol levels have been steadily reduced in recent years.
With the exception of SakeOne, no U.S. brewer bothers to but a date on the bottle.
Japanese grocers are notorious at mishandling their sake products. Sake suffers
as much as beer from exposure to light, especially fluorescent light, and most
grocers are ignorant of that fact.
<span class=hed2>Six Basic Sake Types For Our Tasting</span>
1. Nigori Sake, the primitive ancient style: raw, pressed, but cloudy and unfiltered,
a bit sweet and quite delicious. Most of these on the market are rather poor
in quality, and low in alcohol content. Only two are worth noting: SakeOne’s
Momokawa Pearl, a genshu (full strength--18%abv) nigori sake and Sho Chiku Bai
Nigori. I’ve not found any Japanese-made nigoris in this country.
2. A very dry sake (SMV -- Sake Meter Value -- of +8 or higher) should be served
at room temperature or chilled and can be included in one of the other styles.
Be aware that most sake labeled "dry" is usually SMV +3 to SMV +5, and therefore
not "very dry".
3. You also need a Japanese Country sake import (jizake), perhaps a very dry
sample (to satisfy item 2 above) such as Harushika or Otokoyama, which should
be served chilled or at room temperature. There must be at least 250 Japanese
jizake (and one Australian) found in this country. And each one better than
4. A Genshu (full strength) sake such as Japanese Sawanotsuru Genshu or the
Momokawa Pearl (nigori) mentioned earlier. Serve chilled, these are 18-19%abv
-- take care.
5. Two sakes (American and Japanese) of the highest class (and price). These
premium sakes from rice polished to more than 60% (ginjo), or over 50% (daiginjo).
They can be impressive in both taste and price when you shell out upwards of
$50 for a 720ml bottle, let me assure you that if it is fresh, it will be well
worth the price. Ask the merchant how long it has been on the shelf before buying
it. The best and most expensive American of this style is Ozeki Premium Ginjo,
but Takara and SakeOne also brew the style. Additionally, get as good (read
expensive) as you can find, from Japan, which range up to $100 or more/720ml
bottle. My favorite is Japanese Gekkakow Vintage (Imported by United International)
which was voted best in the U.S. in a 2002 tasting of daiginjo and ginjo sake.
Another long time favorite has been Wakatake no Oni Koroshi, and of course Yaegaki
Mu mentioned above is also a great find. Have the merchant translate the bottle’s
production date for you. Fresh samples are much preferred. Any of these are
delicious served chilled at about 45°F/7°C.
6. Your final selection (to be served first) might be one of the cheaper California
sakes served warm at 110-119°F/43-48°C. Most of your friends would be disappointed
if you fail to have at least one warm sake. Pu-leeze NOT HOT. Anything over
135°F/57°C ruins the sake by bringing out the bitterness. Read the labels and be
sure there is reasonable alcohol (not less than 15%abv).
<span class=hed2>The Tasting</span>
For our sake tasting you need only a very small sample of each style, but you
will have to purchase about 700 to 900ml of each. Do not use the 1.5- or 1.8-liter
size unless your tasting group is huge. Some doubling up is possible, e.g.,
a dry country sake could cover dry and country at the same time, as suggested
earlier. The same is true of ginjo and daiginjo sake. Such premium sake could
actually be 1) dry, 2) country, and 3) ginjo or daiginjo; all at the same time!
Guests should be served their one- or two-ounce samples in small wine glasses
or brandy snifters. Use plastic only as a last resort. During the tasting you
can talk about how sake is brewed (see Celebrator Feb-Mar 2003, p16). The mystique
and lore of that beverage offers great conversation possibilities.
It would certainly not be wise to serve these potent alcohol beverages without
some food accompaniment. The Japanese shun such things as sushi with sake, but
most of us are not Japanese, and sushi goes just fine with our sake. Cold turkey
or chicken nibbles would do very nicely, too; as would fresh fruit such as strawberries,
apple and pear slices, mild cheeses, and pretzels too.
<span class=hed2>Extra Bonus Reading Assignment (Homework)</span>
Frost, Grif, and Gauntner, John. <em>Sake Pure + Simple Revised Edition</em>,
2003, Berkeley California: Stone Bridge Press. paper.
Gauntner, John. <em>The Sake Handbook-- Second Edition</em> 2003: Tokyo and
North Clarendon VT: Charles E Tuttle Co.,Inc., paper.
Gauntner, John. <em>The Sake Companion</em>, 2000: Philadelphia, PA, Running
<span class=hed2>John Gauntner</span> lives in Japan where he publishes a free
monthly internet newsletter Sake World. To subscribe, send an email to <a
Visit his Sake World Website at <a href=http://www.sake-world.com>http://www.sake-world.com.
<span class=hed2>Fred Eckhardt</span> lives and writes about beer and sake in
Portland, Oregon, where he merrily swills the stuff with little or no deference to sobriety. Some friends insist he is a public drunk. Others only wish they could do the same.
© by Fred Eckhardt, 2003. All rights reserved.
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One has to read the labels of American sake carefully. This is especially true if the price is low. Low prices often mean lower alcohol content.
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