Kantenya: Sake, an introduction

It’s been nearly three years since I covered sake in any detail [WLP]. Since England’s second lockdown, I’ve been learning Japanese. “Sake ga suki desu ka?” means, “do you like sushi?”. If you do, you can reply:

  • “Hai, sake suki des” [yes, I like sake].

If you don’t like it, you can say:

  • “Iie, sake suki ja nai des” [no, I do not like sake]

[For pronunciation, the U’s are silent]

Since I began learning Japanese, I’ve been shopping at Kantenya – Brighton’s premier Japanese food store. In December 2020, they [Kantenya] organised an online tasting event in conjunction with private Japanese school, Shimaguni – also based in Brighton.

Tonight’s event is led by Kantenya’s owner Heede, and his partner Claudia. As well as a brief introduction to sake – history, production, and drinking etiquette – we get to try a couple of sake’s from two of Japan’s top selling breweries. Both sake’s are from Hyogo [next to Kyoto and Osaka] where 50% of sake production occurs – the ‘Speyside of sake’, if you will.

Known as ‘the king of rice’, Yamada Nishiki comes from Hyogo – Golden Promise, its whisky equivalent, perhaps? Further reading: Sakeworld.

Sake can be split roughly into two types: Junmai [a pure rice style], and alcohol-added/fortified sake [= more aromatic]. The more polished the rice, the more ‘refined’ [and expensive] it becomes.

  • Less than 50%: Daiginjo / Junmai Daiginjo
  • Less than 60%: Ginjo / Junmai Daiginjo – also known as Tokubetsu Junmai, Tokubetsu Honjozo
  • Less than 70%: Honjozo / Junmai
  • Unspecified: Junmai

The origins of sake appear vague and a few days research on the matter hasn’t – in my mind – made things any clearer. Our host tells us the early origins of sake occurred around 1300 years old, where sake~alcohol was made as an offering to the gods. Early writings in the third century describe people enjoying alcohol~sake at funerals [S-W]. Today, there are around 12000 brewers in Japan [S-W], 70% of which have a rich [often family] heritage going back 100 years or more.

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DRINKING SAKE

As well as simply a drink, sake is a cultural experience. The usual pour/measure is 180cl. Drink with two hands – take a sip and then put down [see video]. Sake is best paired, literally, with salt/salted food.

[Shumigani’s] sensai says the best way to drink sake is:

  • Keep it quality
  • Sip/drink slowly
  • With appetisers
  • Chilled/room temperature

Sakeworld says ‘in general, good sake is served cold. Sake that is served warm is served that way for two reasons: one, that is the older, traditional way to serve sake and two, heating masks inferiority. But wait! It is not all that simple!‘,…..

Further reading: SW

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THE LANGUAGE OF SAKE

  • Sake in Japanese means alcohol in general, but in this case, it refers to japanese fermented rice wine. However, according to Japanarmenia:

‘Calling rice wine sake is also wrong, as sake is made in the result of kneading of rice, which is more characteristic of making beer than wine. Besides, in different parts of Japan, there are different means of making sake: for example, formerly in Southern Kyoto, sake was distilled from potato and in Okinawa, it was distilled from sugar beet. Nowadays sake is mainly made from long sorts of rice‘.

  • Sakamai – rice used for brewing sake.
  • Futsushu refers to regular sake [comparable to table wine, typically made from eating rice]
  • Junmai [pure rice] and Ginjo [made at lower temperature and 60%+ polishing] are considered premium sake.
  • Sei-mai buainadaken: (rice polishing ratio) is a figure indicating the extent to which brown rice [genmai] becomes white rice [hakumai].

‘Dassai 39’ [Londonsake], has a polishing of 39% [rice left], making it very expensive.

  • Nuka is animal feed generated from rice left over – much like draff in whisky production by the sounds of it
  • Nihonshu-do – sugar-to-acididy level. Example: minus 2 [-2] = sweet sake
  • Amakuchi = sweet
  • Karakuchi = dry [+2]
  • Kanpai = cheers

Let’s drink.

– – – ————————– – – –

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Shuzo Sayuri [2020] Ob./Hakutsuru Junmai Nigori 12.5% [300ml]

This sake unfiltered is from Hakutsuru – the number one selling brewery in Japan. Unfiltered sake = milky.

  • N: Thin-milky Cocoa Pops, slightly foaming strawberry Angel Delight > cocoa=bubblegum, but more a thinish milkshake, in part, with a complimenting mild lemon citric thread.
  • T: Sour-sweet Mini Milk / >=strawberry > cocoa Angel Delight = [low-end] confectionary chocolate vibes with a thickish mouthful to boot.
  • F: Relaxed cocoa > > Angel Delight confectionary chewy~flowing milky-fatty/oily vibes. I’m coming to the swift conclusion that the Japanese love their sugar. Despite the sweetness, this goes so very well with all the savoury Japanese/Chinese/Thai food I’ve enjoyed this year.
  • C: Hard to believe that this a product of just water, rice, koji, and aged fermentation. I’ve enjoyed two more bottles since.

Not scored, but recommended.

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It’s funny what you pick up at online drinking events. For example, the word ‘Sesquiperdobiphobia’, means the fear of long words. There’s a longer word too, but I’m apprehensive about sharing it.

Nigori Ozeki [2020] Ob. Cloudy Sake’ 14.5% [357ml]

From Japan’s seventh best selling brewery, our host tells us this is nearly a ginjo and recommends it served warmed or cold.

  • N: Even more milky [than the Sukuri] into deeper creamy, less overt sweetness.
  • T: A thickish gravy/jus savoury-sour > Ombar-sweetened melted chocolate-flavoured Yakult-milky drink. Who could ask for more? There’s no mystery after the initial reveal – Ombar-flavoured milk thereafter – yet every sip is a joyous pleasure.
  • F: Very lactose-y milky-sweetness applies for the finish too.
  • C: Fabulous boozy drink, so very consistent, sip after sip. I’ve still no idea how to score sake, no idea whatsoever. On instinct, this is Sayuri-plus. Still hard to believe this profile comes from less than a handful ingredients, but then that’s the same for whisky too.

Not scored, but recommended.

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Having gotten the sake bug, I made some further purchases.

Hakushika Ginjo Nama Chozo [2020] Ob./Tatsuuma-Honke 13.5% [300ml]

After maturing for six months, traditionally, nama-chozo is pasteurised just before bottling.

  • C: Brief observations: dry koji [fungal beer/flat champagne] notes, light lemon,…. I found this less characterful than the Suyuri or Nigori, but then I drunk this rather quickly/disrespectfully and didn’t take considered notes.

[Not scored]

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I’m trying this Funaguchi whilst waiting surprisingly patiently for a takeaway Chinese meal [a rare occurrence, a Chinese meal that is]. I’ve been waiting for nearly 2.5 hours, but then it is NYE. Plenty of time then, to do a little research. From the Kikusui brewery [est. 1881] in Nigata, HN: ‘The brewery itself has been destroyed twice by natural disasters, first by an earthquake and then they were washed away by a flood‘.

Funaguchi Nama Genshu [2021] Ob./Kikusui 19% [200ml]

Nama [short for namazake] means unpasteurised. Known as ‘live’ sake, this is presented in a pressurised can. Further reading: sakeworld

  • N: Sweetish sake, very clean, polite, refined.
  • T: Far cleaner and savoury compared to the previous milky sweet affairs. In fact, with light lemon-citric and very slightly salty Bovril notes, this is way more bitter~sour than expected. Having said that, we also have Ombar chocolate mixed with a drop of Vitam R.
  • F: Further notes of Bovril ~ Twiglets,…stout,…
  • C: The Mortlach of sake? An enjoyable curiosity, but where’s my Chinese meal !?!

[Not scored]. Further reading: kikusui-sake.com

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Meal eaten, dessert to finish.

Ozeki Nigori Umeshu [2020] Plum Liqueur 12.5% [100ml]

  • N: Not technically sake, plum liqueur is rightly popular. The boozy plum sugars offer up so many varied and vibrant variations on the nose, it’s unreal. This is almost as brimming with cherries as it is with plums, and then there’s aniseed < liquorice stick,… suggestions of flavour-related baked goods and a sherried-ness too – tannins from the fruit, I imagine.
  • T: Definitely sweet yet light prune/sultana juice on the palate, but without being an overly sweet/sickly affair [just yet]. Indeed, there’s an ideal weight to this, likened to ‘real’ pressed cloudy pear/apple juice – add carrots/cucumber water etc,…
  • F: Sure, a whole heap of sugars congregate on the palate towards the tail, but I’ve little grumbles by this point.
  • C: I can’t imagine anyone having a problem with this, unless you don’t like plums of course. I’ve not tried many plum liqueurs, yet all have been a delight. No doubt if I lined up a flight of them, observations would be different in comparison to an isolated case. Furthermore, this works well against chilli-spiced Szechuan black bean dishes too. I shall assemble some more!

Not scored, but recommended.

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LOOSE ENDS

With thanks to Tom, Heeda, and Claudia.

Matinae [see you next time]. Yoichi nichi o [Have a nice day]

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END

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