Recently, I was offered a unique invitation to attend an exclusive sake tasting hosted by the Consulate General of Japan in Miami and the Sake Export Association. To be honest, I’ve probably only consumed one or two glasses of sake in my life. I just haven’t known enough about sake, so it has always been outside the periphery of my comfort zone. That said, this rare opportunity could not have come at a better time.
The event was held at the Wine Spectator Restaurant Management Lab at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, which is the organizer of the famed South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Being onsite at the apex of culinary creations was fascinating in and of itself! But, what made the day extraordinary was the chance to visit 12 of the top sake breweries from all parts of Japan in a single location and taste some of the best sake in the world.
Another special treat was meeting John Gauntner, who is the only non-Japanese certified Master of Sake Tasting in the world. Gauntner, who has appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, and Business Week, and has spoken at Harvard, Wharton, and other top educational institutions, holds numerous awards and prestigious certifications. He is the co-founder and content editor of the world’s first and only sake-only magazine, Sake Today.
I scoured Gauntner’s web site, Sake World, prior to attending the event so I would understand the nuances of sake and know what questions to ask. Plus, as a wine enthusiast, I have often heard sake referred to as a wine so I was interested to know the similarities and differences. The first important fact I learned, however, is that sake is most definitely not a wine. And it is not a beer or a spirit. Although sake, which has an alcohol level between 15 and 17 percent, may have some characteristics in common with these beverages, it’s truly in its own class.
Water & Rice: The Building Blocks
Made from rice, sake is the result of a brewing process that consumes a lot of water. Craig Tabandera, who represented the Asahi Sake Brewing Co, told me that while the quality of the rice is certainly a key element for sake, water is the muse. In its completed form, sake is about 80% water.
Another critical factor that contributes to the quality of sake is the milling, or polishing, of the rice. In preparation for the brewing process, rice is first polished in computer-controlled machines. As Craig explained, it’s like peeling away the armor so that the brewing process enables more flavors to come through in the finished product.
Premium sake, which is the grade we tasted at the event, has strict milling requirements and a more intense brewing process that includes lower temperatures and a longer fermentation period than non-premium sake. The fermentation process can be anywhere from 18-32 days, depending on the grade of sake. All said, it can take from 5-7 months from milling to the completion of the brewing process. Then the sake is bottled and aged a mere 6 months, after which it is ready for consumption. Although there are some exceptions, the general rule of thumb is to consume sake soon after purchase as its not intended to be aged.
Ginjo, Junmai, Daiginjo, Honjozo, Oh My!
I recommend before doing any sake tasting to know what you’re drinking. Japanese brewers can make several different types of sake and to understand the classifications can be like a brain teaser! The tasting event focused mostly on the primary premium sake grades (there are six), so that is the zone I’ll stay within.
I will first preface the descriptions of the sake grades with an explanation that some have a small amount of distilled alcohol added to it while others do not. This added alcohol, however, does not mean the sake in those grades are inferior. Nor does it mean that these sake grades have a higher overall alcohol content. The purpose of the added alcohol is to make aroma properties more vibrant, enhance flavor profiles, and increase sturdiness and stability. When you see the word Junmai, which means “pure rice,” that indicates a sake that does not have added alcohol. (Want to make sure you pronounce the sake grades correctly? See the Sake Pronunciation Guide).
Daiginjo, the Pinnacle of the Sake Brewer’s Art
The two top grades include Daiginjo and its pure-rice subclass, Junmai-Daiginjo. These sake grades have the most rigorous milling requirement. Rice must be polished to at least 50% of the original grain. Daiginjo grades are best served chilled and are generally light, complex and quite aromatic.
The next two grades have a milling requirement of 60% of the original grain and include Ginjo and its pure rice subclass, Junmai-Ginjo. Like the the Daiginjo grades, Ginjo is best served chilled. It has a light, fruity and refined flavor.
Junmai is also a grade in itself. It is is polished to at least 70% of the original grain. Ken Uchigasaki, president of the Uchigasaki Brewery, explained that this type of sake can be particularly nice when served warm or at room temperature. Junmai sake tends to have a rich full body with an intense, slightly acidic flavor.
The sixth premium grade is Honjozo, which is also polished to at least 70% like Junmai. However, Honjozo is brewed using a very small amount of pure distilled alcohol. This sake can also be served warm. It is light, mildly fragrant, and easy to drink.
Although it was not represented at the tasting, I won’t fail to mention the non-premium sake, Futsushu. Sometimes referred to as table sake, it makes up the majority (approximately 74%) of the entire sake market.
Traversing Across Japan
Japan is an island country with a total land mass about the size of Montana. Although its population is 40% of that of the United States, Japan’s land mass is a mere 5% of the US. In addition, about 70% of that land is not suitable for residential use due to mountains. That explains why Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world!
Divided into 47 prefectures that are each overseen by an elected governor, legislature and administrative bureaucracy, Japan has a predominately temperate climate, but it varies greatly from north to south.
The tasting event featured breweries representing 12 of these prefectures (noted by blue stars on the map). The distance and climate variances between the most northern and southern of these prefectures would be equivalent to that between Maine and Georgia.
The climate and raw materials available in each prefecture imparts a regional style for the sake from that area, but the variances are not nearly as expressive as they are with wine. I found it particularly interesting that the style of the cuisine for that prefecture also has a large influence on how sake in that area is made. For example, in prefectures on the coast, sake characteristics that pair well with seafood are more pronounced in those areas.
My discovery of sake revealed more delicate features than wine and a milder mouthfeel. It was more ethereal on the nose, with a faint aroma of steamed rice, and very clean on the palate. However, like wine, each sake has its own nuances, with some having more fruit, others exuding anise, and some featuring more nutty and earthy tones.
Tasting sake is much like wine in that you swirl the glass to release the aromas and characteristics and pay attention to the visual, aroma, feel, taste, and finish. Though we drank from wine glasses, I particularly liked the square wooden drinking boxes that the Marumoto Brewery featured at their table. Imagine trying to master drinking from one of those! However, novelty aside, premium grade sake is best served in larger wine glasses where the aromas can be released and open up.
In my research, I found that wine drinkers have a tendency to like Junmai style sake since it is richer and more robust than the other styles. As reflected in my tasting notes below, Junmai style sake often displays an “umami” quality that refers to a savory, full mouthfeel that can often pair well with poultry and meats.
Maybe you have heard that, unlike wine, sake does not induce hangovers. This is somewhat true. Compared with wine, sake has less sugar and less of the impurities and byproducts of fermentation in alcoholic beverages thought to cause hangovers and disrupt sleep. With no sulfites or tannins—the enemies for headache-prone individuals—sake even feels cleaner and lighter. As proof, I can report that after tasting about 25+ sake samples, I felt less weighed down and lethargic than I would have if it had been a wine tasting. And, another benefit is that my teeth didn’t turn purple!
Introducing the Breweries
Below is a complete review of all the brewers at the event, listed in order of the Prefecture they are located in, from north to south, as well as who represented each brewery, and which sake products they featured. I made my way completely around the room (with exception of one table, which I’m still wondering how I missed), and I included tasting notes as best as a sake amateur could, with a little help from the kind representatives from the breweries.
Note: Only about 3% of premium sake produced in Japan is exported and although the U.S. is the largest importer of this supply, it is available on a limited basis. You can check specialty Japanese markets, wine shops, and restaurants for premium sake, or visit Vine Connections for more information on how to find these premium products.
Hokkaido is the largest and northernmost prefecture. With cool summers and icy/snowy winters, Hokkaido was the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics, the first year they were held in Asia.
Presented by Ms. Kaoru Ishiguro, Sake Export Association
This brewery featured a drip-pressed sake (shizuku), which is a rarity by itself, and it is the only sake in the world drip-pressed in none other than an ice igloo! How novel is that? Not surprisingly, the city from where the sake comes, Asahikawa City, is quite cold.
A Junmai Daiginjo premium grade, it had a prominent aroma, with a layered finish. I personally found this to be one of the most unique of the tasting with its complexity. Even the name, Divine Droplets, is an indication of its place in the sake world.
Akita is a mountainous northern prefecture on the main island of Honshu. It is marked by very cold and snowy winters. Many claim that the women in Akita are the most beautiful in Japan due to their fair skin, which is perhaps the result of staying inside during the cold winter months!
Brewery: Akita Seishu
Presented by Mr. Yohei Ito, President, and Ms. Yui Akimoto, Manager of Export Sales
We tasted sake from the following premium grades: Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo, and Junmai. Based on our lesson, this means these do not have added alcohol. This brewery uses only local rice and water to best convey the terroir of the area. Being located in a mountainous region, the brewery has access to rich clear spring water that contains an abundance of minerals that comes through in the sake.
We tried the Junmai Ginjo first. The lightest of the three, I imagined how delicious it would be with a platter of fresh, briny oysters. It is clean and light, with just a slight sweetness.
A bit more fragrant than the first one, the Junmai Daiginjo has a sweet, mellow fruity fragrance. It elicited pleasant memories of the lychee iced tea I used to drink at a small noodle joint in San Francisco.
The Junmai, the last one we tasted, is the most flavorful of the three and could be paired with poultry. In fact, Yohei recommended fried chicken. Talk about a tasty collision of the eastern and western cultures!
Iwate, on the Pacific side of Honshu, is Japan’s second largest prefecture. Largely characterized by valleys, rugged coastline, and large mountain ranges, Iwate was one of the prefectures most impacted by the 9.0 earthquake that struck in Japan in 2011, generating enormous tsunami waves.
Brewery: Nanbu Bijin
Presented by Ms. Chizuko Niikawa-Helton, Sake Discoveries
Producing sake with pristine ground water found in the natural reserves of the area, Nanbu Bijin’s mission is to produce clean, beautiful sake, which is conveyed in its name. Nanbu literally means “southern” but the actual meaning stems from the traditional name of the region, and Bijin means “beautiful woman,” making the brewery’s English name Southern Beauty. Unfortunately, I missed this table that offered four sake selections, all of which sound incredibly unique. These notes are based on the event’s tasting sheet.
Shinpaku Junmai Daiginjo, whose label is designed to evoke the image of a single grain of rice, is a gentle, soft sake with notes of peach, strawberry and marshmallow.
The brewery’s Daiginjo is the quintisenntial Daiginjo-style sake. It offers a flowery aroma, bright acidity, and a clean finish.
Southern Beauty Junmai Ginjo is made with local rice that takes more than eight years to develop and perfect. This sake has green fruit up front, a creamy palate, and mineral finish.
Finally, the brewery featured its Umeshu, a plum sake. Usually, Umeshu is packed with sugar, but Nanbu Bijin only infuses ume plums in a unique Junmai sake.
Miyagi, located on the Pacific side of Honshu, was another prefecture that endured massive destruction by the 2011 earthquake. It has miles of beautiful coastline and is home to Matsushima, a coastal town well known to offer one of Japan’s most scenic views.
Brewery: Uchigasaki Shuzoten
Presented by Mr. Ken Uchigasaki, President
The oldest brewery in the Miyagi prefecture, it is known for its delicately nuanced style and gently rounded texture. Uchigasaki is the producer of the Hoyo brand with sake featuring English names, such as the Fair Maiden, Shining Prince and Farmer’s Daughter.
The “Kura no Hana” Junmai Daiginjo, or Fair Maiden, is made from rice grown only in the Miyagi Prefecture. I detected a kiss of black licorice on the nose that led to a delicate, slightly sweet finish.
Next, we tried the “Manamusume” Tokubetsu Junmai, or Farmer’s Daughter. Made with the rare Manamusume rice variety grown only in the Miyagi Prefecture, this sake exudes a fruit and spice combination.
The “Genji” Tokubetsu Junmai, or Shining Prince, is the driest of the three and Mr. Uchigaski explained that it falls somewhere between a robust Junmai and refined Ginjo.
Facing the Sea of Japan, Niigata is known for its ski resorts, national parks and many onsen (hot springs). The coastal capital, Niigata, has the highest percentage of rice farms of any city in Japan.
Mr. Kaoru Ishiguro, Representative
This brewery, whose main brand of sake is called Kirin (not to be confused with the beer), is in a prime location where clear mountain streams of the Oku-Aizu and Echigo ranges empty, resulting in an abundance of pure water.
My favorite shaped bottle of the day came from Kaetsu. Who doesn’t like a powder blue glass bottle resembling a frosty orb that you can turn into a vase after you’ve consumed the contents?
The orb, held by Mr. Ishiguro in the photo, contains the brewery’s flagship Kirin Daiginjo “Hizoushu.” This sake is stored at very low temperatures for five years. Upon tasting the chilled sake, which radiates fragrant fruit, I was again reminded of my beloved lychee iced tea.
Unlike the Hizoushu, the Kirin Junmai Daiginjo “Koshihikari” is more rich in structure and less fruity.
The Kanbara Junmai Ginjo “Bride of the Fox” has a hint of anise and elegant sweetness. The name for this sake comes from the nationally famous legend called Kitsune-bi (Fox Lights) and of nationwide festivals that feature the “Fox Bride Procession.”
Fukushima, the third largest prefecture in Japan, has miles of coastline as well as a mountainous interior with volcanic landscapes and hot springs.
Presented by Mr Johji Yusa (left), President,
Okunomatsu, a brewery with a long history and tradition of high-quality sake brewing, is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year.
We tried the brewery’s best-selling sake, the Tokubetsu Jumai, which was quite good.
But what was even better — and my favorite sake of the day — was the “Ihei” Junmai Daiginjo Shizuku. It is drip-pressed, like the one we tried from Hokkaido. I found this one to overall have a great balance of fruit, and maybe was even a bit peppery.
Okunomatsu also makes a premium sparkling sake, which was the first I had ever tried. The bubbles are very fine and it is slightly sweet.
Land-locked Tochigi is home to one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions, the Toshogu Shrine. The Shrine is located in the Nikko National Park, which has mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs. The city of Nikko, at the entrance of the park, is approximately a one hour train ride away from Tokyo to the south.
Presented by Mr. Munenori Ozaki, President
Tentaka, meaning “hawk in the heavens,” was named by the founder after he had a dream where he saw a hawk soaring toward the heavens. The hawk is a powerful image for the Japanese, for its piercing eyes and ability to fly high.
The brewery is located in an area surrounded by three flowing rivers and benefits from clean, fresh air and water.
We tasted the chilled Kuni Tokubetsu Junmai “Hawk in the Heavens” first, which is quite dry and light, but Mr. Ozaki said it becomes a bit fuller when it is warmed.
The brewery’s Daiginjo “Ginsho,” or Silent Stream, has notes of licorice on the nose, and fruit essences, such as strawberry and tangerine.
The brewery’s Organic Junmai is one of few certified organic sake products. It has a bit of melon on the nose and hints of rice flavors.
Sitting on the coast of the Sea of Japan, the capital city of Kanazawa is home to the “perfect garden,” designed to be beautiful during every season. It is also famous for its seafood, particularly crabs.
Brewery: Mioya Shuzo
Presented by Ms. Miho Fujita, President
Mioya Shuzo, which is one of few breweries with a female president, is located in an area well known for hot springs and pristine seafood.
The brewery’s brand Yuho means “happy rice,” and we had the opportunity to taste two selections of the Junmai premium grade, both which are particularly good served at room temperature or warm.
The first one Ms. Fujita poured for us, Rhythm of the Centuries, is a Kimoto Junmai style sake that has been aged almost four years. Kimoto is a brewing method that results in a mellow flavor and higher acidity. It is very smooth, having the savory umami quality I mentioned earlier. The second sake, Eternal Embers, a Junmai style, is slightly nutty with a clean finish.
While we were tasting, Ms. Fujita pointed at a brochure on her table that had a photo of a billboard with a UFO on it. As legend has it, this town is said to have the most reported UFO sightings of anywhere in Japan. Grinning, Ms. Fujita told us that the name of the sake, Yuho, also gives a nod to the small seaside town’s supposed numerous UFO sightings, which perhaps are induced by sake consumption. Given the alcohol level of sake, I’d say she’s right on!
This prefecture is home to the Fukui Dinosaur Museum, ranked among the most impressive of its kind in the world. But perhaps the most significant Fukui destinations are Eiheiji, one of the two main temples of Zen Buddhism, and the breathtaking Tojinbo cliffs.
Brewery: Hanagaki Shuzojo
Presented by Mr. Takuya Nanbu, Director
The brewery was founded 1733 in western Japan. The source water of the city is considered to be among the top 100 waters of Japan and is well suited for sake making. The brewery uses organic rice from local farmers and produces organic sake.
Hanagaki Shuzojo presented its Junmai Daiginjo, Junmai Ginjo, and Junmai.
The Junmai Daiginjo is in the Usunigori style, which refers to a sake that is a very light nigori (cloudy) style, meaning a small amount of rice sediment remains. With fresh fruity aromas, it has a smooth, yet rich finish.
The Junmai Ginjo, which would pair well with seafood, has gentle acidity and sweetness, where the Junmai has a rich, broad flavor that once again reflected the umami quality. I agreed with Mr. Takuya that it would pair well with teriyaki chicken.
The Okayama prefecture is known for its mostly rural landscapes, feudal castles and several notable art museums.It’s also a gateway to the Shikoku Island via the Seto Ohashi Bridge.
Presented by Mr. Niichiro Marumoto, President
The Marumoto Brewery was founded in 1867 at the base of the Chikurin-ji Mountains in one of Japan’s most prized agricultural regions. Mr. Marumoto is the sixth generation son of the brewery, which introduced Chikurin in 1990 as its new, limited release brand.
We tasted two Chikurin Junmai Ginjo sake, an organic and non-organic version. I enjoyed both, finding that the organic version is a bit earthier and richer than the non-organic, which is lighter and fruitier.
Mr. Marumoto also featured two sparkling sake from the Happo Nihonshu label. One is pink (Hana Hou Hou Shu), and the other is blue (Hou Hou Shu). I loved the celebratory look of the bottles, but they are both quite sweet, making my preference the still Chikurin sake.
A mountainous, sparsely populated coastal prefecture in Japan’s western Honshu, Shimane boasts the oldest shrine in Japan, the Izumo.
Presented by Mr. Yuichiro Tanaka, President
This brewery, home to the Wandering Poet and Dreamy Clouds, has the highest average rice milling rate of all other breweries in the Shimane prefecture.
Dreamy Clouds, a Nigori Tokubetsu Junmai Ginjo, is a bit nutty with sweet rice flavors. Nigori refers to a cloudy sake, so it has a creamy white appearance in the glass.
Wandering Poet, a Junmai Ginjo, proudly honors famous Chinese poet, Li Po (Rihaku in Japanese). It is lighter than the Dreamy Clouds and has a long floral finish.
Yamaguchi is the westernmost prefecture on Honshu Island. About 70% of the total area of the the Yamaguchi prefecture is wooded, where red pine, cedar, and cypress trees thrive.
Brewery: Asahi Sake Brewing Co.
Presented by Mr. Craig Tabandera, Representative
The brewery (not to be confused with the beer brewery), which only focuses on premium Junmai Daiginjo sake, featured its flagship product, Dassai.
Dassai 23 is made with rice milled to 23% of its original grain, and the Dassai 39 is made with rice milled to 39% of its original grain.
As expected, the more finely milled sake is more complex and elegant, with a full flavor and lingering finish. The other has a more light aroma, but still a well-rounded flavor.
We also tasted a sparkling Nigori. A cloudy sparkling? Definitely fun and unique. This sparkling sake has a lot of presence, with multiple textures coming from the sediment, the bubbles, and finally the mouthwatering effect of salty flavors.