Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Before I get back to saké... Sophie and Patrick's wedding

It's been over a month (way over a month) since I last posted and I feel completely overwhelmed at the thought of catching up. So, I'm going to start out with a short off-topic, photo-heavy post on Sophie and Patrick's wedding in Cambodia.

A Cambodian wedding traditionally lasts three days, but this one was shortened to only two days...and about fifteen outfit changes! Sophie was so beautiful it was ridiculous, especially considering she was operating on barely any sleep. Well, a picture is worth a thousand words...


Friday, November 10, 2006

Sparkling sake re-tasting

Sparkling sake re-tasting

I tricked some unsuspecting friends into being sake guinea pigs recently with a surprise re-tasting of Harushika Tokimeki "Palpitation of Sake" sparkling sake. Pat and Sally gamely tried the sake one evening when I am certain they were expecting to relax with either a glass of red wine or a beer. The guinea pigs turned out to be excellent tasters. Below are their comments:

Sally: sparkling pear juice, pears, banana, good with foie gras, delicious

Pat: fruity, disconnect between the smell and the taste, smells like dirty socks [ed: hmmmm]

Rob: should be on the rocks

I was just as pleased with this bubbly as the first time I tried it.

(Harushika Tokimeki “Palpitation of Sake” sparkling junmai sake, SMV –80, acidity 5.5)

Available at True Sake, $14/300 ml

Thursday, November 02, 2006

You should get this book!

If you are interested in sake, you really should get the new book, "What to drink with what you eat (the definative guide to pairing food with wine, beer, spirits, coffee, tea - even water - based on expert advice from America's best sommeliers)." The authors, Andrew Dornenburg & Karen Page, have done an excellent job of bringing together experts on all drinks, including sake. The exciting thing for us is that Paul Tanguay of Sushi Samba and the sake web site Of Rice and Zen, along with several other sake afficianados, has contributed many comments.

Here's how the book works: first there is some introductory information including general food and drink pairing rules. Next there is a section that lists nearly any food you can think of, including cuisines such as Thai, occasional food such as Christmas foods, and shockers such as White Castle hamburgers, Domino's pizza, and Kit Kat candy bars. While flipping through this section, you might run into an entry such as the one for oysters, which offers several sommeliers opinions (sometimes widely varying) on pairing. Another section lists drinks alphabetically and for me, of course, the most interesting section is sake. Under sake there are subcategories, such as "general," aged, daiginjo, ginjo, etc. Under each of these are lists of foods that are recommended for pairing, those that are highly recommended and foods to avoid. There are only about three pages on sake in particular, but you will be surprised by how much information is packed onto those pages. One thing that I really love is reading notes by the sommeliers. Sometimes they completely contradict each other, but that is what we have all been learning about tasting - everyone's taste is unique.

Scattered throughout the book are recipes from famous chefs, all sorts of food and drink pairing and serving tips and plenty of gorgeous photos. At the back are examples of pairing menus from some great American restaurants (including Kai, one of my favorite New York restaurants), "desert island lists" from some of America's leading beverage experts, and a sample tasting sheet for you to copy and use.

You can get the book at amazon for about $23.00, which, I am telling you, is a steal. You should get it!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

International Virtual Sake Tasting

International Virtual Sake Tasting October 2006

The Sake Diaries joined with Melinda at Tokyo through the drinking glass, Tim at Urbansake.com, and Etsuko at Tokyofoodcast in what might be the first Virtual Sake Tasting ever held. The plan was simple. We picked a date, chose sake that was available to all of us, and gathered some friends together for our tastings. Each of us will report on our group’s tasting on our respective blogs. Special thanks go to Tim who created our attractive tasting sheets and who, along with Melanie, who did the bulk of the planning.

We picked four sakes that we would all taste and decided that we would each pick a fifth “wildcard,” which would be tasted by our group alone.

Our sakes:

Shirakawago Sasanigori
Rihaku Wandering Poet”
Tamanohikari Omachi junmai daiginjo
Urakasumi “Zen” junmai ginjo
and my wild card
Nipponia Nippon junmai

None of these sakes were available for me locally, but that is the greatness of the internet and also modern day travel. The Shirakawago Sasanigori, Tamanohkari Omachi, and Urakasumi I got at True Sake on my recent trip to San Francisco, Nipponia Nippon I got in Tokyo on my trip there in June, and the Rihaku I ordered from Sherry-Lehmann over the internet.

sake tasting at Saji Ya with yummy treats

For my tasting it was me, Rob, Mayu, Lauren, Mia and Nate. We decided to hold the tasting at Saji Ya for several reasons, not least of which is the food, including the special "rock star roll" that sushi chef Manny makes for us.

Now for the fun part: the tasting! There were two clear favorites of the night. The Nipponia Nippon “won” the tasting with 4 of us choosing this as our favorite. The second place winner was the Urakasumi “Zen” which Mayu and I chose.

Taking notes

Each sake was graded on a scale of 1 to 10 on the following parameters:

Overall rating 1-10
No Nose 1 – Fragrant 10
Sweet 1 – Dry 10
Simple 1 – Complex 10
Quick Finish 1 – Lingering 10

Here are the averages for each sake:

Shirakawago Sasanigori (Alc 15.3%, smv +0, acidity 1.5, polishing rate 60%)
This milky offering produced widely varying opinions from the tasters. I personally wasn't crazy about it and almost wondered if our bottle had gone bad...
Overall: 4.3
No nose to fragrant: 5.2
Sweet to Dry: 6.2
Simple to Complex: 6.5
Quick finish to Lingering: 6.2
Comments: "Wrong; medicinal or cleaning product," "tastes like clay," "excellent unfiltered variety; surprisingly sublte, floral," "chemical," "chalky, sour."

Rihaku "Wandering Poet” (Alc 15.2%, smv +3, acidity 1.6, polishing rate 55%)
I thought this was a nice, light, but well-rounded sake.
Overall: 5.2
No nose to fragrant: 4
Sweet to Dry: 3.7
Simple to Complex: 3.3
Quick finish to Lingering: 4.5
Comments: "Quiet, light; dry start, slightly sweeter middle, dry finish; high acid," "easy to drink, butterscotch," "great aroma; nice finish, easy to drink; sweet," "an 'everyman's' sake; would appeal to the masses, middle of the road fruit," "very smooth."

Tamanohikari Omachi junmai daiginjo (Alc 16.2%, smv +3.5, acidity 1.7, polishing rate 48%)
Maybe tied with Nipponia Nippon for my second choice.
Overall: 5.5
No nose to fragrant: 5.2
Sweet to Dry: 5.8
Simple to Complex: 5.8
Quick finish to Lingering: 6
Comments: "Dry, acid, light; light fruit at the middle and end; nose = cinnamon," "grassy; not a favorite; chocolate-ish; butane," "starts with sweet flavor; finish is dry, crisp."

Urakasumi “Zen” junmai ginjo (Alc 15.5%, smv +1, acidity 1.3, polishing rate 50%)
I had this before at Sakagura in New York and at the time, I felt that it was overwhelmed by the food I was eating with it. I'm glad that I had the chance to try it again...it was my favorite of the night!
Overall: 6.8
No nose to fragrant: 4.7
Sweet to Dry: 5.2
Simple to Complex: 6.2
Quick finish to Lingering: 6.8
Comments: "Fruit; melon; savory," lots of flavors; very fruity," "strong notes of licorice," "black licorice."

Nipponia Nippon junmai
According to the brewer: "Beautiful red color comes from ancient rice that is partially used to brew. Perfect balance of sweetness and acidity." The man behind the bar at the Ginza Fukumitsuya said this is light and smooth and tastes like rose wine.
Overall: 7.8
No nose to fragrant: 4.3
Sweet to Dry: 5.3
Simple to Complex: 5
Quick finish to Lingering: 6
Comments: "Sweet, fruit, apple juice," "no nose; maybe raspberry? stawberry? fruity," "very fruity; a little bit of Japanese plum flavor," "fabulous, super sweet, but not overwhelming."

The tasters with their favorite sakes:

Rob: Nipponia Nippon

Lauren: Nipponia Nippon

Urakasumi "Zen"

Nate: Nipponia Nippon

Mia: Nipponia Nippon

Valerie: Urakasumi "Zen"

Our tasting was pretty casual and we relied heavily on Tim's tasting sheet which we really appreciated, especially as the evening progressed and our note taking tapered off a bit. Overall, the evening was a great success and we hope to participate in similar tastings in the future. The most important thing is that we all had a lot of fun and learned a lot.

Rob and Valerie – a successful tasting

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Saké in Seattle: Umi Sake House

While in Seattle, I was advised to stop by Umi Saké House and I'm glad that I did. According to their website, "Umi is a sophisticated twist on the Japanese Izakaya style of informal eating and drinking. The design of the restaurant mirrors a Japanese country house, including a “front” and “back” porch." The atmosphere is great and the saké list is even better.

There were about 55 sakés offered by the bottle and 8 offered by the glass. I decided to try the Nanbu Bijin Junmai Ginjo ("Southern Beauty," Iwate Prefecture, smv +1) and I enjoyed it so much, I had a second glass. At the end of the meal, I had a small bottle of Zipang sparkling saké. I'm a fan of sparkling saké and I really liked this, which was very light with an apple candy nose, a quick finish and tiny bubbles. Rob took a sip and said, "Oh. 7-Up." To each his own... I left him to his mega can of Asahi.

I love Japanese restaurants that serve food "izakaya" style, just as I love tapas and any shared plates, really. The menu at Umi is pretty extensive with sushi and sashimi, some creative rolls and a large selection of "appetizers." The meal started out right with a small dish of edamame that Umi brought to the table to get things going. Rob and I had black cod marinated in saké for three days, toro su-miso (tuna in a nice miso vinagrette), Spanish mackerel, yellowtail, salmon and a 1st Avenue roll (shrimp tempura, avocado, cucumber, tobiko topped with spicy tuna & spicy mayonnaise). The roll was really too big and we regretted ordering it as we were too full after it to order some other things we wanted to try. My favorite was the black cod in it's sweet marinade. Yum!

If you are in Seattle and you love saké, you must go to Umi Saké Lounge. You will be happy that you did!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Saké Day Part Two

Saké Day Part Two, A recap of Nihonshu no Hi

True Sake hosted their second annual Sake Day celebration at Fort Mason this past October 1st and I'm happy that I had the opportunity to be there and join in the festivities. See the Sake Day website for details and great photos.

The fun started at the registration table as we signed in and picked our colored necklaces (mine was red!). Being a True Sake newsletter devotee, I knew that later in then evening there would be drawing and the color of your necklace would determine which of four sakés you would be trying. The welcoming reception was great - outside the Firehouse with a view of Alcatraz along with live music, we were served Chikurin Karoyaka "Bamboo Forest," a newly imported saké from Okayama Prefecture (Junmai Ginjo milled to 50%, smv +3, acidity 1.40). It was delicious and Beau Timken was a gracious host, keeping glasses filled. I tried to be restrained because I knew what lie ahead...

Inside we were seated and Beau offered a few words of wisdom. After reading his newsletters, I thought he seemed like a nice, funny, sincere, obsessed man. In person his truly big personality shines. He's very witty, very fun and very enthusiastic (but not stuffy) in his passion for saké. If this man can't bring saké to the American masses, no one can. He started the evening off with a raffle and my table won 2 bottles of Karen Coy (smv -23, acidity 2.9, alcohol 10-11%) which we dove right into to get things going.

I loved the way the evening was set up. Dinner courses (catered by Mari's Catering) along with accompanying saké were brought out one at a time, yet the dinner was casually paced and people were free to get up throughout the meal to visit the four saké stations set up at the back of the room and in a side room. The menu included:

Assorted nigiri sushi (maguro, unagi, salmon with yuzu tobiko, escalore with wasabi tobiko) and an-kimo (steamed monk fish liver in lemon cups with lemony ponzu)
*Shirataki Jozen Mizunogotoshi "Pure flavor" Tokubetsu Junmai from Niigata Prefecture (smv -1, acidity 1.4). Very clean in the typical Niigata style with a quick finish.

Noshi-dori (baked chicken) served with teriyaki sauce and tomato basil sauce, asparagus served with vinegar miso
*Takenotsuyu "Bamboo tears" Junmai from Yamagata Prefecture (smv 2, acidity 1.4). Less sweet; savory

Bacon wrapped shrimp in Nigori (sak
e) cream sauce, wasabi mashed potatoes
*Tsukasabotan "Tosa Space Sake" Junmai Ginjo from Koichi Prefecture (smv +5, acidity 1.5). This course was dubbed "Pigs in Space" by Beau who had this to say about the saké: "This sake was made using ingredients from outer space. Well sort of, in fact, it was made with brewing yeast that was sent to space on a Russian rocket. Did zero gravity have any effect? You make the call on this dry Ginjo that has a nose filled with steamed rice, whipping cream and green veggies tones. Think dry 0 as this celestial sake is clean, soft and shimmering with an overall dry earthiness that hides a hint of dry fruit elements. As close to the sake gods as one can get..."

Deep fried tilapia, peppers, and onions marinated in spicy vinegar, steamed stuffed daikon
*Narutotai "Beau-shu" Nama Ginjo Genshu from Tokushima Prefecture (smv +5, acidity 1.7). This was one of my favorite sakes - it comes in a can! but it tastes FRESH.

Beef marinated in miso and sake, edamame rice, Japanese pickles, Japanese custard
*Masumi "Yamahai Tsukuri" "Autumn Yamahai" Yamahai Junmai Ginjo from Nagano Prefecture (smv +2, acidity 1.8)

Sake creme brulee topped with sake blueberry sauce, green tea with gold flakes

The saké stations were all about testing your saké tasting skills.

é Station #1 was "Name that sake" and you were given 3 brews by a True Sake favorite brewery, Irakasumi. We tasted a Junmai, a Junmai Ginjo, and a Junmai Dai Ginjo. Despite receiving (from a mysterious, guru-type man) the excellent advice to "think of a fresh, clear, running stream" when thinking about the Junmai Dai Ginjo, I got all of these wrong! Well, I wasn't the only one and I got to this station at the very end of the evening - that's my excuse. I want another chance!

é Station #2 was called "Sake experiment" and here we got to play a "sake scientist" and discover how saké degrades over time. We tasted 2 sets of saké that had been inadvertently aged (meaning that the brewer intended that these saké be drunk fresh) and, to make it a bit more interesting, two of the saké had been opened on Sake Day 2005, exactly one year ago. So, we had:

Daishichi Kimoto Honjozo 1999
Daishichi Kimoto Honjozo 1999 - opened in 2005
Daishichi Kimoto Honjozo 2000
Daishichi Kimoto Honjozo 2000 - opened in 2005

I think I may have noticed more similarity in the sak
é opened last year than others. I definitely felt that you could see the relationship there. Others thought the saké opened in 2005 was really off, some were even a bit disgusted by it. I mainly thought it tasted flatter and sweeter. What the hell, no one got sick. This means don't throw out that saké that you opened last month and then forgot about before you give it a try... I didn't hear anyone really complain about the 1999 and 2000 sake that hadn't been opened, so, although the taste likely changed greatly from what the brewer had intended, old saké can still be worth drinking.

é Station #3 was a "Blind Tasting." At this station, six bottles were offered and everyone was told to choose their favorite. Another bit of fun: two of the sakés were the same! I did this station early in the evening and I was able to correctly guess the two identical sakés.

é Station #4 was called "Madhouse Sake" and it offered three sakés that were called "a little bit crazy." First was a Junmai Dai Ginjo that was left in a True Sake window for 5 months and a bottle of the same saké that had been stored properly. To me the exposed saké had an off smell and tasted similar, but lighter. Next, we tried a Kikusakari Gekkakow "vintage" saké which was aged by the brewery for 3 years. Finally, were tried a sparkling saké from Okunomatsu. This was made for Formula One racers to spray on each other in the victory circle at the Japanese Formula One races. I liked this light, bubbly saké.

And finally, "The Necklace Finale." Everyone would get a final sak
é, but which one would it be??

Kamenokou 17 milled to 17% $850/bottle
Kakunko milled to 27% $150/bottle
Dassai milled to 23% $70/bottle
Fu-Ki $4.95/bottle

I had a red necklace and I was a first runner up with the Kakunko. This was phenomenally delicious and I would definitely buy some of this for a special occasion. A highlight of the evening came when my wonderful tablemate David offered me not one, but TWO SIPS of his first prize Kamenokou. I must admit that I looked at David and asked "is it worth it?" I can't quote exactly what he said, but he reminded me that sak
é is more than just a bottle of alcohol with a price and more than a "good" or "bad" taste. Whether a saké is "good" is determined by a combination of the love and care that the brewer put into making it, the personal tastes of the taster, the occasion at which you drink it and the people who you drink it with. So, yes, this sake was worth $850 a bottle.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Saké Day Part One

A day full of saké plus something from yesterday that I forgot.

Well, I didn't really forget, I merely neglected to mention because it wasn't in my saké notebook. True Sake! First of all, either tales of parking woes are exaggerated or we were very lucky to get a spot within a couple blocks. The storefront is narrow, so it might be easy to miss if driving by, but we found our way and I was not dissapointed. There were several customers in the store and the workers were so friendly. I had a list of a few specific sakés that I needed to find and they led me right to them. Then I spent time just looking at every bottle and every description. I bought several bottles and might have bought more if not for the current restrictions on liquids in carryon bags for air trips. Also not to be missed is the gorgeous collection of saké-related glassware. I was happy to find the hammered glass cups that I saw in Beau's book "Sake: A Modern Guide."

Thanks to my friend Rick, later in the afternoon I was able to get to Berkeley and to Takara Sake USA. The highlight of the visit, besides the generous, free tasting, was the museum. It was a great opportunity to put good visual images to alot of the things I've read about the history of saké making.

Takara's web site says:
The Museum features items and displays of interest to both experts and the general public. It includes an exhibit of the historical saké-making process, saké artifacts and implements collected by Takara Sake USA, and a history of saké-making in America. The collection is the only one of its kind in the U.S.A.

They have a very useful diagram illustrating the process of saké making in the 19th century with items which the museum owns an example of conveniently labeled. They also have a similar example of this on their site.

I was excited when I saw several old books. Unfortunately, they mainly consisted of old brewery ledgers with no illustrations.

As for the tasting, they have a menu for the day listing the daily available choices. I lost track of how many sakés I tried because when the friendly lady behind the counter found out that I was very interested in saké "just for fun," she became very generous and let me try the majority of the items on the menu plus a few other things.

Some things that I tried with a few comments:

Sho Chiku Bai nama
Sho Chiku Bai organic nama (superfresh, alive, green)
Sho Chiku Bai nigori creme de sake (creamy, white chocolate liqueur, thick)
Sho Chiku Bai nigori (thinner than creme de sake, sweet, pina colada)
Sho Chiku Bai Tokubetsu Junmai (sharp but smooth, prominant alcohol taste)
Shirakabe Gura (tokubetsu junmai, imported)
Sho Chiku Bai Ginjo
Takara Sierra Cold
Plus a plum wine and several flavored sakes (fuji apple, lychee, raspberry, and plum)

Sake Day Part Two (a description of the True Sake Nihonshu no Hi festival!) will follow shortly.

San Francisco Saké Vacation, Part 2

I decided to pass by saké for lunch today because I was reminded of another true love...dim sum at Yank Sing. I believe that I could have ordered saké at Yank Sing, but I didn't even consider it. Green tea seems to be called for with dim sum. We had Shanghai dumplings (yum!!), bbq pork buns, ha gau, pork shu mai and who knows what else.

I made up for a sakéless lunch with dinner at Hana Zen. This is a wonderful place to try saké as the menu is quite respectable, the staff is very friendly and knowledgeable, and they seem excited that you are interested in saké. The saké menu is very helpful with pictures of the labels of each sake and good descriptions. My friend and I decided to share two saké flights, the junmai daiginjo set and one of two junmai ginjo sets. Our server showed us where in the menu we could find the descriptions of the sakés in our sets and made a point of asking our opinions on all of them. I've marked my favorites with an *.

Junmai daiginjo flight ($24.00): Kubota Manjyu (served room temp), Kubota Hekijyu* (served room temp), Kanchiku

Junmai ginjo flight ($18.00): Suigei*, Dassai, Kikusui

After Hana Zen, we were reluctant to declare the night over, so we walked around downtown a bit and decided to have a drink at the bar at Farallon. They have a great wine list which includes one saké, Kanbara "Bride of the Fox" junmai ginjo $10.50/glass. I had a glass, which may or may not (ok, NOT) have been a good pairing with their Cinnamon Apple Cake. I've had Kanbara before and liked it and the Apple Cake was extraordinary. A good example of when two rights make a wrong!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

San Francisco Saké Vacation, Part 1

I love San Francisco. I lived there for a year and was sad to leave and I'm very happy any time I get to visit. So, when I heard that on October 1st, True Sake would be celebrating Nihonshu no Hi (Saké Day), I bought a ticket and booked my flight. My plan was to stay for a few days and try some new saké every day.

On Friday, my first day in town, I managed to try five different sakés. Really, I was on a mission during this trip and I wasn't going to let silly thoughts such as, "should I really be drinking this early in the day??" slow me down.

The House
The House is in a nice little space right at the edge of Chinatown and North Beach. They offer only one saké by the glass, but it's a good one. I've had enough saké now (but I'm still unfamiliar enough with Japanese) that I am having a pretty difficult time keeping saké names straight. I didn't recognise Meibo "Yowanotsuki" junmai ginjo, which is also known as "Midnight Moon." When I got back to my computer and put two and two together I was excited because I knew that I had a bottle at home in my refrigerator. Something to look forward to! I was happy to make the discovery because I really like this saké. The aroma is pleasant with a bit of floral, the taste was clean with prominent apple throughout and a tart finish. It seems to be a good choice to match with a variety of foods, therefore not a bad choice for a restaurant to offer if they are only going to offer one by the glass. I had the white shrimp and Chinese chive dumplings which came with a tart, tangy sauce and the deep fried salmon roll with Chinese hot mustard. The House also offered a 750 ml bottle of San Pellagrino for $4.00 which I could hardly believe. Most places charge $4.00 for the little bottles.

Meibo junmai ginjo
Rice: Yamadanishiki polished to 50%
SMV +2
Alcohol 15.8%
Acidity 1.5
Amino Acid: 1.2

Later that night, I had a wonderful meal at Ozumo. This evening truly brought home to me the difference between "drinking" saké and "tasting" saké. At the beginning of the meal I wrote in my notebook: "Wakatake Daiginjo Onikoroshi (Demon Slayer) 'beautifully sound, round and alluring saké with a silky texture and slight sweetness stemming...'" The quote is from the menu and I didn't even finish writing the quote and that was it for the night. I was there with an old friend and the saké was flowing and, really, taking notes or even thinking logically about aromas and tastes was far from my mind. Well, I don't regret it. I can sort of recreate the evening from the itemized check: butternut squash miso soup, miso soup, bluefin sashimi, hamachi sashimi, spider roll, ikura sushi, Voss sparkling water, 1 glass Wakatake daiginjo, 1 glass Kamoizumi daiginjo, 1 glass Dewa 33, 1 glass Dewazakura Oka.

Dewa 33 & Dewazakura Oka specifics (also see True Sake's newsletter of April '06 for a good writeup of both):

Dewa 33
Polishing rate 50%
SMV +4
Alcohol 15.8%
Acidity 1.4

Dewazakura Oka "Cherry Bouquet"
Polishing rate 50%
SMV +5
Alcohol 15.5%
Acidity 1.2

Wakatake daiginjo (I later realized that this saké was recommended by one of my tablemates at Sake Day as his anytime saké and a brief search of the internet for other people's opinions shows that many others agree)
Polishing rate ?
SMV +/-0
Acidity 1.4

Kamoizumi daiginjo
Polishing rate ?
SMV 1.5
Acidity 1.2

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Mask hung on ceiling

A huge thanks to Tim at urbansake.com for his recommendation of the extraordinary Sakagura! I had one night in New York last week and I wanted to make the most of it. Sakagura delivered more than I expected. The saké menu is so large, it is truly overwhelming. I decided right away to put myself in our server's hands and I wasn't disappointed. This man was very knowledgeable and willing to spend time helping me find just the thing that I would love (unfortunately, I didn't get his name). When I let him know that I was open to his suggestions, he recommended that I start with a Junmai Daiginjo and I agreed. He asked me if I liked dry or sweet saké and I asked for something slightly dry. He brought 2 bottles to the table for me to taste, Daiten Shiragiku and Nanbu Bijin. I might have liked the Nanbu Bijin better, but I was intrigued by the extreme strawberry aroma of the Daiten Shiragiku ($15/glass). It was served in a stemless glass that was the same shape as my Reidel sake glasses, only a bit smaller. The taste was sweet and smooth with a bit of fruit.

Next, we decided that I should move on to a Junmai Ginjo. The server again brought two bottles to the table and I choose Urakasumi Zen [SMV +1; Polishing rate 50%; alcohol 15-15.9%; acidity 1.3; amino acids 1.3; rice Toyonishiki]. ($17/glass). This was delicious, but it was served just as the Tori Karaage (deep fried chicken chunks marinated in saké and ginger infused soy sauce) arrived at the table. I think the saké was a little too subtle to stand up the chicken. Rob asked the server if there was significance to the use of different glasses the saké was served in. Yes! said the server. The daiginjo would have a somewhat more subtle fragrance and the glass was designed to concentrate the fragrance.

The server asked if I wanted to try a third saké - why, yes! Usually I'm not a heavy drinker, but I had decided that I was going to try as many sakés as I reasonably could. Server said maybe I should consider something a bit more unique. He suggested a yamahi (see John Gauntner's site for a good explanation of the process for making yamahai saké). I choose Kikuhime [SMV +1, acidity 1.8] ($9/glass). This had the bold, savory, ricey aroma which I love. A rich, yummy saké.

I decided that I was going to finish the meal with an aged saké. The aged sakés were offered by the bottle, carafe, glass and tasting. We ordered a tasting of the Daruma Masamune (a blend of 1972, '82, '84, and '89 pure rice sakés at $17/tasting) and a glass of Hanahato (aged 8 years for $8/glass). Both sakés were a striking amber color. The Daruma Masamune was described on the menu as "dramatic" and Rob called it "challenging." I agreed with him, which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. It was full-bodied and a bit sweet. The Hanahato (SMV-44, polishing rate 65%, acidity 3.5) was strong and complex with a slightly sweeter aroma and taste than the Daruma Masamune. The aged sakés were a great way to end a fabulous meal.

On top of the mind-blowing saké menu, Sakagura offers some very tasty food options. The menu featured mostly Izakaya-style snacks or small plates. Besides the tori karaage, we had gindara yuan yak (grilled cod), toro sashimi (the most delicious thing we ate), agedashi tofu, goma ae (extraordinary spinach salad in sesame dressing), yuba shumai, maguro tartare with caviar, and the dessert for 2 which comprised of pineapple sorbet, a chocolate souffle with raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream (served on a plate with 2 other treats which I can't remember), chocolate chip cookies and Sakagura's signature green tea truffles (yum!). It sounds like a decadent meal, and it was in a way, but one of the things that I love about Japanese food is that I never seem to feel overfull afterwards. I bought two boxes of black sesame shochu truffles to go, one for Mayu, who was watching our house, and one for me. Wow! They were so strong - I ate two of them in the car while I was driving and I was worried that I might be pulled over for DUI. Delicious!

This was one of the most fun evenings that I've had dining out, certainly the most fun since I discovered saké. Sakagura is saké heaven. I can't wait to go back - our next business trip to NYC isn't till next April - maybe I will have to take a couple vacation days!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Full moon viewing with Root of Innocence

Usually I'm not aware of the phases of the moon, but I now realize that a full moon is an excellent excuse for moon viewing and saké drinking! For the last full moon (September 7th) Rob and I opened a bottle of Mukune, "Root of Innocence." So delicious! First thing I noticed in the aroma was a bit of fruit and butterscotch. The taste was full with a huge flavor of butterscotch and some mellon at the end. I loved this saké (even though, along with the moon, it inspired some very bad poetry) .

SMV 55%
Polishing rate +2
Acidity 1.8
Alcohol 16%


Saturday, September 02, 2006

A lucky find in South Bend

We checked into our hotel late on a Sunday night in South Bend, Indiana, and were told that we would be lucky if the Applebees was open - apparently, most places close early here. Imagine how happy we were to find Japanese steakhouse Mikado on our drive to Applebees. Well, I don't know...anything is better than Applebees...we were excited.

The menu listed one saké: "hotsaké" for $4.50. I ordered a beer. But, I noticed what looked like saké bottles lined up on the unmanned sushi bar, so I got up to see what they had and found that they had a bottle of Ozeki dry saké. You must understand, this was 9:00 on Sunday night in South Bend, Indiana. This was a hugely happy discovery for me.

Actually, I didn't really have any complaints. The food was good. We ordered age dashi tofu (my favorite), gyoza, and I had the "tempura deluxe" which came with miso soup, salad, and (strangely) a bowl of fried rice. The tempura was good, crisp and light with shrimp, sweet potatoes, green beans, mushrooms and onions presented on a cute (although plastic) sushi boat. Ozeki dry saké seemed to compliment this "late-night" meal just fine.

SMV: +8
acidity: 1.3
alcohol: 14.5%

402 Dixieway N.
South Bend, IN 46637

Saké in Chicago: Meiji

We were headed to Chicago for a book fair and, of course, I wanted to find a fun place to drink saké. I wrote to the Chicago Chowhounds board and someone enthusiastically recommended Meiji.

I went there with three friends, one a fellow saké drinker. We ordered by the glass because we wanted to taste as many sakés as possible. I happen to like slightly sweeter sakés and my friend Al prefers them more dry and the waiter gave reasonable recommendations based on this.

First I tried the Karen "Coy" junmai ($12/glass). This was actually way too sweet for me. I haven't found the SMV on this, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was -60. Still, I would love to get my hands on the label. It's so pretty: as Tim at urbansake.com says, "the über-pink bottle perfectly captures the taste." He awards it his Golden Masu for "Biggest Barbie Wannabe" and I couldn't agree more. [Update! This just in: I happily found the September issue of True Sake's newsletter in my inbox today and found a nice review of Karen Coy by guest reviewer Mark Bright. His review along with True Sake's tasting notes actually sound so tempting, I now want to give this saké a second chance! Also, nb: SMV -23, acidity 2.9, alcohol 10%.]

Al ordered the Masumi junmai ($8/glass) and this was the hands down favorite of the night. With an SMV of +3 it was dry, but not too dry for my taste. I wish that I could do it justice with a description, but, unfortunately, I only got a sip of it.

Next I had the Umenishiki Junmai Ginjo ($11/glass). John Gauntner discussed the brewery in his July '06 newsletter and said: "Umenishiki has a lot of diversity across its products, but the one thing that they all share is clean, focused flavors that almost radiate quality...The junmai ginjo is clean, bright and sharp with a cleansing acidity melon and citrus flavors and aromas." This was my second favorite of the evening.

The final saké that we tried was Dewazakura "Oka" Junmai Ginjo ($10/glass). This was also a popular choice. In fact, I was surprised by how much I liked Al's drier sakés. I guess I am still learning my own taste!
*Grade: Ginjyoshu(50%), Nihonshu-do: +5, Acidity: 1.2, Rice: Miyama-Nishiki,Yukigesyo, Yeast: Ogawa, Alcohol: 15.5%.

By the way, the food at Meiji was delicious. We had a friend along who absolutely refuses to eat raw fish and even she managed to find some things she found yummy, including chicken skewers with spicy sweet miso, sweet and sour plum and teriyaki sauce and the Asparagus Ribeye Roll with enoki mushrooms and teriyaki glaze. I highly recommend the Yuri roll and all agreed the nigiri was fresh and tasty.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I love MU!

I brought my family to Saji Ya tonight because it was 1/2 price saké night, bottles included. Mu is sold only by the 720 ml bottle at Saji Ya, so I had been looking for an oppportunity to try it. Normally it is $39.00: we got it for $20!

I really loved this saké. It seems that other people love it too, because it won a gold medal at the U.S. National Saké Appraisal, which was held in Hawaii in July. The aroma is nice and fruity with a bit of melon. The taste is very savory, a bit dry, and super smooth. I definitely want to try this saké again and, since I am usually the only one at dinner drinking saké, it is a good thing that in Minnesota you can now recork bottles (or screw the cap back on) and bring them home with you. Actually, I heard that there is someone who eats lunch at Saji Ya nearly every day and orders a bottle of this for himself and usually finishes it. I hope I never get to that point!

Junmai daiginjo (polishing rate 50%)
15% alcohol
SMV +2
Acidity 1.5
Yamada Nishiki rice

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Calendar of saké related events

Saké is more popular now than ever and it seems that there are quite a few saké related events around the world, so I've created a calendar to help keep track of them. Please send me an email or leave a comment here if you know of other events and I'll add them to the calendar.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Disposable saké cups

For your next tasting party!

Disposable saké cups! I could have used these at my last tasting party. I'll certainly stock up for the future!



When I was last in Japan, I made an overnight trip to Kyoto, mainly to see Takigi o-noh at the Nanzen-ji temple. After the play, I decided that since it was rather late I would have a small dinner in my hotel room. I stopped at the 7-11 near the temple to get some snacks and I was surprised that they had a pretty big selection of saké! I had no idea which to get, so I decided to get a Nazen-ji souvenir cup-saké. Even if it was awful, I could dump it out, keep the cup as a souvenir, and raid the mini bar for something palatable. It was actually pretty good, at least it seemed right with my convenience store bento. About the only things that I can read on the label are "20%" and "65%" - I'm assuming that is 20% alcohol and the polishing rate is 65% rather than vice-versa!

I was reminded of this story when I found THIS on gaijinphoto. This makes me so jealous! I will definitely try to get to Ajinomachidaya when I am next in Japan. Check out the cup-saké page on their site!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Saké in Denver

I'm in Colorado for nearly two weeks, first in Denver and then in Colorado Springs. Naturally, while I'm here, I am going to try to find new sakés to try.

Our first night here, we had dinner in a nice little Japanese restaraunt called Sushi Han. There were only a couple of choices for saké and they weren't even listed by name, so I chose the mystery "Junmai Ginjo" and hoped for the best. I was happy when they brought the bottle to the table and I found that they were serving Hakushika Junmai Ginjo (SMV +0, acidity 1.4). The aroma was very subtle, just barely rice I thought. But the taste: Chocolate! Chocolate rice! Really, once the idea of chocolate entered my mind, I couldn't think of anything else, except for the fact that this saké felt thick. It almost felt like it had the consistency of oil although that makes it sound unpleasant and it wasn't.

When we were finished with dinner, I covertly hid the bottle in my bag and I'm looking at it now and wondering what "BL.BL" means. It is stamped on the label in the manner that a bottling date usually is, so I tried googling "saké date on bottle" and had no luck with what I was looking for, but I did find a bizarre sounding movie. Saké Bottle Battle (2004) is described as follows:

A man and a woman, on their pivotal fourth date, dine together in a Japanese restaurant. But when the man demands that the woman steal a saké bottle for him, their individual truths -- alternately eccentric, kinky, and perfectly understandable -- cause them to bond in uniquely human fashion.

I have the feeling that this movie won't be in my netflix queue anytime soon.

Today I had the chance to stop in at Chateau Liquors, a very nice shop with a large selection of wines and a few sakés on the shelf as well. I bought one of each of everything that they had that I hadn't tried before:

Notice the bottle on the right is missing it's cap. That is because I decided to begin research on some of my new saké right away. Tentaka Kuni "Hawk in the Heavens" (SMV +3, seimaibuai 55%, acidity 2.1) was the first thing I tried. The aroma on this one was pretty light; only a bit of rice. There was a slight alcohol taste, but also a bit of fruit that I wasn't expecting from the scent. The acid was a little sharper than I like, but overall, I think this was a nicely balanced saké. I didn't finish the entire bottle, so I will try the rest later and compare the "fresh" and the "been open a few days" taste.

I believe that, barring a saké emergency that I must relay, the report on my Colorado trip will pick up in a few days when I reach Colorado Springs.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Saké tasting/dinner party

We had a very successful saké tasting/dinner party at our house this past Thursday evening. Our friends Mayu and Wes came over early and Mayu made an extraordinary meal of vegetable aspic, soba noodles, tofu and daikon salad with goma dressing, garlic grilled chicken wings, grilled summer vegetables, and stir-fried eggplant, pork and garlic chives with miso. Our friends Patrick and Sophie brought sticky rice with durian, thai custard, and mango for dessert. I provided the saké.

Our first saké of the evening was a surprise smash hit. I was worried about what the boys would think as I poured a cloudy, sparkling saké (Harushika Tokimeki “Palpitation of Saké” sparkling junmai saké, SMV –80, acidity 5.5), but to my surprise, everyone said they loved it and would drink it again. As expected, it was very sweet, but it also had a very distinctive "saké" taste. This saké isn't available locally, so I had to order it from True Sake in San Francisco and I will definitely be ordering more!

Next, we had a comparison tasting of three junmai sakés:

~Fukucho “Moon on the Water” junmai ginjo (Seimaibuai 55%, SMV +3, acidity 1.4)

~Ginga shizuka “Divine Droplets” junmai daiginjo (Seimaibuai 50%, SMV +3, acidity 1.2)

~Kanbara “Bride of the Fox” junmai ginjo (Seimaibuai 50%, SMV +3, acidity 1.6)

Mayu liked the very dry "Divine Droplets," while everyone else preferred the Kanbara "Bride of the Fox."

I served the next tasting in white paper cups. I did a bit of testing beforehand and determined that the cups were neutral in taste and scent so I went ahead with them, disregarding their total lack of elegance.

This tasting was actually guessing game with four sakés including a nama, a taru (cedar aged) saké, a very dry junmai, and a honjozo.

~Ichinokura taru saké (Seimaibuai 55%)

~Kagatobi yamahai Junmai (Seimaibuai 65%, SMV +12, acidity 1.8)

~Kaguyahime “Princess of Bamboo” honjozo junmai (SMV –2 acidity 1.1)

~Ohyama “Big Mountain” nama (SMV +3, acidity 1.5)

At first, I was planning to keep score of everyone's guesses, but that went by the wayside rather quickly and I asked everyone to score themselves. That didn't last long either; everyone was having too much fun tasting and watching as the others made their guesses. Nearly everyone guessed the taru saké; the Ichinokura has the taste of cedar that you would expect to find in a taru. Next easiest for people to guess was the dry Kagatobi yamahai junmai. The honjozo and the nama were a bit more difficult to discern, but this was also rather late in the evening, so taste buds might not have been working at optimum levels...

The only sad part of the night is that the photographer (me) did a horrible job and most of the pictures turned out dark or blurry. Well, now we have a good reason to have another tasting and I've already got some more "games" in mind!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

New tasting flight at Saji Ya

I am very lucky to have a great Japanese restaurant, Saji Ya, within walking distance of my house and I usually eat there a few times a week. They have a nice saké selection and I was really happy when they recently added a tasting flight with 3 sakés (served in wine glasses) for $12.00 (which I think is a bargain!)

The sakés featured are:

1. Otokoyama “Man’s Mountain” Junmai (SMV +10, Acidity 1.6, Alcohol 15.5): I’ve had this elsewhere and I have to admit, it’s not my favorite. I think that it’s enjoyable for the first few sips, but I find that it is a little too dry and acidic for my taste. It even feels “tongue puckering” to me. I think many people actually prefer the drier sakés, in fact, this is my boyfriend's favorite of the three.

2. Suishin Junmai (SMV +3, Acidity, 1.7, Alcohol 15-16%): Now we're talking! Saké expert John Gauntner says this about it in one of his newsletters:

"This is one of those sakés that has been fairly famous for so long it ends up being overlooked, which is a shame. A classic Hiroshima style, soft and gently sweet, but a bit more bolstering acidity than most sake of this region. While simple and straightforward, it is incredibly versatile, and is enjoyable either chilled, at room temperature, and even very gently warmed."

I think the best part about it is the deep “savoriness” in the follow through. I don’t yet completely understand the term “umami,” but this saké has what I imagine umami to be.

3. Yaegaki nigori (SMV –12): The jury is still out on whether I am truly a fan of nigori saké, but this one is certainly pleasant. At first whiff, there is a strong aroma of fruit juice and at first taste it’s like creamy spiked fruit juice. I would definitely order this one again.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

What I bought at Surdyk's today

Today was the last day of Surdyk's famous wine sale, so I went bright and early to stock up! Surdyk's is by far the best source for saké in the twin cities. The buyer, Noel Nichols, is very serious about saké: he went on a "fact-finding" mission to San Francisco and when he came back he moved all the saké to it's own refrigerated section and went so far as to put in bulbs covered by UV filters (they are possibly the first retailer in the country or even the world to take this precaution). That is serious!

Here is a list of what I bought:

Takasago Ginga Shizuku "Divine Droplets"
Hakutsuru draft (6 bottles of the 180 ml size: it's good to have something on hand to drink when I don't feel like thinking about it)
Fukucho "Moon on the Water"
Ichinokura taru junmai cedar aged saké
Kanbara "Bride of the Fox" (Foxy Lady on the Surdyk's sales slip!)
Kurosawa junmai daiginjo
Meibo Yowano tsuki junmai ginjo "Midnight Moon"
Yaegaki nigori
Ichinokura junmai nama saké "Hyakkoi"
Ohyama nama (2 bottles - I've had this before and I love it!)
Tsukino Katsura junmai-daiginjyo nigori
Hitori musume nigori
Gekkeikan Black & Gold

It's a good thing that I don't cook, because I have no room in my refrigerator for food!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Eat-Japan :: All about saké

I somehow came across eat-Japan.com and was thrilled to find that they have an issue of their magazine nearly entirely devoted to saké. I ordered a copy from London and it arrived this week. Happily, it is big and glossy and gorgeous and full of information on saké.

The supervising editors of the issue are Haruo Matsuzaki, "one of the foremost saké critics in Japan today" (and a contributer to Philip Harper's new book which is scheduled to be released in October) and John Gauntner, "the leading non-Japanese saké expert in the world." As you would expect with two such illustrious saké experts as editors, the issue covers all aspects of saké, including brewing, saké types and tastes, how to enjoy saké, and much more.

I found the article on saké breweries particularly interesting. The photography allows a glimpse into the world of kura (saké breweries) which most people don’t usually get. You can read all you want about the intense working conditions, but, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words…

Possibly the most useful information is the section on specific breweries with descriptions on some of their saké. Each saké is illustrated with a nice color photo, so it is easy to match the saké you are drinking in your home to the ones being described. Of course, these are saké available in London and I’m not sure that they are all available in the US, but I recognized many that I’ve either tasted or seen.

It cost about $28.00 including shipping to the US, a bit much for a 120 page magazine, but I think it is well worth it for those who, like me, like to get all of the information on saké that they can find.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Takara Sake USA in the NYT

I found a short article in the travel section of the New York Times today on Takara Sake USA. It led me to their web site which has some interesting information, including a very general guide for pairing sake with food. Whatever you feel about saké made outside of Japan, it's hard to find fault with Takara's corporate slogan: "We proclaim ourselves a 'Harmonist' a term coined out of our sincere desire to act proactively in creating a positive rapport between people and nature." Actually, I really enjoy their Takara Sierra Cold, which is one of two sakés served at Mai Village, my local Vietnamese place. The description on Takara's site claims: "Takara Sierra Cold is an innovation in sake brewing. It is fermented with a specially developed yeast that allows for the rich flavor of a premium type of sake. We have made this product with an alcohol content of 12% for those who prefer a milder taste." It is just plain easy to drink.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The first time...

I can’t remember my first taste of saké, but I do remember the first time that I had saké that was extraordinary. Unfortunately, I have no idea what it was. It was in 2003, the first time I ate at Kai, one of my favorite restaurants in NYC. I was on my own that night, so I decided to indulge myself and I ordered the 8 course menu with the saké pairing. I can’t remember what I ate or drank, but I’ve been obsessed with kaiseki ever since, and from that evening, I’ve progressed to the point I’m at now: obsessed with saké.

Previous to that evening, I had wanted to like saké. I loved that it is such an ingrained part of Japanese culture, that it is served from cute bottles, in cute cups, that it seems exotic… But, up till that night at Kai, I had never had a saké that would tempt me to try it again.

After the first revelation, things proceeded slowly. I had a lot of super hot saké at my local Japanese restaurant and that seemed fine to me. I started reading saké descriptions on menus and paying a little bit closer attention to what was available. My total and complete conversion into a saké fanatic took place just this year, on a trip to
Japan. Before the trip, I somehow found out about Fukumitsuya, a saké shop and bar in Tokyo. I was able to visit and, luckily for me, the man behind the counter spoke great English and he was very willing to talk to me about saké and recommend some that I might like. I did find some that I loved, in fact, I brought 4 bottles home with me. Ever since then, I have been on the hunt for all of the saké and all of the information about saké that I can get my hands on. This blog will be my place to keep and organize some of that information.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Divine droplets

Had the rest of the Divine Droplets tonight. Maybe I was in a different mood tonight, because it tasted much better than last night. The shameful truth is that I left the bottle out on the counter overnight and I didn't even put the cap back on. I decided to drink the rest anyway...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

My first post!

This is my first (test) post. I can't wait to start writing about saké!