Sake Corner #4

For Tohoku’s Sake
Sake tasting event
Consulate-General of Japan Melbourne
Crown Casino February 16th 2012

Promoting sake as an important part of Japanese culture has to be one of the benefits of a diplomatic career- and one at Lesley Kehoe Galleries! Crown Casino was the venue for a recent Sake tasting event organized by the Melbourne Japanese consulate. Melbourne restaurateurs and chefs and serious students of sake such as myself, were introduced to the subtlety of Japanese Sake and offered pointers on pairing with Western and Fusion cuisine.

Mr. Keisuke Irie, the secretariat of the Sake Samurai program (run by the Japan Sake Brewers Association) was the main host. The oldest brewery in Japan was established in 1164 and has been in operation for 55 generations of the one family. Sake is brewed in all 47 prefectures of Japan with over 1200 active breweries producing more than 650 million litres of Sake annually.There are in excess of 6,000 different types of Sake available in Japan. Considering this, it was surprising to find that in 2005, Sake was only 8.2% of total alcohol consumption in Japan. Down considerably from the previous year, this leaves a lot of sake to be enjoyed outside of Japan! Mr Irie’s introduction was followed by two Brewers from the Tohoku region.

Seated amongst a number of Melbourne’s leading chefs, it was interesting to hear their comments on sake versus wine: Much ‘nicer’, more subtle flavours that really come alive with certain foods; to bring out these flavours with the right cuisine was a skill requiring much knowledge and practice. They didn’t seem daunted – more excited by the challenge. Eight varieties of Sake paired with food at Koko Crown Casino with inhouse sommelier David Su on hand to answer any questions teased and tested my palate. The only thing missing was LKG’s equally entertaining vessels!

Here are some comments on each brew:

Shinjitsu – Ginjo by Toyokuni Shuzo (Fukushima Prefecture)
Nice subtle sweetness on the nose. Very easy to drink with hints of floral flavours. I couldn’t identify anything specific as nothing dominated. Finish is smooth and has a nice after taste. A very easy Sake to drink.

Atago no matsu – Honjozo by Niizawa Jozoten (Miyagi Prefecture)
This Sake was matched with Peking duck and an excellent complement to the strong flavours of duck, spring onion and Hoisin sauce. A very strong aroma of banana, but more sweet like a banana candy: A very lively flavour once it hits your mouth and quite sharp acidity as you swallow, but not offensive. A nice Sake, but I felt went better with food than on its own.

Kinkan kuromatsu – Junmai by Murashige Shuzo (Yamaguchi Prefecture)
To me, this was a ‘real’ Sake, a very strong rice aroma and flavour, quite acidic, with the flavour almost burning the nose a little: The strong rice flavour and acidity a little bit of a shock as it hits on the way down but doesn’t last long, with a nice finish. I would not recommend this to casual Sake drinkers as that strong rice flavour is what most mistake for being too strong (in terms of alcoholic content). An interesting one for seasoned drinkers. The brewer recommends pairing with Sukiyaki and Kara Age (fried chicken).

Tengumai – Junmai by Shata Shuzo (Ishikawa Prefecture)
This junmai has a very sweet flavour. For me, hints of toffee or molasses, sweet but strong with quite high acidity. The finish is also strong but doesn’t linger. In fact, it disappeared so fast you wanted to pour another immediately to savour the taste. I enjoyed drinking this, complex but very easy to drink (therefore dangerous!). Recommended with strong flavoursome dishes, particularly beef.

Chokaisan – Junmai Dai Ginjo by Tenju Shuzo (Akita Prefecture)
This multiple award winning Sake was a hard one to work out. No flavour really jumped out at me. It was very aromatic (garden or potpourri sprang to mind) but had a bit of a tang to it as well. Very smooth to drink. It was paired with a Mille-feuille of smoked salmon with dill yoghurt which instantly overpowered the Sake (the dill mostly) and ruined its subtle flavours, leaving me a bit confused as to whether I enjoyed it or not.

Dewazakura – Junmai Ginjo by Dewazakura Shozu (Yamagata Prefecture)
I personally found this sake somewhat uninspiring: A very neutral rice flavour and few distinct characteristics. It was easy enough to drink with nothing really nice or offensive about it. I would imagine you could pair it with just about any dish, but I don’t feel it would add anything (or take anything away).

Sotenden – Dai Ginjo by Otokoyama Honten (Miyagi Prefecture)
This was a very complex Sake, a lot going on: To the nose, sweet with a hint of spice at the end; to drink, sweet with a little bit of fruity after taste; dry with a hint of acidity and a subtle rice flavour; smooth and felt quite fresh. Well paired with tuna tartar and goats cheese in a crunchy wafer cone – really brought the Sake alive.

Urakasumi – Dai Ginjo by Saura (Miyagi Prefecture)
This was an aged Sake (4 years), which is not a common practice. For me, it was also a first. Nose of subtle lemon /orange citrus:To drink, smooth, sweet, aromatic with a very clean taste. There was something different from the other 7 tasted, which may be the nature of an aged sake, but I am not expert enough to tell you what that is exactly. It was very, very easy to drink with no strong overpowering flavours and nice finish. My favourite of the event.

Many of these Sake are available on-line through Australian distributors and I reccomend trying most of them as they have all won various awards in Japan. You can also try visiting Kumo Izakaya or looking online at Sake Online or Sake Japan.

Photos courtesy of Gogo Melbourne, Dengon Net and the Japanese Consulate Melbourne