Sake Corner #8

Andre Bishop is a self-confessed Japanophile and Sake connoisseur. His passion for Japanese food, in particular Izakaya dining culture, is unrivalled in Australia. Andre is the owner of 5 Japanese Izakaya in Melbourne including Kumo Izakaya in Brunswick, Robot Bar in Flinders Lane, Nihonshu Sake Bar and the city and South Melbourne Izakaya Chuji. Andre is also a certified Sake Samurai, having completed his formal Sake education in Japan with internationally recognized Sake guru John Gauntner.

It was at Kumo that I joined Andre and 8 other Sake enthusiasts for a ‘sneaky last minute sake master dinner’. Andre had just returned from Japan with a number of different brews for sampling with random selections from the Kumo dining menu.

The brews tried were:

• Shirataki Mizuogotoshi “Tsukino” – Junmai Ginjo from Niigata
• Eikun Sake Master Private Brand – Junmai Daiginjo Genshu from Kyoto
• Kidoizumi ‘Hakugyokuko’ – Junmai Yamahai Muroka Nama Genshu from Chiba
• Okamura Honke ‘Choju’ Kinkame Midori 60 – Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu from Chiba
• Hamada Shuzo – Imo Shochu from Kagoshima
• Joraku Shuzo – Kome Shochu from Kumamoto
• Joraku Shuzo – 41 Degree Genshu Kome Shochu from Kumamoto
• Chiyogiku 30 year old Koshu – Vintage 1980 yeast wine from Gifu (Koshu)
• Shirayuki Wakaron – Junmai Ginjo sweet Sake from Itami / Hyogo
• Shirayuki Cheepon – Junmai Ginjo from Itami / Hyogo

There were a few outstanding brews. In particular, I really enjoyed the complex and full flavour of the Okamura Honke Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu (unpasteurized, undiluted). Its flavour was very full with strong fruity notes and an even stronger acidic finish that left a slight taste of pepper in the mouth. What was surprising was, that even with this seemingly contradictory group of flavours, it was very easy to drink. Whilst stong, the flavours were gone from the palate quickly. Thus, the full flavour of the Sake could be enjoyed without compromising the food or the following Sake.

The Shirataki Mizuogotoshi Junmai Ginjo was also a favourite. An excellent light Sake with subtle fruity aromas in a truly remarkable bottle the shape of a crescent moon in a metal casing. The bottle makes a reference to the Japanese tale of the rabbit in the moon (usagi tsukino). Usagi Tsukino is also the real name of the anime character Sailor Moon in the Japanese series of the same name (in the English version she is renamed Serena Tsukino).

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The Eikun Sake Master Private Brand was brewed specifically for Andre’s Kumo izakaya.  As a further demonstration of the brewery’s desire to develop the business relationship further, a personal label was designed by a Kyoto based calligraphy artist. A lesson in business development relations for us all!

A few new points learned :

Sake Consumption
Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo Sake (the top grades of Sake) are less than 4% each of the Sake consumed annually in Japan. 74% of Sake consumed in Japan is “Futsu-Shu” or Normal / Table Sake. This grade of Sake has large amounts of distilled alcohol added during the brewing process to increase yields.

Rice Milling
Sei-mai-buai is the Japanese word for the degree to which rice is milled before brewing. To be considered Daiginjo, the rice must be milled back by at least 55%.

Sake Rice
Sake rice is prepared in many different grades, too many to remember. The most important is Yamada Nishiki ‘the king of Sake rice’. Sake made from this rice is usually a Daiginjo brew. It is hard to come by, expensive and used only by top breweries.

Premium Sake
The top 6 grades of Sake are known in Japanese as ‘Tokutei Meishoshu’ meaning ‘special designation Sake’ and these six grades are considered to be premium Sake :  Honjozo, Ginjo, Daiginjo, Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo.

Koji Mold
Koji, the mold used to ferment the rice during the brewing process, is sprinkled over the Sake rice in different formations depending on the grade or flavour of the Sake brewed. Koji is sprinkled across the entire surface of the rice for rich flavoured Sake and “futsu-shu”. It is flecked over the surface in three separate semi-circle areas, or in a shape similar to three triangles, for premium Sake blends.

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Prior to this Sake master dinner, I had eaten at Kumo a number of times without finding a favourite dish or Sake to make the restaurant a top favourite. This master dinner completely changed my opinion. I found a number of menu items and Sake that have now firmly placed Kumo amongst my favourites. With the recent addition of an art mural by Melbourne graphic designer Jimmy Glesson, the interior and overall ambience has improved significantly (see above image).

There are many negative reviews of Kumo on the internet. Unfortunately, most of the commentary equates Izakaya with cheap. There seems to be a growing misconception in Melbourne that Izakaya are like Japanese pubs. Whilst partially true, there are Izakaya of varying levels of food and beverage sophistication throughout Japan. Izakaya are significantly different from an Australian or English pub dining experience. Kumo is definitely the top Melbourne Izakaya, and comments focusing on price alone are misguided. It has Melbourne’s most extensive Sake menu. The food by head chefs Akimi Iguchi and Eriko Hamabe is the equal to, if not better, than other Melbourne Izakaya.

Andre’s love of Sake is infectious, and his enthusiasm for discovering rare brews is inspiring. It was a rewarding experience to sit and drink with someone who is so willing to readily share his knowledge and discoveries.

The learning continues!