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09.18.2005

The Best Sake In The World?: A Report from The Joy Of Sake Tasting

sake.hallway.jpgMaybe they should call it the Jostle of Sake Tasting. If anyone needed an affirmation that sake is hot right now, they needn't have gone farther than the main ballroom of San Francisco's Hotel Nikko on Thursday night for the Joy of Sake tasting. Several thousand people packed into the ballroom, and the hallways, and the side rooms to taste nearly 200 different sakes and to sample foods from some of the Bay Area's top Japanese, Asian, and seafood restaurants. It was the largest tasting of sake held outside of Japan. It was also, in a word, packed, to the point of seeming oversold. If I hadn't had a press pass to the event, I would frankly have considered asking for my money back. I know, I know, some of you warned me that this was an event that tended towards the hectic side of the spectrum, but I had to go see for myself.

But I'm not going to whine. Instead let me outline exactly what made this event something to be suffered through instead of something to be celebrated.

First, it is the only wine or other alcohol tasting I have ever been to that had no, and I mean ZERO spittoons. Not only that, they didn't even have any spit cups (though if they did, who knows where anyone would have dumped them?). I had to empty out a plastic water bottle that I happened to have with me and spit into that. How can anyone imagine that this was a good idea? This practically guarantees that by the end of the event the volunteers will have to be shoving the reeling drunks out of the place, and it makes it impossible for people who are actually interested in learning something, or god forbid trying to scope out products for their restaurant, to be able to do that.

sake.crowd.jpgSecond, there were no proper glasses available for use in tasting. Instead, everyone picked up small plastic cups at the entrance as they came in, warned by a sign to "be ecologically minded and take only ONE." Ecologically minded by taking only one of several thousand plastic cups that we were all going to throw away after two hours? Come on. And while I know that no one is going to go out and get the special Riedel sake glass (what, they haven't made one yet? Just you wait.) just for this tasting, at least a wineglass would have shown proper respect to the sakes being poured, and would have helped better appreciate the delicate aromatics of these liquids.

Thirdly, I've never seen an event, even one as short as the abbreviated two and a half hours of this one, where fully twenty to thirty percent of the food vendors ran out of food in the first 45 minutes. That is just poor planning or poor expectation setting or both on the part of the restaurants and the organizers.

I felt bad for all the restaurants, especially the ones that did manage to bring enough food. The ones who ran out early got lucky. The others worked furiously and non-stop while lines of people waiting to be fed snaked around half the ballroom at one point. Luckily I didn't arrive with a plan to eat very much, because I would have spent all my time waiting for (admittedly delicious looking) bits of seared toro on a sesame cracker or fresh shucked oysters.

Instead I spent my time tasting sake, which was difficult enough. The organizers grouped the sakes by Junmai, sake.lineup.jpgGinjo, Daiginjo, and Yamahai (Kimoto), and then further subdivided the Daiginjo sakes into two groups, as well as offering a third group of sakes that were not available in the United States. This method of grouping was adequate if a bit misleading, as Ginjo sakes and Daiginjo sakes are also often Junmai sakes, and Yamahai and Kimoto actually refer to a sake making technique that can be used for sake of any grade. Junmai refers to sake that has no alcohol added (usually only a small amount to 'bring out flavors and aromas') during the fermentation process. Ginjo and Daiginjo, of course, are premium grades of sake (Daiginjo being the highest) determined by how much of the rice grain is polished away before brewing takes place. So therefore it is possible, and not uncommon to have a Junmai Ginjo Yamahai sake or a Daiginjo Kimoto sake. Confusing, eh ?

Finding one's way to these various tables was difficult, not only because of the crush of people, but also because they were poorly labeled (with only small signs that could not be seen from afar) and because the organizers did not provide a map or any guidance telling visitors where the various tables were located. Instead they relied on volunteers occasionally yelling (I'm not kidding) randomly to the nearby crowd that there were more sakes available for tasting "out there" and pointing to the hallway.

The groups of sakes were lined up next to each other in large rectangular arrangements of narrow tables. Each sake was represented by its bottle, and a label with the name of the producer and the name of the sake, along with a alphanumeric code that matched an entry in the brochures available at the entrance. In front of both the bottle and the label sat a small porcelain dish filled (and periodically refilled by volunteers) with the sake, and a "micro-pump" which was basically a big eyedropper. The idea being that in order to taste the sake you fill up the dropper and eyedropper.jpg squeeze a small amount into your plastic cup and then replace the eyedropper.

When I first saw this arrangement I was wary, but it actually proved to be a fairly usable system. It eliminated a few of the hassles associated with large public tastings. It drastically reduced the number of people required by the event to actually serve customers (though also thereby reducing the number of people available to answer questions about individual sakes), and it prevented the usual log-jam of people waiting to get the attention of the person holding the bottle in order to get a taste of something. It was still tough to get to the sake you wanted to try just because of the volume of people present, but once you got in front of the bottle you wanted to try, you could get a taste and then get out of there. The eyedroppers could have been a little bigger, but the volume of liquid they provided was adequate and they helped ensure that most of the sakes lasted far longer than the food.

Before I move on to my tasting notes I want to make one thing clear: I think the ideas behind the origins of this tasting were fantastic, and I'm wholly supportive of the folks who put it on each year. I may be critical of its execution, but that's because I hope someone will make some changes to improve it for all of us. On that note, I strongly recommend that the organizers hold a trade and media tasting at a separate time, and with more presencesake.label.jpg from people who can answer questions about the sakes and their distribution terms, etc.

TASTING NOTES
I've never been to a sake tasting this large before, and one of the things I learned was that it's actually really tough. Not just because the aromas and flavors of many sakes are subtle and mellow, but also because sake seems to be harsher on my palate than wine, despite having comparable alcohol levels. Upon a little reflection I think this is because, much more so than wine, sake requires food to be best appreciated. I think it also shows better when chilled and all of these were at room temperature. The net is that I tasted fewer sakes than I thought I would be able to, and was less impressed by many of them, including some of my all time favorites.

I've grouped them as they were grouped at the tasting and provided as much information as I know about each. They are labeled in the format: Producer/Brewery "Name of Sake," Prefecture of Origin. Sake's marked with "*" are not available in the US at the current time.

JUNMAI SAKE
Junmai is both an adjective, describing sakes to which no alchohol has been added during the fermentation process, and is also a class of "premium" sakes in which at least 30% of the rice kernel has been polished away before brewing.

Otokoyama "Otokoyama 'Yushutsu Junmai,'" Hokkaido prefecture. 9
Tenzan Shuzo "Jizake Tenzan," Saga prefecture. 8.5/9
Suishin Yamane Honten "Suishin 'kome no Kiwami,'" Hiroshima prefecture. 8.5/9

Yoshino Shuzo "Koshigoi Junmai," Chiba prefecture. 8.5
Tentaka Shuzo "Tentaka Kuni 'Hawk in the Heavens,'" Tochigi prefecture. 8.5
Rihaku Shuzo Rihaku "Tokubetsu Junmaishu," Shimane prefecture. 8.5
Akita Shuzo "Akitabare "Kawashin," Akita prefecture. 8/8.5
Yamanashi Meijo "Shichiken 'Kobo no Hohoemi,'" Yamanashi prefecture. 8
Yaegeki Shuzo "Yaegeki 'Shiro no Mu,'" Hyogo prefecture. 8
Yaegaki Shuzo "Yaegaki 'Ki no Mu,'" Hyogo prefecture. 8
Sakai Shuzo "Gokyo 'Junmaishu,'" Yamaguchi prefecture. 8

Uchigasaki Shuzoten "Hoyo 'Manamusume," Miyagi prefecture. 6.5
Asamai Shuzo "Ama no To 'Heaven's Door,'" Akita prefecture. 6
Ozeki Sake USA, "Ozeki Sake," USA. 6.


YAMAHAI / KIMOTO SAKE
Yamahai sake refers to a type of sake that is made without the pounding and pulverizing of the rice mash that have historically been a part of the sake making process. Instead the rice is dissolved by the action of bacteria and microbes which also lend a more rustic flavor to these types of sakes. Kimoto sakes are slightly different in that the pounding and pulverizing has been replaced by a stirring or even a pureeing action along with the biologic processes common in Yamahai sake.

Nishida Shuzoten "Nishida 'Denshu' Yamahi Junmai" Aomori prefecture. 8.5/9

Daishichi Shuzo "Daishichi 'Horeki,'" Fukushima prefecture. 8.5
Yoshida Shuzoten "Tedorigawa 'Yamahai Daiginjo,'" Ishikawa prefecture. 8.5
Tamanohikari Shuzo "Tamanohikari 'Yamahai,'" Kyoto prefecture. 8.5
Tohuku Meijo "Hatsumogo 'Kimoto Junmaishu'" Yamagata prefecture. 8.5
Kasumitsuru "Kasumitsuru 'Yamahai Junmai,'" Hyogo prefecture. 8.5
Miyasaka Jozo "Masumi 'Nanago,'" Nagano prefecture. 8/8.5
Daishichi Shuzo "Daishichi 'Minowamon,'" Fukushima prefecture. 8/8.5
Yoshida Shuzoten "Tedorigawa 'Yamahi Junmai'" Ishigawa prefecture. 8/8.5

Tohoku Meijo "Hatsumago 'Shozui,'" Yamagata prefecture. 8
Shuehiro Shuzo "Suehiro 'Densho' Yamahai Junmai" Fukushima prefecture. 8


GINJO SAKE
Ginjo sake is a distinguished class of "premium" sake made from rice kernels which have been polished to 60% of their former size. Ginjo sakes can be either be just plain Ginjo (alcohol added during fermentation) or Junmai Ginjo (no alcohol added).

Ishimoto Shuzo "Koshi no Kanbai 'Kinmuku'" Niigata prefecture. 9
Myoko Shuzo "Koshi no Stseugekka 'Junmai Ginjo'" Niigata prefecture. 8.5/9
Kamotsuru Shuzo "Kamotsuru 'Junmai Ginjoshu'" Hiroshima prefecture. 8.5
Taiyo Shuzo "Nihonkoku 'Junmai Ginjo'" Niigata prefecture. 8/8.5
Echigo Denemon "Echigo Denemon 'Junmai Ginjo'" Niigata prefecture. 8/8.5
Kokaiwa Shuzo "Koi no Kawa 'Junmai Ginjo'" Yamagata prefecture. 8

When it became clear to me that my palate was becoming exhausted much more quickly than I thought, I stopped tasting Ginjo sakes and moved to Daiginjo, which I tend to prefer.


DAIGINJO SAKE
Daiginjo sake is a distinguished class of "ultra premium" sake made from rice kernels which have been polished to less than 50% of their former size. Just like Ginjo sakes, Daiginjo sakes can be plain Daiginjo (alcohol added during fermentation) or Junmai Daiginjo (no alcohol added).

Takasago Shuzo "Ginga Shizuku 'Divine Droplets'" Hokkaido prefecture. 9.5
Okunomatsu Shuzo "Okunomatsu 'Junmai Daiginjo'" Fukushima prefecture. 9.5
Koshinoiso "Ichigo Ichie 'Junmai Daiginjo Genshu Tobingakoi" Fukui prefecture. 9/9.5*
Momokawa "Momokawa 'Daiginjo'" Aomori prefecture. 9/9.5

Iinuma Honke "Kinoene 'Yuga' Junmai Daiginjo" Chiba prefecture. 9
Uchigasaki Shuzoten "Hoyo 'Kuro no Hana' Junmai Daiginjo" Miyagi prefecture. 9
Yaegaki Shuzo "Yaegaki 'Ao nu Mu'" Hyogo prefecture. 9
Kamoizumi Shuzo "Kamoizumi 'Junmai Daiginjo'" Hiroshima prefecture. 9
Rihaku Shuzo "Rihaku 'Daiginjo" Shimane prefecture. 9
Suishin Yamane Honten "Suishin 'Fukurudori Shizukusake'" Hiroshima prefecture. 9
Dewazakura Shuzo "Dewazakura 'Daiginjo'" Yamagata prefecture. 9
Kato Kichibee Shoten "Born 'Yumewa Mayasume'" Fukui prefecture. 9*
Tajime "Tajime 'Junmai Daiginjo'" Hyogo prefecture. 9*
Saito Shuzo "Eikun 'Koto Sennen'" Kyoto prefecture. 9*
Nanbu Shuzojo "Kyukyoku no Hanabagi" Fukui prefecture. 9*
Eiko Shuzo "Eiko 'Yume Tsukiyo'" Ehime prefecture. 9*

Kodama Jozo "Taiheizan 'Tenko'" Akita prefecture. 8.5/9
Yaegaki Shuzo "Yaegaki 'Kuro no Mu'" Hyogo prefecture. 8.5/9
Dewazakura Shuzo "Dewazakura 'Yukimanman'" Yamagata prefecture. 8.5/9
Yoshida Shuzoten "Tedorigawa 'Mangekyo'" Ishikawa prefecture. 8.5/9
Koikawa Shuzo "Koikawa 'Junmai Daiginjo" Yamagata prefecture. 8.5/9
Echigo Denemon "Echigo Denemon 'Junmai Daiginjo'" Niigata prefecture. 8.5/9
Nakamura Shuzo "Nichei 'Junmai Daiginjo'" Ishikawa prefecture. 8.5/9
Akita Jozo "Kanto 'Yuki no Bijin" Akita prefecture. 8.5/9*
Haneda Shuzo "Uzen Shiraume 'Junmai Daiginjo" Yamagata prefecture. 8.5/9*
Kato Kichibee Shoten "Born 'Tokusen'" Fukui prefecture. 8.5/9*
Ume Ihirin Shuzo "Ume Ichirin 'Junmai Daiginjo'" Chiba prefecture. 8.5/9*

Yoshida Shuzoten "Iki na Onna'" Ishikawa prefecture. 8.5
Miyao Shuzo "Shimeharitsuru 'Daiginjo'" Niigata prefecture. 8.5
Zuiyo "Zuiyo 'Zuika'" Kumamoto prefecture. 8.5
Tenzan Shuzo "Tenzan 'Hotarugawa'" Saga prefecture. 8.5
Suishin Yamane Honten "Suishin 'Chonansuijikomi'" Hiroshima prefecture. 8.5
Kawakei Shoten "Koganesawa 'Daiginjo'" Miyagi prefecture. 8.5*
Ume Ichirin Shuzo "Ume Ichirin "Kanpyokai Shuppinshu'" Chiba prefecture. 8.5*
Aoki Shuzo "Kakurei 'Daiginjo'" Niigata prefecture. 8.5*

Yamatogawa Shuzoten "Yauemon 'Junmai Daiginjo'" Fukushima prefecture. 8/8.5
Fukumitsuya "Kagatobi 'Ai'" Ishikawa prefecture. 8/8.5
Chiyomusubi "Chiyomusubi 'Daiginjo Tobingakoi'" Tottori prefecture. 8/8.5
Tohoku Meijo "Hatsumago 'Senju'" Yamagata prefecture. 8/8.5
Miyasaka Jozo "Masumi 'Sanka'" Nagano prefecture. 8/8.5
Yaegaki Shuzo "Yaegaki 'Mu'" Hyogo prefecture. 8/8.5
Kamosuru Shuzo "Kamosuru 'Tokusei Gold'" Hiroshima prefecture. 8/8.5
Watanabe Shuzo "Ginsetsu 'Tokyo'" Tokyo prefecture. 8/8.5*

Kurosawa Shuzo "Kurosawa 'Junmai Daiginjo'" Nagano prefecture. 8
Chiyonosono Shuzo "Chiyonosono 'Suhai'" Kumamoto prefecture. 8
Konishi Shuzo "Shirayuki 'Banzaimon'" Hyogo prefecture. 8
Tamanohikari Shuzo "Tamanohikari 'Yuki Hiryo Shiyo Bizen Moachi 100%'" Kyoto prefecture. 7
Kiuchi Shuzo "Kikusakari 'Gekkako Vintage 1989" Ibaragi prefecture. 6

Comments (10)

Jack wrote:
09.18.05 at 11:08 PM

I cannot believe you wrote down the names of that many sakes! Have you perfected Japanese names shorthand?

From reading your description of the event, I'm glad I didn't go this year...the 2004 event was the same circus that you describe. Being jostled while trying to taste and evaluate a wine is not fun, productive or enjoyable.

I still don't understand why the event organizers didn't raise the price 20-50% so that there would be fewer people. Or just stop selling tickets upon reaching a reasonable number.

Alder wrote:
09.19.05 at 5:09 AM

Jack,

I didn't have to write them down -- they provided a booklet that listed all the sakes. I just jotted scores next to the ones I tasted and then transcribed them here.

Jean-Louis wrote:
09.19.05 at 8:50 AM

We went there in 2004 and thought that was a crowded show. This year, the crush of people was incredible. And the sake quality was not as high, or perhaps I am more discriminating, now that we buy more sake than we used to. The problem with sake is that it blends with food much more closely than wine and getting an appreciation of the better ones without any nibbles is tough. This is where the crush of people at the restaurant tables becomes a big deal: we settled on having nibbles for a stretch, then hitting the sake tables, then going back to the food etc. The better sakes in the "not available in the US" room had no food nearby, which was a shame.
Still an eye popping event, but next year they should raise the price SUBSTANTIALLY, and maybe cut down the number of sakes, or this is going to get out of hand.
I noted that the Ritz Carlton had a food table at the show, featuring chef Siegel himself (they ran out of food very fast); he had only one nibble to offer but that was the very best of the lot. I do not know what the barbecue table is doing in that show--they were there last year as well--when there are so many solid Japanese joints in thia area, with food better suited to sake. I would also give a "duly noted" mention to the table manned by the chef at Sho, a restaurant to open in January in the Presidio in SF; this could be the most interesting Japanese restaurant to open in years, and without taking into account the chef's considerable charm. Sadly, that table was nowhere near the main sake room. The food station next to them was manned by the Hog Island Oyster people and was also tops, as could be expected.

Paul wrote:
09.19.05 at 12:23 PM

The BBQ table was undoubtedly Memphis Minnie's. It was there because the owner, Bob Kantor, is a sake afcionado and features sake on the drink menu at the restaurant. Actually, sake seems fine with BBQ to me!

I was there last year and had the same problem with crowds, no way to spit, and the shortage of food. Thanks to Alder braving the mob and posting for us, I'm not unhappy that I missed the event this year.

Geoff Smith wrote:
09.19.05 at 12:35 PM

I thought the Joy of Sake was great! The selection of sakes in all categories was comprehensive----it was useful to know which sakes had performed well at the recent tasting in Honolulu. Regarding the food, I easily found tastes at all the tables I went to----and the quality was very good, indeed. Thank you Joy of Sake!

Barbara wrote:
09.20.05 at 12:29 AM

I hope the local SF people I directed to the event had a good time despite the crowd. It is a pity when this type of event is oversold. Thanks for sharing your impressions Alder.

AzianBrewer wrote:
09.22.05 at 1:14 PM

Thanks for the heads up. The Joy of Sake is coming to NYC on 9/27. I am sure it will be as out of control as in SF.

Michael Tulipan wrote:
09.23.05 at 9:47 AM

I just wanted to give a bit more background on Joy of Sake as the New York organizer - I wasn't involved in planning SF. Based on last year's huge turnout here in NY, we have decided to limit attendees a bit and also opened up more space at the location so people can enjoy themselves. Yes, sake is very popular right now and we're are excited to have a huge turnout. But it's important to us that people do enjoy themselves.

I know that in SF, the organizers secured two additional rooms to accomodate crowds. It may have seemed like thousands, but there were about 900 people. This year, the response was better than ever in SF!

We have taken the above criticisms in mind and thank everyone for their excitement about sake.

John S. wrote:
09.23.05 at 12:23 PM

I have attended the Joy of Sake in San Francisco for three years. I have enjoyed it every time. Yes, it was very busy, but if it wasn't a "happening" scene it would not have been as much fun! I spoke with someone in charge while I was there, and they are aware they have outgrown the space. I am very enthusiastic about next year.

PG wrote:
09.05.06 at 4:33 PM

Actually, there is a special Riedel sake glass -- I bought a pair for a friend's wedding last month, along with the carafe. They're on Red Envelope, among others.

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