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The World's Best Sake: Tasting the Joy of Sake 2007

joy_of_sake_07.jpgI've currently got my man Blake Gray doing some writing here on sake, but that won't stop me from writing about it when I've got something to say or notes to share.

Like Blake, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Joy of Sake, an event which is effectively the largest sake tasting outside of Japan, and which is a wonderful treat for those who enjoy this nectar.

Much to my continued delight, America seems to be discovering fine sake at a fantastic rate. And I don't mean the hot stuff that every sushi restaurant has been serving since the early Eighties. Apart from the dedicated and authentic Japanese restaurants that even years ago managed to import enough to serve their customers, it seems to me that fine sake first began gaining traction in luxury dining restaurants. I remember my surprise when I found some very nice sakes on the list at the French Laundry several years ago. From the upper echelons of dining, sake has spread to nearly every sort of moderately upscale restaurant, and is also featured in many of the hippest new cocktails in lounges and bars across the country.

Which I suppose was why there were hundreds of people tasting alongside Blake and myself a few weeks ago at the San Francisco Hilton. In my usual ambitious fashion I set out to taste a lot of sake, but there's just way too much sake at this event for even a power-taster like me to taste it all. Plus, I had a conflicting commitment that evening which meant I could only spend a couple of hours tasting (instead of my usual three or four). As a result I concentrated on the type of sake that I like the most.

And I really do mean concentrate. Tasting sake is much more difficult than wine. The flavors and aromas are much more subtle, and because sake (even more so than wine) really should be paired with food, there's also a constant need to be nibbling on something as I go along. Which slows me down even more.

Daiginjos are generally my favorite type of sake. They tend to be the most delicate, the most aromatic, and unfortunately the most expensive. In order to be classified as a daiginjo, the rice used in the brewing process must be polished to at least 50% of its former volume, though the rice for some high-end sakes has been polished down to a mere 30% of its original volume.

I tasted all 133 daiginjo sakes that were available.

Okunomatsu Shuzo Okunomatsu "Junmai Daiginjo," Fukushima Prefecture
Minogawa Shuzo "Koshi no Omachi," Niigata Prefecture
Saiya Shuzoten Yuki no Bosha "Akita Sake Komachi Shikomi" Daiginjo, Akita Prefecture
Saito Shuzo Eikun "Ichigin" Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto Prefecture
Nishida Shuzoten Nishida "Utou Hyakuyonju" Daiginjo, Aomori Prefecture
Nishida Shuzoten Nishida "Utou" Daiginjo, Aomori Prefecture
Sakuramasamune "Yakimare" Daiginjo, Hyogo Prefecture

Tentaka Shuzo Tentaka "Silent Stream," Tochigi Prefecture
Sakai Shuzo "Saito no Shizuku" Daiginjo, Yamaguchi Prefecture
Kodama Jozo Taiheizan "Tenko," Akita Prefecture
Mado no Ume Shuzo "Baigetsusoshi" Junmai Daiginjo, Saga Prefecture
Yoshikawa Tojinosato Yoshikawa Toji "Daiginjo," Niigata Prefecture
Murashige Shuzo Kinkan Kuromatsu "Nishiki" Daiginjo, Yamaguchi Prefecture
Tenzan Shuzo "Hitenzan" Daiginjo, Saga Prefecture
Yamatogawa Shuzoten Yaemon "Junmai Daiginjo," Fukushima Prefecture
Miyao Shuzo Shimeharitsuru "Daiginjo," Niigata Prefecture
Hananomai Shuzo "Gentei Daigin," Shizuoka Prefecture
Yoshinogawa Yoshinogawa "Daiginjo," Niigata Prefecture
Kamotsuru Shuzo Kamotsuru "Sokaku," Hiroshima Prefecture
Takara Shuzo Shirakabegura Shirakabegura "Daiginjo," Hyogo Prefecture
Dewazakura Shuzo Dewazakura "Yukimanman" Aged 5 Years , Yamagata Prefecture
Ichishima Shuzo "Gin no Yorokobi" Daiginjo, Niigata Prefecture
Ichishima Shuzo "Yume" Junmai Daiginjo, Niigata Prefecture
Hokusetsu Shuzo Hokusetsu "YK35," Niigata Prefecture
Hara Shuzo Koshi no Homare "Daiginjo," Niigata Prefecture
Yamanashi Meijo Shichiken "Onakaya" Junmai Daiginjo, Yamanashi Prefecture
Yamanashi Meijo Shichiken "Nakaya Ihee" Daiginjoshu, Yamanashi Prefecture
Takara Sake USA Inc. Shochikubai "Junmai Daiginjo Yamadanishiki," California Prefecture
Chiyokotobuki Toraya Chiyokotobuki "Toranoko," Yamagata Prefecture
Tohoku Meijo Hatsumago "Shozui" Junmai Daiginjo, Yamagata Prefecture

Yasumoto Shuzo Hakugakusen "Sen" Junmai Daiginjo, Fukui Prefecture
Kato Kichibee Shoten Born "Yumewa Masayume" (Dreams Come True), Fukui Prefecture
Yaegaki Shuzo "Kuro no Mu" Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo Prefecture
Manatsuru Shuzo "Manahime Densetsu," Fukui Prefecture
Kizakura Kizakura "Daiginjo," Kyoto Prefecture
Kayashima Shuzo Nishinoseki "Tekishu," Oita Prefecture
Gensui Shuzo Gensui "Daiginjo Tobingakoi," Tottori Prefecture
Nagai Shuzo Mizubasho "Daiginjo," Gunma Prefecture
Kiuchi Shuzo "Kurakagami" Daiginjo, Ibaraki Prefecture
Tamanohikari Shuzo "Kumesan Yamadanishiki 100%" Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto Prefecture
Saiya Shuzoten "Kachogesseki" Daiginjo, Akita Prefecture
Suehiro Shuzo Daiginjo "Gensai," Fukushima Prefecture
Maihime Shuzo Maihime "Ofu Daiginjo," Nagano Prefecture
Koshi no Iso Ichigoichie "Junmai Daiginjo Genshu Tobingakoi," Fukui Prefecture
Takenotsuyu Hakurosuishu "Winter Water" Junmai Daiginjo, Yamagata Prefecture
Imayotsukasa Shuzo Koshi no Tsukasa "Junmai Daiginjo," Niigata Prefecture
Morishima Shuzo Taikan "Hizoshu," Ibaraki Prefecture
Yamagata Honten "Moriko," Yamaguchi Prefecture
Fuji Shuzo "Kozakaya no Hitoriyogari," Yamagata Prefecture
Tamanohikari Shuzo "Yuki Hiryo Shiyo Bizen Omachi 100%" Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto Prefecture
Ume Ichirin Shuzo Ume Ichirin "Daiginjo," Chiba Prefecture
Eiko Shuzo Shusen Eiko "Yume Tsukiyo" Junmai Daiginjo, Ehime Prefecture
Aoki Shuzo Kakurei "Daiginjo," Niigata Prefecture
Koshi no Hana Shuzo Koshi no Hana "Chotokusen" Daiginjo, Niigata Prefecture
Uchigasaki Shuzoten Hoyo "Kura no Hana," Miyagi Prefecture
Umeda Shuzojo Honshuichi "Daiginjo 50% Seihaku," Hiroshima Prefecture

Michisakari Michisakari "Kojikomi Junmai," Gifu Prefecture
Uchigasaki Shuzoten Hoyo "Yamadanishiki" Daiginjo, Miyagi Prefecture
Oguro Shuzo Koshi no Bairi "Koshi Tanrei" Junmai Daiginjo Genshu, Niigata Prefecture
Fuchuhomare "Wataribune" Junmai Daiginjo, Ibaraki Prefecture
Tsukasabotan Shuzo Tsukasabotan "Sakafunashibori" Junmai Daiginjo, Kochi Prefecture
Rihaku Shuzo Rihaku "Daiginjo," Shimane Prefecture
Shimizu Jozo Zaku "Daiginjo," Mie Prefecture
Kato Kichibee Shoten Born "Tokusen" Junmai Daiginjo, Fukui Prefecture
Nakamura Kamekichi "Tamadare" Daiginjo, Aomori Prefecture
Kamoizumi Shuzo Kamoizumi "Senbonnishiki" Junmai Daiginjo, Hiroshima Prefecture
Fukuchiyo Shuzo Nabeshima "Daiginjo," Saga Prefecture
Dewazakura Shuzo Dewazakura "Daiginjo," Yamagata Prefecture
Kinshihai Shuzo Echigo Toji "Daiginjo," Niigata Prefecture
Hakuryu Shuzo Hakuryu "Daiginjo," Niigata Prefecture
Ishimoto Shuzo Koshi no Kanbai "Chotokusen," Niigata Prefecture
Ichinokura Ichinokura "Gensho" Daiginjo, Miyagi Prefecture
Yaegaki Shuzo "Shikon no Mu" Junmai Daiginjo Genshu, Hyogo Prefecture
Nakamura Kamekichi "Kamekichi" Junmai Daiginjo, Aomori Prefecture
Saura Uragasumi "Yamadanishiki Junmai Daiginjo," Miyagi Prefecture
Murashige Shuzo Hinoshitamuso "Junmai Daiginjo," Yamaguchi Prefecture
Kamotsuru Shuzo Kamotsuru "Tokusei Gold," Hiroshima Prefecture
Kurosawa Shuzo Kurosawa "Daiginjo Premium Reserve," Nagano Prefecture
Mifuku Shuzo Mifuku "Daigingokujo," Shiga Prefecture
Tenzan Shuzo "Hotarugawa" Junmai Daiginjo, Saga Prefecture
Kamenoi Shuzo "Kudoki Jozu," Yamagata Prefecture
Momokawa Murai Family "Daiginjo Sake," Aomori Prefecture
Hinomaru Jozo Mansaku no Hana "Daiginjo," Akita Prefecture
Marumoto Shuzo Chikurin "Karoyaka," Okayama Prefecture
Hokusetsu Shuzo Nobu the Premium Sake, Niigata Prefecture
Sakuramasamune "Aramakiya Tazaemon," Hyogo Prefecture

Asahi Shuzo Dassai "Migaki Ni-wari San-bu" Junmai Daiginjo , Yamaguchi Prefecture
Ishizuchi Shuzo Ishizuchi "Shinsei Daiginjo," Ehime Prefecture
Umenishiki Yamakawa Umenishiki "Junmai Daiginjo," Ehime Prefecture
Ume Ichirin Shuzo Ume Ichirin "Kanpyokai Shuppinshu," Chiba Prefecture
Tonoike Shuzoten Seishu Sanran "Daiginjo Shizukuzake," Tochigi Prefecture
Okunomatsu Shuzo Okunomatsu "Daiginjo Shizukusake Juhachidai Ihei," Fukushima Prefecture
Marumoto Shuzo Chikurin "Taoyaka," Okayama Prefecture
Yoshida Shuzoten Tedorigawa "Iki na Onna," Ishikawa Prefecture
Akita Shuzo Akitabare "Suirakuten," Akita Prefecture
Chiyomusubi Shuzo Chiyomusubi "Daiginjo Tobingakoi," Tottori Prefecture
Umeda Shuzojo Honshuichi "Daiginjo," Hiroshima Prefecture
Koikawa Shuzo Koikawa "Junmai Daiginjo," Yamagata Prefecture
Sawasa Shuzo Sangu "Hoden" Junmai Daiginjo, Mie Prefecture
Yaegaki Shuzo "Mu" Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo Prefecture
Nishida Shuzoten Nishida "Denshu Yonwarigobu" Junmai Daiginjo , Aomori Prefecture
Miyake Honten Senpuku "Kura" Junmai Daiginjoshu, Hiroshima Prefecture
Ippongi Kubo Honten Denshin "Rin," Fukui Prefecture
Saito Shuzo Eikun "Koto Sennen" Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto Prefecture
Furuta Shuzo "Tenyuka" Junmai Daiginjo, Gifu Prefecture

Tajime "Tajime," Hyogo Prefecture
Suigei Shuzo Suigei "Yamadanishiki" Junmai Daiginjo, Kochi Prefecture
Nanbu Bijin Nanbu Bijin "Daiginjo," Iwate Prefecture
Kinshihai Shuzo Yukikage "Junmai Daiginjo," Niigata Prefecture
Tajime Chikusen "Kuro Label" Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo Prefecture
Tenryo Shuzo Tenryo "Ten no Shizuku" Daiginjo, Gifu Prefecture
Sekiya Jozo Horaisen "Ku" Junmai Daiginjo, Aichi Prefecture
Asama Shuzo Higen "Daiginjo," Gunma Prefecture
Obata Shuzo Manotsuru "Daiginjo", Niigata Prefecture
Iinuma Honke Kinoene "Yuga" Junmai Daiginjo, Chiba Prefecture

Michisakari Michisakari "Maruo," Gifu Prefecture
Saiya Shuzoten Yuki no Bosha "Daiginjo," Akita Prefecture
Akita Jozo "Yuki no Bijin," Akita Prefecture
Takahashi Sukesaku Shuzoten Nihonshu Matsuo "Gentei Junmai Daiginjo," Nagano Prefecture
Kinshi Masamune "Ennen no Biroku," Kyoto Prefecture
Miyasaka Jozo Masumi "Yumedono," Nagano Prefecture
Nanbu Shuzojo "Kyukyoku no Hanagaki," Fukui Prefecture
Chiyonosono Shuzo "Shuhai" Junmai Daiginjo (Garden of Eternity), Kumamoto Prefecture
Obata Shuzo Manotsuru "Koshitanrei" Junmai Daiginjo, Niigata Prefecture
Miyasaka Jozo Masumi "Sanka," Nagano Prefecture
Gekkeikan Gekkeikan "Horin" Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto Prefecture
Suishin Yamane Honten "Chonansuijikomi" Junmai Daiginjo, Hiroshima Prefecture
Hananomai Shuzo "Gentei Junmai Daigin," Shizuoka Prefecture

Yano Shuzo "Gon-emon" Junmai Daiginjo, Saga Prefecture
Midorikawa Shuzo Midorikawa "Daiginjo," Niigata Prefecture
Kitaya Kansansui "Junmai Daiginjo," Fukuoka Prefecture

Nagai Shuzo Mizubasho "Junmai Daiginjo," Gunma Prefecture

Ginjo sakes are defined by the polishing ratio of the rice used to make them. In order to qualify as a Ginjo sake, the rice used in the brewing process must have been polished down to 60% of its original volume. Unfortunately, because of my focus on the Daiginjos above, I only got to taste forty or so Ginjo sakes.

Ginjo Chiyomusubi Shuzo Chiyomusubi "Goriki" Junmai Ginjo, Tottori Prefecture

Dewazakura Shuzo Dewazakura "Omachi," Yamagata Prefecture
Akita Seishu Kariho "Rokushu," Akita Prefecture
Asahi Shuzo Dassai "50," Yamaguchi Prefecture
Iinuma Honke Kinoene "Yuga" Junmai Ginjo, Chiba Prefecture

Nakashima Jozo Kozaemon "Junmai Ginjo Shikomi 38 Go Omachi," Gifu Prefecture
Saiya Shuzoten Yuki no Bosha "Gentei Kuradashi" Junmai Ginjo, Akita Prefecture
Kamotsuru Shuzo Kamotsuru "Junmai Ginjo," Hiroshima Prefecture
Masuda Tokubee Shoten Tsuki no Katsura "Yanagi" Junmai Ginjoshu, Kyoto Prefecture
Chiyonosono Shuzo "Kumamoto Shinriki" Junmai Ginjo (Sacred Power), Kumamoto Prefecture

Midorikawa Shuzo "Green River," Niigata Prefecture
Sake One Corporation Momokawa "G-Joy," Oregon Prefecture
Yamanashi Meijo Shichiken "Bigin Bigin," Yamanashi Prefecture
Kitajima Shuzo Miyosakae "Omimai no Shizuku" Junmai Ginjo, Shiga Prefecture
Akita Jozo "Hirari" Junmai Ginjo , Akita Prefecture
Furuta Shuzo Secchu Kanbai "Chikara" Junmai Ginjo, Gifu Prefecture

Daimon Shuzo Mukune "Root of Innocence," Osaka Prefecture
Tokoro Shuzo Bojimaya "Junmai Ginjo Gohyaku Mangoku," Gifu Prefecture
Obata Shuzo Manotsuru "Junmai Ginjo Genshu," Niigata Prefecture
Rihaku Shuzo Rihaku "Chotokusen" Junmai Ginjo (Wandering Poet), Shimane Prefecture
Gensui Shuzo Gensui "Junmai Ginjo," Tottori Prefecture
Fukuchiyo Shuzo Nabeshima "Nakakumi Junmai Ginjo," Saga Prefecture
Miyao Shuzo Shimeharitsuru "Jun," Niigata Prefecture
Kaetsu Shuzo Kanbara "Bride of the Fox," Niigata Prefecture

Chikumanishiki Shuzo Kizan "Sanban" Junmai Ginjo, Nagano Prefecture
Koshi no Hana Shuzo "Sakenikokoroari" Junmai Ginjo, Niigata Prefecture
Maihime Shuzo Maihime "Junmai Ginjo," Nagano Prefecture
Miyasaka Jozo Masumi "Karakuchi Ki-Ippon," Nagano Prefecture

Tajime Chikusen "Keiyaku Saibaimai Omachi," Hyogo Prefecture

Comments (6)

Jonny wrote:
09.28.07 at 7:00 AM

OK, I'm just learning sake and just starting to do my tastings. A couple of questions for you- first do you term your flavor notes in much the same way you would with regards to white wines? Or is there another vocabulary I should be learning? Also, with the amount of rice being grown in the United States, it's surprising to me that we don't really see any sake coming out of the US? Am I totally off base? Sorry, questions from a novice.

Blake Gray wrote:
09.28.07 at 2:12 PM

Hey Jonny, I'm going to take the liberty of saving Alder some work, he's gotta be exhausted after that tasting marathon ...
You will need some new descriptors for sake that you rarely use for white wine. I don't remember tasting fresh cream in wine, but I taste it all the time in sake. The lactic acid in sake leads to all sorts of milky descriptors (aged Gouda) that wouldn't sound positive in Chardonnay.
Second: there are several US sake producers, and they're all going to be mad at me for writing, again, that the very best US sakes are at the level of an acceptable house-brand sake for an unassuming Japanese ramen shop. It's not the rice -- we can grow the same rice here. Some say it's the water. Personally I don't believe that -- I think it's the labor. Americans simply aren't willing to work around the clock for several months for low wages. Japanese master brewers literally sleep at the brewery for days on end during critical times. Even wine harvest here isn't that intense.
Hope this helps.

Jonny wrote:
10.01.07 at 7:58 AM

Wonderful reply, thanks so much. I'm going to be trying more sake as the days go by as I'm finding myself having a preference for it not just with sushi, but rather on its own.

andres Prada wrote:
09.25.08 at 11:32 PM

Thanks to all of you for bringing such a delightfull sake to new york city , Im not much in to sake, I had tried couple of daiginjos, my favoryte so far as region wise is the toranoko from yamagata, apparently yamagata has a great soil; probably to my taste, its so delightfull and joyfull, I would marry the love of my life and have this sake instead of champagne.

Michiel Swank wrote:
09.04.09 at 11:09 AM

i have a question about a simple sake i received as a present. But i cant find any info about it.

The bottle says it's an:

Okunomatsu Saku-saku Karakuchi

All i know about it, is that it's best served warm and it's dry flavoured...

i wondered if you could help me get more detailed information or atleast what sort of ranking/grade it would get. cause it's my first sake and it would be nice if its a good or average one (lets hope it's not a bad one eh ;))

many thanks

Alder wrote:
09.04.09 at 11:23 AM


Okunomatsu is a good brewery, and this is their lowest grade sake "Fuutsu-shu". But that doesn't mean you won't enjoy it ! I haven't had it personally, so I can't give you my evaluation. Chill it down (or if it's cold where you are, warm it slightly) and try it with friends.

Drink it soon, don't hold onto it as it will not get better with age.

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