By W. Blake Gray.
"Keep refrigerated," the labels say in English. So why do I keep finding these bottles of sake on ordinary store shelves?
Here's an open letter to everyone who works in a store that carries sake. Walk over to the unrefrigerated sakes. Check the labels. If you find a delicate daiginjo with a label that says "keep refrigerated," take a big black marker and write "cooking sake" on it and slash the price to $5.
Or, alternately, sell that sake to some unwitting customer, just as you would a case of beer that had been left out in the sun for a month, or a box of cookies baked in 1987.
Is that the kind of merchant you want to be?
I'm not writing about Fast Eddie's Hooch Shop. Since I've found poorly stored sake at a variety of wine and grocery stores, I probably shouldn't pick on any one in particular, like the Whole Foods in San Francisco where I found a $30 bottle of daiginjo clearly labeled "keep refrigerated" dying at room temperature. But that's a perfect example: here you have a store that purports to care about its customers' well-being selling an item that ought to be thrown away because of the store's negligence.
So if your local shop is mistreating its sakes, what should you buy?
Get something sturdy. Avoid daiginjos and ginjos, which tend to be more susceptible to heat damage, and stick with a honjozo or non-ginjo junmai.
This leads in to my sake of choice for the week: Kurosawa Kimoto Junmai. This is one of the most dependable sakes I know, and one I often recommend to someone who tells me they've never had good sake.
Kurosawa brewery is in Nagano prefecture, halfway between the giant metropoli of Tokyo and Osaka. The brewery is located beside the Chikuma river 800 meters above sea level, which is quite high for a sake producer.
When the Kurosawa family (not believed to be related to director Akira Kurosawa) started making sake in 1858, they used water from the river, but now they have two wells that collect soft water that flows into the aquifer from the surrounding mountains.
The Kurosawas were an industrial region by themselves: their main business was banking, and they also sold clothes, owned drugstores, were in the transportation business and made miso. Even today the sake-making branch of the family is diversified, making shochu from a unique type of local potato, and also selling mineral water.
Toji (master brewer) Ishizue Nakazawa is a Niigata native with 50 years experience. He came to work at Kurosawa in 1963. How long ago was that? Put it this way -- even though Japanese companies were already making TVs by the thousands for export, the majority of Japanese households did not own televisions until a buying binge spurred by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Back then, Kurosawa was more of an industrial sake maker and used a 9000-liter tank. That tank has become useless as the company now prefers to make smaller batches of better sake, and the company recently removed it from the brewery at great expense, the son of the company president wrote in his blog. He offers the tank for free to anyone willing to come 'n get it.
Fill it with this sake, and he might get some takers.
The nose promises a creamy experience, with aromas of vanilla bean, chalk, mild citrus and white chocolate. On the palate, though, it's well-balanced between creaminess and food-friendly acidity. You taste mild citrus -- let's call it Meyer lemon -- along with vanilla soy milk and white chocolate. It's medium-bodied and the finish is nice and smooth.
One of the great things about this sake is its friendliness to unexpected foods. In Nagano, people occasionally eat freaky stuff like raw horsemeat and bee larvae -- probably a major reason that Nagano residents are the butt of jokes in Tokyo. ("How many times do you have to have dinner with a Nagano resident before he pays for dinner?" "Ehhh? You've seen a Nagano resident pay for dinner?") Nagano people are fans of pork, and Nagano ramen is some of the heaviest and oiliest in the country. Accordingly, Nagano sakes -- like this one -- are generally full-bodied enough to stand up to fried foods and meat dishes. I like this one with grilled chicken, and if you want to see how well sake goes with barbecued pork, give this one a try.
Overall Score: 8.5, quite good for the money.
How Much?: $8 for 300 ml, or $15 for 720 ml.
This sake is available for purchase on the internet.
About W. Blake Gray: W. Blake Gray once went directly from a baseball playoff game to see Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" at the Castro Theater, where he used pompoms to cheer for the army he liked best. E-mail him at wblakegray at gmail dot com.
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