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12.29.2007

Tamanohikari Shuzo "Yuki Hiryo Shiyo Bizen Omachi 100%" Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto Prefecture

tamanohikari_omachi.jpgI go to Japan to do three primary things. See beautiful crafts and architecture, eat amazing food, and drink sake. One of the tricky parts of the latter is that unlike anywhere else in the (Western Alphabet) world I can't read the sake list if there is one, which most of the time there isn't. Nor can I look at the label of the bottle that has been brought to me and understand what it is, who made it, or where it comes from. And because my spoken Japanese is somewhat limited, there's only so much I can pry out of our server about the bottle before she starts to look bored, uncomfortable, frustrated or all three.

All of which means that it's a bit of an adventure whenever I go into a restaurant or a sake store in Japan. I typically ask for ginjo or daiginjo sake (sakes made from rice that has been polished down to less than 60% or less than 50% of its former mass, respectively) and then see what happens.

To add another layer of complexity to the whole thing, which can be even more frustrating -- once I actually come across a sake that I like, and should I actually be able to figure out its name, producer, and geographic origin, most of the time it's a bottle that doesn't get exported. You see, most sake breweries make a wide variety of different sakes, sometimes scores of different bottlings, and included among those are their "export" bottlings, which may or may not bear any resemblance to those sakes that end up being sold in Japan.

Can you imagine if, in addition to their top wine, Chateau Latour made a special "American" blend of their wine (no sniggering about fruit bombs, and micro-oxidation please) and that was the only wine from that producer that was allowed to be sold in the USA? That's the sort of world that sake lovers have to contend with as they tromp around Japan. Crazy eh?

All of which means that I was pleasantly surprised last night when I was served a sake that I not only recognized (and had tasted before), but that was made just a few kilometers away from me, and is actually available in the United States (at least, there is an export version of the same sake, which I believe is from the same batch).

Last night, Ruth and I sat down to a meal of cha-kaiseki, a formal multi-course dining experience that many believe is the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. It was pouring rain, and the narrow back streets of Kyoto were lit by rectangular splashes of light coming from the many entryways to traditional ryotei restaurants that lined the dark alleys. We ducked into one and were met by our waiting host who guided us through the warren of tiny hallways of the old teahouse to our private tatami room where we drank our green tea and watched the rain fall on the garden as our nine-course meal was being prepared.

This meal, as usual for kaiseki dinners, featured local, extremely seasonal ingredients, and so I was very pleased when I was told that the daiginjo sake I was going to be served was this special brew from Tamanohikari, which was about 30 kilometers from where I was sitting.

Tamanohikari has been brewing sake in the Fushimi district of southeastern Kyoto off and on (wars, warehouse fires, and changes in family ownership notwithstanding) since approximately 1673. Fushimi is one of Japan's original sake making localities. Tucked against the base of Mount Inari, the many Fushimi breweries have access to cold, pure mountain water, and were a short cart-ride from the imperial palace in Kyoto to do a brisk business.

Tamanohikari, which roughly translates to 'Brilliant, Prosperous Jade' is somewhat unusual among sake breweries these days in that it produces only two grades of sake (ginjo and daiginjo, which, again, is determined by the amount of milling that the rice receives) and every sake that they produce is made using the junmai method, which means that it is produced without using any added alcohol.

A lot of people think that adding alcohol to sake is equivalent to taking a 13% alcohol Chardonnay and spiking it up to 14.5%, which couldn't be further from the truth. Only a small amount of alcohol is added in the non-junmai sake making process, and it is added during a point in the process where it aids in the development of aromatic compounds by the koji mold as it attacks the rice. This is not the place to attempt to settle the finer points of junmai versus non-junmai sake making, but suffice it to say that some people believe that, like "natural yeast" fermentation for wine, junmai sake is more "natural" or "pure" than the alternative. This may or may not be true, but one thing is for certain, it's more difficult to make a really amazing junmai sake, and that's what Tamanohikari has dedicated itself to doing since the invention of the form several decades ago (remember, readers, that highly refined sake like junmai daiginjo is a relatively recent invention).

In addition to its dedication to the most strenuous and refined form of sake making, Tamanohikari is also famous for having revived a strain of sake rice that was long thought to be lost forever, after it stopped being popular with farmers who had trouble harvesting its long stalks with newer more mechanical methods of harvesting. The Omachi rice strain was grown primarily in the Okayama prefecture of Japan and was popular in the Meiji era of Japan (the latter half of the 1800s) as a table rice variety. The rice strain itself was discovered in 1859, and appears to be the oldest rice variety in Japan. Also, unlike all other sake rice varieties, it is a pure strain of rice, rather than a crossbreed.

So Tamanohikari was one of the first producers to start making sake from this rice, and while the rice used in Sake does not have quite as much influence on the final flavor as say, the variety of grapes used in wine, it is certainly a factor, which makes this bottle of sake, made from 100% Omachi rice, a bit more special than it otherwise might be.

Tasting Notes:
Colorless and viscous in the glass, this sake has a sweet, earthy aroma with a hint of alcohol. In the mouth it is smooth, with a pleasing weight on the tongue, and primary flavors of wet wood, nuts, and hints of malted chocolate milk. It finishes clean and long with hints of citrus and floral aromas, but much fainter than would ordinarily be expected in a junmai daiginjo such as this. The earthy, almost herbal aspect of this brew is attributed to the rice.

Food Pairing:
This sent beautifully with many aspects of our kaiseki meal, but perhaps my favorite pairing was with goma tofu (a tofu made with black sesame instead of soybeans) topped with fresh uni (sea urchin) and wasabi.

Overall Score: 9

How Much?: $40 for $720ml

This sake is available for purchase on the internet.

Comments (7)

12.30.07 at 8:30 AM

Wonderful blog !
Merry Christmas !
Stefano

12.31.07 at 7:18 AM

Excellent Entry! Your experience reminds me of my own journey into sake.

I first became interested in sake through the martial arts. At promotion ceremonies and other festivities, sake would often be served. Most times I had no idea what the brand was or whether it was from a popular vender like Hakkaizan, or something a bit rarer like your Tamanohikari. Often the host would provide the bottle and we would simply enjoy it, no questions asked.

It's only recently that I started studying the differences, and through your experience, I can see there is a lot to learn! Best of luck in your future sake endeavors.

Matthew Apsokardu

Ryan wrote:
01.06.08 at 3:22 AM

"Can you imagine if, in addition to their top wine, Chateau Latour made a special "American" blend of their wine (no sniggering about fruit bombs, and micro-oxidation please) and that was the only wine from that producer that was allowed to be sold in the USA? That's the sort of world that sake lovers have to contend with as they tromp around Japan. Crazy eh?"

This is common practice in the Wine world as we know it. Eric Solomon and Jorge Ordonez are good examples of people who make wines only available in the states. I also know wineries that make blends of wines for many different countries at a time. What is even more frustrating is that often a wine is made for one market with one label and that same label is used in another market with another wine in it. So wine drinkers have to deal with this too!

Great article though, I dream of a trip to Japan to do a similar tasting meal!

Alder wrote:
01.06.08 at 12:08 PM

Thanks for the comments. The frustrating thing is that MOST of the sake producers do this. Thankfully it is not as common in the wine world, but I'm glad you pointed out that it does occasionally happen.

Jocelyn wrote:
01.09.08 at 5:42 PM

May I ask, if you can't read/speak Japanese, where do you get your detailed background info on sake brewers? I'd like to look into some sakes that I've tasted, but find myself hitting dead ends in Web searches.

Alder wrote:
01.09.08 at 6:02 PM

Jocelyn,

Great question. I'm not sure I know the answer. I'm pretty good about getting google to cough up info that I need, however, there are two primary sources for great sake information, including info about brewers and their products: John Gautener's Sake World (www.sake-world.com) and esake.com which is a retailer that has a lot of good content about many of the producers available in the US.

Alder wrote:
01.09.08 at 6:07 PM

Jocelyn,

The other thing I just thought about is that, having live in Japan for some time, I DO know how to spell Japanese names pretty well, which can make all the difference when it comes to Google. Try to make sure you're getting the spelling when you're asking someone for the name of the sake you liked, or better yet, make sure you're always copying it down from the label correctly.

Also, if you're tasting/buying these sakes in the US, always note the importer -- they often have info on the sake on THEIR web sites.

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