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Kamoizumi "Shusen - Three Dots" Junmai, Hiroshima Prefecture

shusen.jpgIn the world of sake, perhaps even more so than the world of wine, just when you think you've figured out that things work a certain way, you stumble across an exception that completely destroys whatever sense of predictability you might have been cultivating.

It's fairly safe to say that most fine sakes should be served chilled, to preserve and highlight their subtleties and delicate qualities. However, there are a specific class of higher end sakes that not only can be served at room temperature, but actually benefit from a little warmth.

These sakes bear no resemblance in style (or price for that matter) to the hot sakes served in most American sushi restaurants. Instead, such sakes represent a less explored segment of the world of fine sake. While sake continues to gain in popularity every year in America, the range and variety of sake poured in restaurants and purchased by consumers continues to be somewhat narrowly focused, and does not tend to include sakes like this one, whose flavor profile and personality fall outside the "expected" realm.

One of the main reasons I love sake are it's delicate, almost ethereal flavors. These notes of jasmine, rainwater, melon, and occasionally richer aromas like chocolate milk are the typical signatures of most junmai, ginjo and daiginjo sakes. For those who do not remember, these sakes represent the premium end of sake production, and are defined for the most part by the polishing or milling ratio of the rice used to brew them (junmai rice is polished to 70% or less of its original mass, ginjo to 60% or less, daiginjo to 50% or less).

But just like the world of wine in which, despite perhaps being made from a familiar grape variety, we sometimes find wines that are utterly distinctive and unique in their qualities, the world of sake includes brews that offer unexpected qualities that surprise and delight.

This is one of those sakes.

With a distinctive label bearing the three dots of its name, the Kamoizumi Shusen Junmai sake offers a flavor profile that is just as distinctive. In fact, when I first had this sake, I thought it was a uncommon type of sake known as yamahai which is known for its gamier, earthier qualities derived from what might be considered the equivalent of a "natural yeast fermentation" in the winemaking world. But it turns out this is merely a modest junmai sake that happens to be dancing to its own rhythm in the mouth.

This sake's producer, Kamoizumi Shuzo, was founded in 1912 in Hiroshima prefecture in Western Japan by Hazime Hitoshi, the first son of a famous rice merchant. For three generations, the family run brewery has been working to perfect its brewing process, including their careful brewing of this distinctive sake which is quite unlike most of its ilk. It is a testament to the skill of their master brewer Yukio Masuda that they are able to turn out this sake year after year with a consistent flavor profile and personality that is so unique.

Personality is the reason to drink sakes like this one, and like the yamahai brews that it resembles, the Shusen is no more expressive than when it is served warm, and its sweet, earthy, and downright funky aromas and flavors are at their smoothest. While not for everyone, especially those who don't like the smell of mushrooms, stronger, fuller bodied sakes like this one can be fantastic accompaniments to richer foods that would overpower their more floral ginjo and daiginjo cousins.

The world of sake is wide, and if you are interested in exploring off the beaten track, this is a good place to start.

Tasting Notes:
Pale blonde in color, this sake smells of shitake mushrooms and wet leaves baking in the sun. In the mouth the sake is smooth and velvety on the tongue with pungent flavors of cooked mushrooms, wet earth, Chinese medicines, and hint of sweet tropical fruit on the finish. This is perhaps a sake for the more adventurous, but those willing to stray from the mainstream may find it richly rewarding. Serve warmed, but not hot, or at room temperature.

Food Pairing:
This sake goes particularly well with meat dishes in my opinion, especially those that have a light sweetness to them, as well as anything that has an earthy element such as potatoes and squash.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $27

This sake is available for purchase on the Internet.

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