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The World's Best Sake: Tasting at the Joy of Sake Soiree 2010

joy_of_sake_2010.JPGOne of the public wine tastings I most look forward to every year doesn't serve a single drop of wine. There aren't many opportunities (OK, there are almost none) to taste a large number of high quality sakes anywhere outside of Japan, let alone here in San Francisco. Which is why I make an annual pilgrimage to a yearly event called the Joy of Sake, which is effectively the largest sake tasting outside of Japan. This event highlights the finalists and winners of something called the Annual U.S. Sake Appraisal, which is the largest (and only?) sake competition held outside of Japan.

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 just enough to serve their customers, fine sake first began gaining traction about 8 or 10 years ago in luxury dining restaurants. I remember my surprise when I found some very nice sakes on the list at the French Laundry for the first time. 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.

All of which is why, despite the economy, I had good company last Thursday night at Yoshi's Nightclub for a tasting of around 200 medal winners and a few select finalists from the National Sake Appraisal.

This was the second year that the event was held at Yoshi's and it was much improved from last year, and not just because the fire alarm didn't go off halfway through the event. The event took over the entire restaurant this year and far fewer tickets were sold, making for a very comfortable tasting event that didn't seem crowded. None of the sake ran out, and the food was good, including the whole tuna that the chefs at Yoshi's butchered and then served raw to the enthusiastic crowd.

New York sake lovers should take note, a more complete version of this tasting (highlighting all of the sakes from the National Appraisal) will take place on September 23rd in Manhattan. I highly recommend it.

Now on to my favorites.

For those of you less familiar with sake as a beverage, especially the various grades of quality, I recommend my article entitled, Sake Drinking, Serving, Storing, and Enjoying.

And in the way of a minor diversion, one small reason I love sake is the beauty of many of the labels. A while back I started "collecting" them in photographic form. If you're interested, you might take a look at my collection of sake label photos.

OK, now, let's get down to it! Please note, the producer's name is listed first, followed by the proper name of the sake, which in some cases may simply be the grade "daiginjo" or may be some other proper name. The prefecture of origin follows after a comma.

I tasted all of the daiginjo and ginjo sakes on offer at the tasting, and here are my ratings.

Daiginjo Sakes
Daiginjo sakes are made with rice that has been polished (milled) down to at least 50% of its former mass. Those that also include the label "junmai" lack the small bit of added alcohol in the brewing process that some brewers use to enhance aromas.

Honke Matsuura Shuzojo Narutotai "Daiginjo", Tokushima
Okunomatsu Shuzo "Junmai Daiginjo", Fukushima
Okunomatsu Shuzo Daiginjo Shizukusake "Juhachidai Ihee", Fukushima
Saiya Shuzoten Yuki no Bosha "Kachogesseki" Daiginjo, Akita
Yoshida Shuzoten Tedorigawa "Yamahai Jikomi Junmai Daiginjo", Ishikawa

Dewazakura Shuzo "Yamadanishiki 48%" Daiginjo, Yamagata
Fuchuhomare Wataribune "Junmai Daiginjo" , Ibaraki
Kato Kichibee Shoten Born "Yume wa Masayume" Daiginjo, Fukui
Kodama Jozo Taiheizan "Tenko" Daiginjo, Akita
Kuge Honten Kurokui "Daiginjo", Oita
Miyasaka Jozo Masumi "Nanago" Yamahai Junmai Daiginjo, Nagano
Muromachi Shuzo Sakura Muromachi "Gold Omachi Mai no Sato" Junmai Daiginjo, Okayama
Nagurayama Shuzo "Kanpyokai Shuppinshu" Daiginjo, Fukushima
Ninki Shuzo Ninkiichi "Gold Ninki Junmai Daiginjo", Fukushima
Nishida Shuzoten Nishida "Utou" Daiginjo, Aomori
Saito Shuzo Eikun "Ichigin" Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto
Shimizu Jozo Zaku "Miyabi no Tomo" Nakadori Daiginjo, Mie
Shirakabe Gura "Daiginjo", Hyogo
Takenotsuyu Hakurosuishu "Junmai Daiginjo" , Yamagata
Tenju Shuzo Chokai "Daiginjo", Akita
Tenju Shuzo Chokaisan "Junmai Daiginjo", Akita
Yasumoto Shuzo Hakugakusen "Daiginjo", Fukui
Yoshida Shuzoten Tedorigawa "Iki na Onna" Daiginjo, Ishikawa
Yoshikawa Toji no Sato "Daiginjo", Niigata

Akita Seishu Kariho "Koun" Daiginjo, Akita
Azuma no Fumoto Shuzo "Daiginjo", Yamagata
Dewazakura Shuzo "Daiginjo", Yamagata
Gassan Shuzo "Uedaya" Daiginjo, Yamagata
Gensui Shuzo "Daiginjo", Tottori
Hamachidori "Daiginjo", Iwate
Higashiyama Shuzo Konteki "Daiginjo", Kyoto
Ippongi Kubo Honten Denshin "First Class" Daiginjo, Fukui
Kato Kichibee Shoten Born "Kichibei" Daiginjo, Fukui
Kizakura "Daiginjo", Kyoto
Momokawa Murai Family "Daiginjo Saké", Aomori
Nagai Shuzo Mizubasho "Daiginjo", Gunma
Nishida Shuzoten "Denshu Yonwarigobu" Junmai Daiginjo , Aomori
Nishiyama Shuzojo Kotsuzumi "Rojo Hanaari" Daiginjo, Hyogo
Saito Shuzo Eikun "Koto Sennen" Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto
Saura Urakasumi "Yamadanishiki Junmai Daiginjo", Miyagi
Seitoku Meijo "Daiginjo", Gunma
Toyokuni Shuzo Shinjitsu "Ginjo" Daiginjo, Fukushima
Ume Ichirin Shuzo "Kanpyokai Shuppinshu" Daiginjo, Chiba
Yamanashi Meijo Shichiken "Nakaya Ihee" Daiginjo, Yamanashi

Dewazakura Shuzo "Ichiro" Junmai Daiginjo, Yamagata
Fukuchiyo Shuzo Nabeshima "Daiginjo", Saga
Kamenoi Shuzo Kudoki Jozu "Aiyama" Junmai Daiginjo, Yamagata
Kato Kichibee Shoten Born "Tokusen" Junmai Daiginjo, Fukui
Kokonoesaika Saika "Junmai Daiginjo", Wakayama
Mado no Ume Shuzo "Hana no Yoi" Daiginjo, Saga
Miyasaka Jozo Masumi "Sanka" Junmai Daiginjo, Nagano
Morishima Shuzo Taikan "Hizoshu" Daiginjo, Ibaraki
Nakao Jozo "Maboroshi Kuro" Junmai Daiginjo Genshu , Hiroshima
Shindo Shuzoten Gasanryu "Gokugetsu" Daiginjo, Yamagata
Shinozaki Kunigiku "Daiginjo", Fukuoka
Tajima Shuzo Fukuchitose "Fuku" Daiginjo, Fukui
Tohoku Meijo Hatsumago "Shozui" Junmai Daiginjo, Yamagata
Uchigasaki Shuzoten Hoyo "Yamadanishiki Daiginjo", Miyagi
Ume Ichirin Shuzo "Junmai Daiginjo", Chiba
Shindo Shuzoten Gasanryu "Kisaragi" Daiginjo, Yamagata

Chiyokotobuki Toraya Chiyokotobuki "Toranoko" Daiginjo, Yamagata
Kikuisami "Hiden" Daiginjo , Yamagata
Murashige Shuzo Kinkan Kuromatsu "Junmai Daiginjo", Yamaguchi
Nanbu Bijin "Daiginjo", Iwate
Shimizu Jozo Zaku "Daichi" Daiginjo, Mie
Takano Shuzo "Koshiji Fubuki" Daiginjo, Niigata
Tenzan Shuzo "Hitenzan" Daiginjo, Saga
Tokoyama Shuzo Jozan "Daiginjo", Fukui
Yaegaki Shuzo "Mu" Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo
Yamanashi Meijo Shichiken "Onakaya" Daiginjo, Yamanashi

Ippongi Kubo Honten "Le Premier Rouge" Daiginjo, Fukui
Nagai Shuzo Mizubasho "Junmai Daiginjo", Gunma
Saiya Shuzoten Yuki no Bosha "Sake Komachi" Daiginjo, Akita

Akita Seishu Dewatsuru "Hihaku" Junmai Daiginjo, Akita
Eiko Shuzo Yumetsukiyo "Junmai Daiginjo", Ehime
Obata Shuzo Manotsuru "Maho" Daiginjo, Niigata

Ginjo Sakes
Ginjo sakes are made with rice that has been polished (milled) down to at least than 60% of its former mass. And just as with the daiginjos, those that also include the label "junmai" lack the small bit of added alcohol in the brewing process that some brewers use to enhance aromas.

Nagai Shuzo Mizubasho "Ginjoshu" Ginjo, Gunma
Okuizumo Shuzo "Senjunoizumi" Junmai Ginjo, Shimane

Fukuchiyo Shuzo Nabeshima "Summer Moon Ginjo" , Saga
Machida Shuzoten Machida Shuzo "Tokubetsu Junmai 55" Ginjo, Gunma
Obata Shuzo Manotsuru "Junmai Ginjo", Niigata
Okunomatsu Shuzo "Adatara Ginjo", Fukushima
Suishin Yamane Honten "Inaho" Junmai Ginjo, Hiroshima

Dewazakura Shuzo "Omachi" Junmai Ginjo, Yamagata
Dewazakura Shuzo "Dewasansan" Junmai Ginjo, Yamagata
Dewazakura Shuzo "Oka" Ginjo, Yamagata
Fukuchiyo Shuzo Nabeshima "Junmai Ginjo", Saga
Gassan Shuzo "Gassan no Yuki" Junmai Ginjo, Yamagata
Goto Shuzojo Seiun "Hayate Kami no Ho" Junmai Ginjo, Mie
Kokuryu Shuzo "Junmai Ginjo", Fukui
Okunomatsu Shuzo "Sakura Ginjo", Fukushima
Suzuki Shuzoten Hideyoshi "Akinota" Junmai Ginjo, Akita
Tenzan Shuzo Shichida "Junmai Ginjo", Saga
Tonoike Shuzoten Seishu Sanran "Junmai Ginjo", Tochigi

Imanishi Seibei Shoten Harushika "Junmai Ginjo", Nara
Momokawa Murai Family "Sugidama Saké" Ginjo, Aomori
Nishiyama Shuzojo Kotsuzumi "Tokubetsu Junmai" Ginjo, Hyogo
Rihaku Shuzo "Omachi Genshu" Junmai Ginjo, Shimane
Rokkasen Yamahoshi "Junmai Ginjo", Yamagata
Saiya Shuzoten Yuki no Bosha "Junmai Ginjo", Akita
Tenju Shuzo "Junmai Ginjo", Akita
Yamagata Honten "Shoin" Daiginjo, Yamaguchi

Akita Seishu "Yamatoshizuku" Junmai Ginjo, Akita
Daiichi Shuzo Kaika "Kurobin" Junmai Ginjo, Tochigi
Hakurei Shuzo Shutendoji "?ni" Ginjo, Kyoto
Hamachidori "Gingingashikomi" Junmai Ginjo, Iwate
Hananomai Shuzo "Katana" Ginjo, Shizuoka
Iinuma Honke "Yuga" Junmai Ginjo, Chiba
Kaba Shuzojo Shiramayumi "Junmai Ginjo", Gifu
Ninki Shuzo Ninkiichi "Kuroninki Junmai Ginjo", Fukushima
Saiya Shuzoten Yuki no Bosha "Yamahai Junmai" Ginjo, Akita
Yano Shuzo "Hizen Kuragokoro" Junmai Ginjo, Saga

Ishizuchi Shuzo "Midori Label Funeshibori" Junmai Ginjo, Ehime
Kojima Sohonten Toko "Dewanosato Junmai Ginjo Genshu", Yamagata
Seitoku Meijo "Ginjo", Gunma
Shinozaki Kunigiku "Junmai Ginjo", Fukuoka
Yoshinogawa Gokujo Yoshinogawa "Ginjo", Niigata

Imayotsukasa Shuzo "Meikai" Ginjo, Niigata
Makino Shuzo "Fujisan" Junmai Ginjo, Shizuoka
Saiya Shuzoten Yuki no Bosha "Hiden Yamahai" Ginjo, Akita
Tajima Shuzo Fukuchitose "Toku" Ginjo, Fukui
Hakkai Jozo Hakkaisan "Ginjo", Niigata

Aiyu Shuzo Tomoju "Ginjo", Ibaraki
Hinomaru Jozo Manabito "Kimoto Junmai Ginjo", Akita
Ishimoto Shuzo Koshi no Kanbai "Tokusen" Ginjo, Niigata
Nakao Jozo "Seikyo" Junmai Ginjo Omachi, Hiroshima
Tanaka Shuzo Kikkougura "Junmai Ginjo", Hokkaido

Sake One Corporation Momokawa "Ruby" Ginjo, Oregon

The question of course, is where to buy any of these sakes should you want to get your hands on them. The answer is tricky. Most are not available for purchase online. If you live in New York or San Francisco, pay a visit to one of the specialty sake shops in town. If you live elsewhere, try calling the largest independent wine merchant around.

Photo credit (because I somehow managed to delete the photos I took at the event): thanks to W. Blake Gray, who also wrote up his thoughts on the Ginjo sakes he tasted on his blog, the Gray Market Report.

Comments (6)

1WineDude wrote:
09.14.10 at 4:07 AM

Hating you right now... ;-)

Christopher Robinson wrote:
09.19.10 at 5:36 PM

Alder, could you feature some of the label identifiers you look for to identify the better sake's? The back labels look a mess and I can at least read a few Chinese characters. Frankly ... completely lost when trying to identify quality sake. And you just cost me $95 on Amazon after buying the Theise book and a bunch of others.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
09.19.10 at 7:28 PM


Sorry for inciting your book habit.

Not sure exactly what you're asking about with regards to the "better sakes" but if you're asking about the different grades of sake, if you bought it in the USA the back label will always be in English and will list whether it is a Junmai, Ginjo, or Daiginjo sake.

In terms of which ones are good, well you can't necessarily tell a good sake from a bad one by the label any more than you can with a wine. Having said that, the top end sakes often (but not always) use handmade paper labels, which, along with the elevated price tag for the sake can clue you in to whether you're dealing with a top-end sake. But that doesn't mean you're going to like it.

Sakura boy wrote:
09.21.10 at 8:00 PM

You are hardcore. You tried all the ginjo and daiginjo sakes at the event? And then went on to rate all of them. Haha. Good job

emmanuel wrote:
07.31.12 at 10:53 PM


I will visit Japan in the next 5 weeks (kansai area, Nagoya, Tokyo, Hiroshima). Would you recomend me a nice sake winery, with high quality sake. Not necessary a big winery but traditional one that is making things well. Thank you. Emmanuel.

emmanuel wrote:
07.31.12 at 10:58 PM

It is for a visit of the winery.

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