Dewazakura Shuzo “Oka” Namazake Junmai Ginjo, Yamagata Prefecture

If there was a single sake that might be responsible for the fact that you now see sake on all sorts of restaurant menus outside of Japan, this might very well be the one.

Up until the latter part of the 20th century, there weren’t high-end grades of sake. The Ginjo and Daiginjo designations which are now normally associated with ultra-premium sakes didn’t exist. When they finally debuted in Japanese sake competitions, they quickly caught on, but even then, only within the competition circuit, as the Ginjo and Daiginjo sakes were just too expensive to produce for mass consumption. For the most part, everyone went on drinking and making their standard Futsuu-shu (undesignated) sakes, because that was basically all you could get.

Then one day in 1980, a sake brewery named Dewazakura Shuzo released the first mass market Ginjo sake, which they called “Oka,” and the era of premium sake was born. It didn’t hurt that this was about the time that money was pouring into Japan faster than anyone could count it, but within several years there were hundreds of premium and ultra-premium sakes available in restaurants and stores from reasonable to outrageous prices.

Slowly, slowly, they trickled over here to the United States, and now they are finding their rightful place as excellent companions to all sorts of food, thanks in part, to this little bottle and with its label of falling cherry blossoms.

Dewazakura is named for the sakura (cherry blossoms) that occupy so much of Japan’s attention in the months of March and April each year, and which can be found plentifully on nearby Mount Maitzuru in the Yamagata Prefecture where Dewazakura has been making sake since 1891. This kura uses local everything: local rice, local water, and local artisans, as opposed to many sake operations who employ seasonal craftsmen who travel from brewery to brewery. Despite having some technologically advanced aspects to its production, the brewery insists on some traditional practices, such as carrying the rice in burlap sacks, rather than distributing it by air hose, which can crush the kernels of rice.

Dewazakura, now owned by the Miyasaka Breweries corporation, is known not only for this famous sake, but for producing a class of sakes called namazake, which are unpasteurized sakes. Most sakes are pasteurized, even most of the Ginjo and Daiginjo sakes on the market, but some brewers prefer the slightly more pungent and intense flavors that they claim can only be experienced without pasteurization. Namazakes, as a result, spoil much more easily, and unlike pasteurized sakes, must be kept refrigerated at all times, and generally should be drunk even more immediately than normal sakes.

This sake is made using the cryptically translated “Association #10 Yeast” which is apparently popular for premium sakes made in the northern parts of Japan, though not normally associated with aromatics as strong as those found here.

Tasting Notes:
Near colorless, with a slight tinge of bronze in the glass, this sake has a very floral nose, like a garden after a rainstorm, smelling of roses, melons, gardenias, and wet wood. In the mouth it is smooth and soft, with primary flavors of marshmallow, rainwater, and cedar, enveloped in just a slight hint of sweetness. The finish is unusually long for such delicate flavors.

Food Pairing
This would be a great match for this tempura fried soft shell crap and asparagus with a yuzu-Maui onion salad.

[Just as an aside, what is it with the complete lack of decent Japanese recipes on the Internet? Oh sure, there are 1001 recipes for miso-glazed black cod, sushi rice, and everything-teriyaki, but you would think from Google’s search results that these three things were the entirety of Japanese cuisine. We’re really missing out, us Americans.]

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $30 per 500ml

This sake is available for purchase on the internet.