The Best Sake In The World?: A Report from The Joy of Sake 2006

I fell in love with sake on my second day in Japan. I was taken to a private sushi club by the CEO of the partner company I was working with, and not being much of a beer drinker (but knowing that I was expected to drink) I suggested that I might prefer sake. Out from behind the tiny sushi bar came a big brown bottle with a beautiful paper label and a chilled glassful was poured in front of me. That first taste of wet earth after a rain, cedar forests, and ocean fog electrified me. Good sake, especially with the delicate flavors of Japanese food, will always be one HomeImage.gifof my favorite beverages.

Much to my delight, America seems to be discovering fine sake (not the hot stuff that every sushi restaurant has been serving since the early Eighties) at a fantastic rate. Apart from the dedicated and authentic Japanese restaurants that even years ago managed to import enough to serve their customers, it seems to me that fine sake first began gaining traction in luxury dining restaurants. I remember my surprise when I found some very nice sakes on the list at the French Laundry several years ago. 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.

As appreciation for this fine brew has grown, it should come as no surprise that events like The Joy of Sake tasting will become more popular and more common. Put on by the International Sake Association in association with the Japan National Research Institute of Brewing, this event is the single largest sake tasting outside of Japan, and may well be the largest public sake tasting in the world.

Which is one reason we all should be glad it took place in the Moscone West convention center in San Francisco, rather than a cramped hotel ballroom somewhere. I have criticized this event in the past for its shoddy logistics and planning, and it pleases me to say that this year I can find nothing to criticize. The event went off without a hitch, and was a great way to spend a Thursday evening (New York readers take note, it’s coming your way soon).

Held in the third floor lobby of Moscone West, the event included hundreds of sakes available for tasting along with food booths offering everything from barbecued meats, to vegetarian (shojin) food, to sushi. A live DJ spun an eclectic Japanese-influenced mix in the background, while everyone sampled and snacked. The food was excellent and plentiful, and whether because of the layout or better planning (likely both) none of the purveyors were plagued by the long lines or running out of food which were some failings of previous year’s events.

The sakes on offer were simply fantastic. Nowhere else, including Japan, can an interested member of the public get an opportunity to sample so many high quality sakes as was possible at this event. In fact, there are far too many sakes for even a power taster like me.

For this reason I decided to taste the sakes that I’m most likely to buy and drink, and which represent the highest-end (but not always the best) products of the sake industry: the daiginjo sakes. I really enjoy the lighter floral and mineral flavors that typify many daiginjo sakes, rather than the richer, yeasty and fruity flavors that can be found in less refined sakes.

I tasted every single daiginjo sake on offer at the tasting, and my notes follow below. But before I get to my notes (and a special visual treat for those whose eyes may glaze over at all the sake names), here are a few facts that may help novices better understand the differences between sakes.

A sake can be classified as a daiginjo sake if it is made from rice kernels which have been polished to less than fifty percent of their original volume. For those wine geeks out there, think of this as some bizarre equivalent of the attraction to “low-yield vineyards.” The polishing (sanding, really) process removes the outer, rougher, chewier layers of the rice kernel and leaves only the “pure” inner kernel. By comparison, ginjo sakes (the next level down of ‘quality’ classification) are made from rice kernels milled down to at between fifty and sixty percent of their original size, while honzojo sake rice is milled to only between sixty and seventy percent of the original kernel size.

One of the confusing aspects of understanding sake classification involves the fact that in addition to the milling of the rice kernel, some sake also has a small amount of alcohol added as the final fermentation takes place (though this does not usually mean that the finished sake is higher in alcohol). The term junmai is used to refer to sakes that DO NOT have this alcohol added. Despite tasting a good amount of sake, I can still not reliably identify or align my taste preferences with the flavor characteristics resulting from the alcohol addition. I seem to like as many plain daiginjo sakes as much as I like junmai daiginjo sakes, and would never be able to identify the differences between them in a blind tasting.

I have followed the same listing format I use for wine with the sakes listed below. This means that the first word or words are the name of the producer, followed in quotes by the given name of the sake, if any, usually followed by the quality designation of junmai daiginjo or just plain daiginjo as given by the producer, and lastly the prefecture where the sake is brewed. Some of the names do not include the word “daiginjo” but they are still classified as such.

In short: producergiven sake name,” junmai designation, prefecture.

I have also indicated which sakes are not currently available for retail sale in the United States. Retail pricing for these sakes was not available to me. To find sakes for purchase online I recommend a search engine such as Wine Searcher.

Without further ado, here are my daiginjo sake tasting notes from the 2006 Joy of Sake Tasting.

The highest-end of most sake producers’ lineup, ultra-premium daiginjo sakes are made from the finest stream water and from kernels of rice which have been polished down to forty percent or less of their original volume.

Sakes with a score of 9.5
Okunomatsu Shuzo “Okunomatsu Daiginjo Shizukusake Juhachidai Ihei,” Fukushima
Kamotsuru Shuzo “Kamotsuru Sokaku” Daiginjo, Hiroshima

Sakes scoring between 9 and 9.5
Tentaka Shuzo “Tentaka Silent Stream,” Tochigi
Okunomatsu Shuzo “Okunomatsu” Junmai Daiginjo, Fukushima
Nanbu Bijin “Nanbu Bijin” Daiginjo, Iwate
Aiyu Shuzo “Aiyu” Daiginjo, Ibaragi
Aihara Shuzo “Ugonotuski” Junmai Daiginjo, Hiroshima
Miyao Shuzo “Shimeharitsuru” Daiginjo, Niigata
Ishimoto Shuzo “Koshi no Kanbai Chotokusen,” Niigata
Kokuryu Shuzo “Kokuryu Ryu” Fukui
Kameizumi Shuzo “Kameizumi Kihin” Junmai Daiginjo, Kochi. (n/a in USA)
Takeda Shuzo “Yamatogokoro” Junmai Daiginjo, Ehime. (n/a in USA)
Iwamura Jozo “Onna Joshu,” Gifu. (n/a in USA)
Saito Shuzo Eikun “Ichigin” Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto. (n/a in USA)
Nakano Shuzo “Chiebijin” Daiginjo, Oita. (n/a in USA)

Sakes with a score of 9
Yamanashi Meijo Shichiken “Nakaya Ihei” Daiginjo, Yamanashi
Kodama Jozo “Taiheizan Tenko,” Akita
Saiya Shuzoten “Yuki no Bosha” Daiginjo, Akita
Saiya Shuzoten “Yurimasamune Kachogesseki” Daiginjo, Akita
Uchigasaki Shuzoten “Hoyo Yamadanishiki” Daiginjo, Miyagi
Suehiro Shuzo “Suehiro Gensai,” Fukushima
Yoshida Shuzoten “Tedorigawa Iki na Onna,” Ishikawa
Ichishima Shuzo “Omon Yume” Junmai Daiginjo, Niigata
Yamagata Honten “Moriko,” Yamaguchi
Chiyomusubi Shuzo “Chiyomusubi Daiginjo Tobingakoi” Tottori
Rihaku Shuzo “Rihaku” Daiginjo, Shimane
Minogawa Shuzo “Minogawa Koshi no Omachi,” Niigata
Yano Shuzo “Hizen Kuragokoro Gon-emon” Junmai Daiginjo, Saga. (n/a in USA)
Koizumi Shuzo “Tokaizakari Ginnomai Genshu” Junmai Daiginjo, Chiba. (n/a in USA)
Tajime “Tajime,” Hyogo. (n/a in USA)
Kamisugi Shuzo “Kamisugi Tobindori,” Aichi. (n/a in USA)
Harada Shuzojo “Sansha Aberia Daiginjo Hanakobozukuri,” Gifu. (n/a in USA)
Koizumi Shuzo “Tokaizakari Mabune no Sato” Daiginjo, Chiba. (n/a in USA)
Nakamura Kamekichi “Tamadare” Daiginjo, Aomori. (n/a in USA)
Gensui Shuzo “Gensui Daiginjo Tobingakoi,” Tottori. (n/a in USA)
Miyagi Shurui “Yuki no Matsushima” Daiginjo, Miyagi. (n/a in USA)
Tonoike Shuzoten “Seishu Sanran Daiginjo Shizukuzake,” Tochigi. (n/a in USA)
Nagai Shuzo “Mizubasho Daiginjo Premiere,” Gunma. (n/a in USA)
Matsumoto Shuzo “Momo no Shizuku” Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto. (n/a in USA)
Ippongi Kubo Honten “Ippongi Kyoryu Kaido,” Fukui. (n/a in USA)
Amabuki Shuzo “Amabuki” Daiginjo, Saga. (n/a in USA)
Watarai Honten “Dewanoyuki Sasa no Inochi,” Yamagata. (n/a in USA)

Sakes scoring between 8.5 and 9
Takenotsuyu Takenotsuyu “Hagurosan” Junmai Daiginjo, Yamagata
Yamanashi Meijo Shichiken “Onakaya” Junmai Daiginjo, Yamanashi
Kato Kichibee Shoten “Born Yumewa Masayume (Dreams Come True),” Fukui
Yaegaki Shuzo, “Yaegaki Gokujo Mu” Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo
Asahi Shuzo (Yamaguchi) “Dassai Junmai Daiginjo Migaki Niwarisanbu,” Yamaguchi
Kato Kichibee Shoten “Nihon no Tsubasa (Wing of Japan),” Fukui
Miyasaka Jozo “Masumi Yumedono,” Nagano
Tamanohikari Shuzo “Tamanohikari Kumesan Yamadanishiki 100%” Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto
Akita Shuzo “Akitabare Suirakuten,” Akita
Hananomai Shuzo “Hananomai Gentei” Daiginjo, Shizuoka
Hakuryu Shuzo “Hakuryu” Daiginjo, Niigata
Nariwaozeki Shuzo “Taiten Shiragiku” Daiginjo, Okayama
Ishizuchi Shuzo “Ishizuchi Shinsei” Daiginjo, Ehime. (n/a in USA)
Mado no Ume Shuzo “Mado no Ume Kobai” Daiginjo, Saga. (n/a in USA)
Ume Ichirin Shuzo “Ume Ichirin Kanpyokai Shuppinshu,” Chiba. (n/a in USA)
Tonoike Shuzoten “Seishu Sanran” Daiginjo, Tochigi. (n/a in USA)
Yoshikawa Tojinosato “Yoshikawa Toji” Daiginjo, Niigata. (n/a in USA)
Imayotsukasa Shuzo “Koshi no Tsukasa” Junmai Daiginjo, Niigata. (n/a in USA)
Fuji Shuzo “Kozakaya no Hitoriyogari,” Yamagata. (n/a in USA)

Sakes with a score of 8.5
Saiya Shuzoten “Yuki no Bosha Akita Sake Komachi Shikomi” Daiginjo, Akita
Yamatogawa Shuzoten “Yauemon” Junmai Daiginjo, Fukushima
Yaegaki Shuzo “Yaegaki Kuro no Mu” Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo
Midorikawa Shuzo “Midorikawa” Daiginjo, Niigata
Ichinokura “Ichinokura Shozanten” Junmai Daiginjo, Miyagi
Saiya Shuzoten “Yuki no Bosha” Junmai Daiginjo, Akita
Maihime Shuzo “Maiheme Ofu” Daiginjo, Nagano
Kayashima Shuzo “Nishinoseki Tekishu” Daiginjo, Oita
Kamoizumi Shuzo “Kamoizumi Junmai Daiginjo Senbonnishiki,” Hiroshima
Dewazakura Shuzo “Dewazakura Yukimanman — Aged 5 Years,” Yamagata
Dewazakura Shuzo “Dewazakura Daiginjo,” Yamagata
Marumoto Shuzo, “Taoyaka,” Okayama
Takahashi Sukesaku Shuzoten “Nihonshu Matsuwo Gentei Junmai Daiginjo Genshu,” Nagano. (n/a in USA)
Shimizu Jozo “Zaku” Daiginjo, Mie. (n/a in USA)
Asahikawa Shuzo “Asahikawa Beiju” Junmai Daiginjo, Yamagata. (n/a in USA)
Murashige Shuzo “Kinkan Kuromatsu Nishiki,” Daiginjo, Yamaguchi. (n/a in USA)
Shimizu Jozo “Suzukagawa” Daiginjo, Mie. (n/a in USA)
Kizakura Shuzo “Kizakura” Daiginjo, Kyoto. (n/a in USA)
Koshinoiso Ichigo “Ichie,” Junmai Daiginjo, Fukui. (n/a in USA)
Inoue Shuzo “Hakoneyama” Daiginjo, Kanagawa. (n/a in USA)

Sakes scoring between 8 and 8.5
Yoshida Shuzo “Gassan Ogi” Daiginjo, Shimane
Suishin “Yamane Honten Hoo Suishin Takumi” Junmai Daiginjo, Hiroshima
Takagi Shuzo (Kochi) Toyonoume “Daiginjo, Shizukuzake,” Kochi. (n/a in USA)

Sakes with a score of 8 or below
Akashi Shurui Jozo “Akashitai” Daiginjo, Hyogo. (n/a in USA). Score: 8
Matsuo Shuzo “Matsuokina Tosa Uchushu” Junmai Daiginjo, Kochi. (n/a in USA). Score: 7

Daiginjo sakes are made very much like the ultra-premium daiginjos above, with the exception that they are made from kernels of rice which have been polished down to between fifty and forty percent or less of their original volume. That is to say, they have not been polished down enough to earn the “ultra-premium” designation.

Sakes with a score of 9.5
Aoki Shuzo “Kakurei” Daiginjo, Niigata

Sakes scoring between 9 and 9.5
Momokawa “Momokawa Nebuta” Junmai Daiginjo, Aomori
Momokawa “Momokawa Daiginjo,” Aomori
Seiryo Shuzo “Seishu Miyosakae Himenoai Tenmi” Junmai Daiginjo, Ehime
Uchigasaki Shuzoten “Hoyo Kura no Hana,” Miyagi
Eiko Shuzo Shusen “Eiko Yume Tsukiyo” Junmai Daiginjo, Ehime. (n/a in USA)

Sakes with a score of 9
Tamanohikari Shuzo “Tamanohikari Yuki Hiryo Shiyo Bizen Omachi 100%” Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto
Yaegaki Shuzo “Yaegaki Mu” Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo
Kamotsuru Shuzo “Kamotsuru Tokusei Gold” Daiginjo, Hiroshima
Tatsuuma Honke Shuzo “Chotokusen Kuromatsu Hakushika” Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo
Tohoku Meijo Hatsumago “Shozui” Junmai Daiginjo, Yamagata
Saura Uragasumi “Yamadanishiki” Junmai Daiginjo, Miyagi
Kamenoi Shuzo “Kudoki Jozu,” Yamagata
Kamoizumi Shuzo “Kamoizumi” Junmai Daiginjo, Hiroshima
Nakamura Kamekichi “Kamekichi” Junmai Daiginjo, Aomori. (n/a in USA)
Koizumi Shuzo “Hizoshu” Daiginjo, Chiba. (n/a in USA)
Asama Shuzo “Higen” Daiginjo, Gunma. (n/a in USA)
Umeda Shuzojo “Honshuichi” Junmai Daiginjo, Hiroshima. (n/a in USA)

Sakes scoring between 8.5 and 9
Yaegaki Shuzo “Yaegaki Ao no Mu” Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo
Tenzan Shuzo “Tenzan Hotarugawa” Junmai Daiginjo, Saga
Chiyokotobuki Toraya “Chiyokotobuki Toraya no Toranoko,” Yamagata
Echigo Den-emon “Den-emon” Junmai Daiginjo, Niigata
Kitaya Kansansui “Junmai Daiginjo,” Fukuoka
Iinuma Honke “Kinoene Yuga” Junmai Daiginjo, Chiba
Mifuku Shuzo “Mifuku Daigingokujo,” Shiga. (n/a in USA)
Ume Ichirin Shuzo “Ume Ichirin” Junmai Daiginjo, Chiba. (n/a in USA)

Sakes with a score of 8.5
Chiyonosono Shuzo Chiyonosono “Shuhai” (Garden of Eternity) Junmai Daiginjo, Kumamoto
Konishi Shuzo “Chotokusen Shirayuki Banzaimon” Daiginjo, Hyogo
Miyasaka Jozo “Masumi Sanka” Junmai Daiginjo, Nagano
Gekkeikan Gekkeikan “Horin” Junmai Daiginjo, Kyoto
Kimura Shuzo Takinokoi “Garyutensei” Junmai Daiginjo, Hyogo
Murashige Shuzo “Hinoshitamusou Tobindori” Junmai Daiginjo, Yamaguchi. (n/a in USA)
Sekiya Jozo Horaisen “Ku” Junmai Daiginjo, Aichi. (n/a in USA)

Sakes scoring between 8 and 8.5
Suishin Yamane Honten Meiyo Suishin “Waza” Junmai Daiginjo, Hiroshima
Asahi Shuzo (Fukui) “Suichoka,” Fukui. (n/a in USA)

Sakes with a score of 8 or below
Kurosawa Shuzo “Kurosawa” Junmai Daiginjo, Nagano. Score: 8
Kato Kichibee Shoten Born “Tokusen” Junmai Daiginjo, Fukui. Score: 7.5/8

In addition to being delicious, sake is also beautiful. I’m endlessly fascinated by sake labels, mostly because I find Japanese brush script extremely beautiful. Sake labels, especially for the highest-end sakes such as these are often printed on handmade paper and can resemble works of art in themselves. Of course, like wine labels, they can also be silly, funny, and even kitschy. For those who may prefer a slightly more aesthetic way of experiencing the tasting, I present my Flickr gallery of 180 sake labels, Enjoy.