Wine strikes me as the child of the sun — an essence coaxed from an alchemy of solar energy and the lifeblood of the vines — its flavors, an expression of the dance between upward straining tendrils and the sky. Sake, on the other hand, would be the child of the earth — forged from water drawn from the depths, from rice whose modest growth hugs the wet soil that gives it life, and from the mysterious koji mold that prefers darkness to light.
Sake and wine seem to embody two distinct essences of life, each with different relationships to time. Good wine is made to age, so that it’s youthful exuberance might mellow into something more mature and transcendent, while some of the best sake seems to have a timelessness and ancient character about it, but must be consumed soon after bottling, as it withers fast to an unpalatable shell of itself.
This quality of ancient agelessness remains one of the most alluring characteristics of sake for me. I don’t doubt that this is partially projection on my part — an association drawn between sake and my own mental images of ancient cobblestone streets, Zen temple gardens, or the simplicity of a handmade ceramic bowl nestled into my palm. No matter who you are, however, the best sake has the ability to open up a window to the past of another world, a window through which you may gaze for as long as you sip.
There is no clearer view into the ancient world that sake can evoke than can be found looking through the front gate of the Sudo Honke brewery in the town of Obara in Japan’s Ibaraki prefecture. Sudo Honke, the official name of the brewery that produces sake under the Sato No Homare brand, is without question the oldest operating sake brewery in the world. Established in 1146 AD, it is now run by the 55th generation of continuous family ownership since a few members of the warrior class settled down to become rice merchants on the eastern coast of Japan, a hard day’s ride south of the ancient city of Edo.
850 years is a long time to be doing the same thing, no matter what it is, and certainly enough time to figure out how to do it well. To say that Sudo Honke has been making sake the same way for centuries would be disingenuous(sake making techniques have shifted over time) but the Sudo family philosophy behind what makes for good sake has been carefully handed down from each generation to the next.
Perhaps not surprisingly this philosophy is rather simple: good water makes good sake. How much difference can water make in the brewing process? “If the quality of the water at the beginning of the brewing process were to differ by 0.01mm, after it goes through the yeast-starter, the fermenting mash, and final pressing, the difference in the final product would be several hundred meters” says current president Yoshiyasu Sudo on the brewery’s web site.
The water for the brewery’s sake comes from one of two wells on the property (or a third just outside the brewery’s gates). These stone wells have drawn pure artesian water for centuries from beneath the roots of towering keyaki trees, some of which are almost as old as the brewery itself. Family records show that this water has been treasured by sake brewers for years, and was freely shared with neighboring brewers in need.
In addition to water, of course, the quality of sake also depends upon the rice used — each variety giving its own specific flavor to the final product. Much of the sake rice used by the higher-end breweries in Japan is one of several standard varieties, the most popular being Yamada Nishiki, which is used to make this sake, and is one of the five varieties that Sudo Honke uses. Recently, however, the brewery has successfully cultivated an strain of rice found in nearby ruins that has been dated to 400 BCE, and is using it to make extremely small quantities of sake.
Sudo Honke is the sake world’s equivalent of a classic boutique winery. They make only a small amount of product each year (roughly the equivalent of 16,000 cases of wine, which is a miniscule amount compared to most producers) and they only produce Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo sakes (the two highest grades of super-premium sake that have had no alcohol added during the brewing process). Additionally, and quite unusually, much of their sake is also unpasteurized. Some sake brewers, Sudo Honke included, feel much about pasteurization as some winemakers do about fining and filtration — they strip out some of the aromatic complexity.
The brewing at Sudo Honke is overseen by master brewers Mitsuo Fujiwara and Hideo Segawa along with a team of four other assistants.
What does history taste like? Colorless in the glass, this sake smells like Red Vines and malted milk with hints of green apple and white flower aromas. In the mouth it is gorgeously silky, heavy and voluptuous on the tongue, with a crystal clear purity of character. Rainwater, cedar, hints of pear, and white flowers all coalesce and disperse as the sake moves across the palate, all wrapped in the slightest hint of sweetness that lingers in one of the longest finishes I have ever experienced in a sake. A benchmark for how good sake can get.
I drank this sake most recently with seared whitefish and calamari in a light tomato and broth, which was divine, though in an ideal world I might pair it purely with sashimi.
Overall Score: 9.5/10
How Much?: $40 for a 720ml bottle.
This sake is available for purchase on the internet.