I’ll admit it. It’s probably been at least six months since I’ve had sake in my mouth. In part, I think that’s because even more than wine, I find sake a contemplative drink, and one that is best sipped serenely over a long evening. I haven’t had that many evenings recently, and even though tonight wasn’t particularly a special night, I opened a nice bottle to go with the steamed fish that we were eating.
There are some clever, even inspiring winery names in the wine world, but for some reason I find the stories behind how sake breweries get their names much more inspiring. Some of that often has to do with the fact that many were named hundreds of years ago. But even more modern breweries can have great stories behind them.
Tentaka brewery, in Tochigi prefecture, was given its name in 1914, when owner Motoichi Ozaki named it “Hawk in the Heavens” after a bird that he had seen in a dream years earlier. Ozaki was a successful liquor wholesaler with a dream of making sake, and when he saw the Yuzukami brewery on the auction block in bankruptcy, he leaped at the chance to create a small brewery that he and his heirs could run. And that’s just what they’ve done for the past three generations.
While Ozaki’s grandson doesn’t live in the brewery as his grandfather did, he maintains the small production with an eye towards innovation. Among other things the latest Ozaki has moved the brewery’s production to be completely organic. This is not as easy as it seems, as organic rice production in Japan is uncommon, especially when it comes to the special rice that is used in sake production.
Up until a few years ago, there were no specific regulations for organic sake, and those brewers interested in the idea, were left to simply say that the sake was “made from organic rice.” But these days there are a set of regulations that define organically made sake, of which the most important is the stipulation that the sake must have been made from 95% certified organic rice.
Certified organic rice, as noted, is tough to come by. If only because in order to be organic it must have no pesticides or chemical fertilizers added, and that, you might imagine, is a tricky thing when rice paddies are often irrigated by water that has flown downstream from someone else’s rice paddy. It’s an analogous problem to some would-be biodynamic winegrowers who can’t get themselves certified because their neighbors spray pesticides that blow into their fields.
In addition to producing organic sake, Tentaka brewery has also opted to use an ultra traditional, incredibly painstaking and costly method in their production of this, their top end sake. This method, known as shizuku, is the sake world’s equivalent of “free-run juice” except it is quite a bit harder to come by. Whereas in the wine world free-run juice is just all the liquid at the bottom of the fermentation tank that can flow out before the grapes are pressed, the shizuku method involves hanging hundreds of fabric bags filled with the finished mash of sake rice (moromi) in a very cold room to let the sake drip out under its own weight, drop by glistening drop.
Not unlike free-run juice, the sake obtained through this method is the sweetest and purest, but also the most precious, as much less liquid comes through the bags via gravity than from the press.
While make of Japan’s prefectures make sake, Tochigi is not as well known, especially for high-end premium sake, compared to powerhouses like Niigata Prefecture. If Niigata is the Napa of Japan, then Tochigi is the upper peninsula of Michigan, if you get my drift. However, Tochigi does have a long history of growing good sake rice, thanks to the three rivers that crisscross the countryside and generally good weather.
This sake is a junmai daiginjo, which means that no additional alcohol was added to the brewing process, and the rice used to make it (the traditional Yamada Nishiki variety) has been polished to at least 50% of its former mass, though in the case of this sake, the rice has been polished to 35% of its former mass.
Full disclosure: I received this sake as a press sample.
Wonderfully viscous in the glass with bright shine to it, this sake smells of lychee, marshmallows and chocolate milk with a little bit of malt added. In the mouth the sake is smooth and polished on the tongue with a woody, wet bamboo and rainwater character that has a hint of tarragon on the finish. Lovely. Evokes a stroll through a bamboo forest after a rain, as darkness falls.
It went beautifully with a Chinese steamed fish with ginger and scallions.
Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5
How Much?: $90 for 720ml
This sake is available for purchase on the Internet.