From Wine Glass to Juice Box: The Best and Worst of Japanese Sake 05/02/13
Do you remember way back when I wrote about my newfound appreciation for hot sake, otherwise known as atsukan? In that post from oh-so-long ago, I said that I wouldn’t be discussing any particular sakes from my trip to Japan. And in that post, true to my word, I didn’t.
Flash forward to today. A lot has changed. I’ve seen the seconds turn into minutes, the minutes into hours. I’m a week older now – a week wiser. And I think it’s finally time to talk about some of the sake I drank at a temperature that accentuates nuance, rather than obscuring it.
Because I tasted literally dozens of different sakes, I won’t be talking about all of them; indeed, I only had the presence of mind to jot down tasting notes for the first 15 or so. But I won’t be talking about 15 sakes either, because that would still be overkill. Instead I’m just going to cap it to three: my favorite, my least favorite, and a third to be chosen on the basis of some other criterion I haven’t determined as of the time I write this sentence.
So let’s get to it!
I drank some pretty tasty Nihonshu in Japan, but one that I tried on my first night in Tokyo (about halfway through my trip) stood out far above the rest. I won’t say this surprised me, since at 1,550 yen for a single glass it was also the most expensive sake I sampled by a considerable margin; but the experience allowed me to glimpse a more excellent echelon of this fine beverage than I had previously known to exist, which reminded me just how great money can be.
The only sake that was served to me in a wine glass during my journey – an auspicious omen, since the shape of a white wine glass is said best to evince the subtleties of fine sake (yes, even better than traditional ochoko or masu) – this was simply a joy to drink, and all efforts to pace myself proved futile. If it were possible for clouds to be formed from cantaloupe vapor, this sake would be the rain. Purity and ethereality are the key words here, but still insufficient to describe the true beauty contained within the bottle.
Unfortunately, what with my not speaking Japanese, I wasn’t able to catch the name of this delicious elixir, but I did remember to take a picture for posterity.
I award this nameless-but-not-really sake enthusiastic thumbs up, and I but pray our paths may cross again – preferably when I’m affluent enough to afford a whole bottle.
American sake gets a pretty bad rap. W. Blake Gray, for instance, asserts that even the best American sake would only amount to a mid-range offering in Japan. And truth be told, based on my limited experience with American sake, I’m inclined to agree.
But here’s the thing about mid-range sake: there’s still a whole lot below it. It was not until my trip to Japan that I was able to scrape the proverbial (and possibly literal) bottom of the sake barrel – the very worst the country has to offer – and you know what? American sake brewers may have a long way to go, but they could also be doing a lot worse.
They could be making juice box sake.
When I first discovered these sake boxes at a 7-11 in Nara, I was elated. Nara, the first permanent capital of Japan, is also known as the spiritual home of the Japanese, and I could finally see why: they clearly took their spirits seriously. I bought two of these sake boxes and immediately traipsed back to my hotel room to tweet about my discovery, past packs of Nara’s famous wild deer and texting monks.
It was then that I noticed one of my purchases was a bit more familiar than I’d realized: Onikoroshi, or “Demon Slayer,” a sake I’d once bought in the states (albeit in a bottle), and even reviewed on this very blog, now available in juice box form! Needless to say, my excitement only continued to grow.
…That is, until I tasted it. Presenting aromas of chemically treated cardboard, this sake lacked the melon notes I’d come to expect, replacing them with the unmistakable taste of packaging. Perhaps, I thought, the flavor would improve with time. It didn’t.
I award this incredibly disappointing sake thumbs up – higher than it deserves – simply because this version of Onikoroshi is actually quite likely to kill any unsuspecting demons who chance to drink it.
Now, I would be remiss if I left you with the impression that the only sake I drank in that town was below par, so I’ve decided to discuss a sake that was neither my favorite nor least favorite, but rather the most intriguing I encountered.
The restaurant Kagetsu in Nara bore a few distinctions: it was the only place I went in Japan where I was required to take off my shoes, for starters. It was also the first place I was able to discuss sake with a Japanese person (his English was about as good as my Japanese, so we were on equally uncomfortable footing). The food was great too, but that was true of a lot of places so I really shouldn’t even be mentioning it.
What really stood out, though, was the sake itself. The first and third he poured – Kaze no Mori and Shino Mine – were certainly enjoyable, but the middle sake – Hana Tomoe – was unlike any other I’ve had. The Hana Tomoe didn’t strike me as fruity, as most sake tends to, but I can’t say for certain whether it was more floral, nucal, or something else entirely (floral might make the most sense, as hana means flower). At one point I wrote “anisette,” but I quickly changed my mind; I just couldn’t identify what I was tasting.
My waiter/server would go on to inform me that the Hana Tomoe was, in fact, the most popular sake at the restaurant – a place which specialized in sake – which only further compounded my curiosity. I’d love to blame my befuddlement on the fact that my palate was jet lagged, or something equally made up, but I won’t, because that wouldn’t be fair to you – nor to the sake.
I award Hana Tomoe thumbs up. In truth, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other two sakes being poured…and yet, they failed to captivate me nearly as much as this one.
But be forewarned, Hana Tomoe: the next time we meet, I will decipher you.