Given the increasing number of Japanese, Asian and Fusion restaurants on the fine-dinning scene it is virtually essential to do some homework on sake, as ordering confidently is a perk. Though sake is often referred to as a rice wine, the process of making it has more in common with brewing beer.
Once known as the “Drink of the Goods” sake’s true origins are unknown but what we do know is that it has been brewed in Japan over the last two thousand years. Japan first began producing sake on an industrial scale during the Edo period (1603-1868) and during the Meiji period (1868-1912) most breweries that grew and prospered were set up by wealthy landowners. Landowners who grew rice crops would have rice left over at the end of the season and rather than letting these leftovers go to waste, would use them for the production of sake.
Sake production improved dramatically during the 20th century with more advanced machinery. Wooden barrels were replaced with enamel-coated steel tanks, which eliminated the flavour of wood, allowing for the sake’s pure flavour to remain. Though computer-controlled equipment produces more sake, it is in the smaller family owned breweries, producing handcrafted premium sake, we find the exceptional taste of local ingredients and regional styles.
Whichever prefecture the sake comes from, it is made from 4 simple ingredients: water, rice, koji and yeast. Which regional flavour you prefer is personal. From almost transparent to dark amber in colour, with 10%-17% alcohol content, varying sweetness, dryness and fruitiness, very few sake are aged or have vintage. Sake is designed to be drunk within a year or so of its bottling date. Try different kinds of it and make up your own mind. Kanpai!
Akita prefecture is situated in the north eastern part of the Japanese main island of Honshu and with its extensive rice production has been known far and wide as “the rise bowl of Japan” since ancient times and with good reason.
The three first-class rivers that flow through the prefecture mean that the region never lacks for plentiful water and the river basins provide wide and richly fertile land for rice fields.
Akita is also known as the “sake jug”. The essence of Akita’s sake comes from the piled snow and ice of the cold winter, pure and clean water and of course the high quality rice. All are thanks to the wonderful climate and terrain that Akita has been blessed with by nature. In this land is the taste of Akita born.
Along the west coast of Japan’s main island, Niigata prefecture is known for its prowess in industry and as an ecological paradise. With the largest number of sake producers of any prefecture in Japan and a rich, natural environment Niigata is referred to as the “Sake Kingdom of Japan”. While Niigata ranks third in the overall sake production in Japan, it is first in the production of premium sake. The fine water, quality rice, higher than average milling ratio and expertise of the toji, have resulted in what is known as the “Niigata Taste” of sake, which can be summed up as “crisp and dry”. It is less sweet and has a lighter taste than the national average. It contains extract and amino acid and is generally light in colour. The delicate flavour and aroma of this sake contrasts with the full-bodied sweet sake that once dominated mainstream Japan. If one reason has to be given for why Niigata prefecture produces the best sake in the world it would be just one word, “snow”. When this snow melts in the spring, it creates ideal conditions for rice cultivation, in addition to providing incredibly clean, pure water for the brewing process. The rest is inevitable…
In the broadest sense, Gifu has two main sake styles: dry, non-Ginjo sake produced in the northern Hida district (influenced by its proximity to Niigata’s Echo Toji); and a sturdy, food-friendly yet sweeter style produced in the southern Mino district. Kozaemon or Nakashima sake is made by a small brewery in mountainous Gifu prefecture, the middle of Japan. The history of this brewery goes back over 300 years. High quality rice and water, and a passion for challenge make this sake quite special. Enjoy the rich sophisticated taste of it, which is totally incomparable! Mizunami, the town is which we find Nakashima brewery, in ancient times was at the bottom of the sea, according to legend. Mizunami means rice waving in the wind. The climate of Mizunami is very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, with lots of snowfalls. This is what gives this sake its very special taste.
The island’s remote nature led Hokkaido to be settled later than the rest of Japan. Breweries are all less than 150 years old- young by industry standards. Hokkaido isn’t considered a major sake brewing prefecture, but it does have a reputation for quality. The island’s cold weather means traditionally-aged sake matures at a slow pace. The cool temperatures also aid in combating spoilage. The resulting seishu is often mildly aromatic, compact and light, and with a subdued and dry flavour. Hokkaido has more arable land than any other prefecture in Japan. And despite the frigid conditions- they grow a lot of rice. Sapporo, the capital city of the island of Hokkaido, is located on an alluvial fan created by the sand and sediment deposited over the millennia by the Toyohira River. The area has a wealth of underground water resources created when rain and snow that falls on the surface filters through the strata, as well as groundwater that then bubbles back to the surface downstream. Chitose-tsuru, the very first sake brewery in Hokkaido, located its brewery in the heart of downtown Sapporo because of the city’s access to pristine water, which is the lifeblood of sake.
The passion of Fukushima Prefecture and the devotion of its sake brewers combine to create a “Fukushima pride” which constantly strives for excellence. The secret behind the taste of Fukushima sake lies, without a doubt, behind the broad expanses of the prefecture, its climatic extremes of hot and cold, its abundant and delicious water, its high-quality sake rice and, above all, the diligence and devotion of Fukushima’s sake brewers. Sake brewing is simply impossible without a great investment in time and effort, and Fukushima sake is delicious because it is made with the utmost care by people who love sake from the bottoms of their hearts. The marriage of modern and traditional techniques combines with natural ingredients to produce the very finest flavours in Japan. And it is with the utmost confidence that Fukushima’s breweries deliver sake with a wide variety of unique flavours and aromas. You will never grow tired of Fukushima sake. Fukushima has a long history as a reputable sake region, with many of the prefecture’s 60 breweries dating back over 300 years. The variety of climates in Fukushima result in quite different brews: the mountainous inland area of Aizu-Wakamatsu is known for a richer, sweeter, more umami-laden type of sake to match the hearty cuisine, while the coastal region of Hamadori brews light and refreshing varieties to match the local seafood.
Kyoto is one of the oldest areas of sake brewing, and the second-biggest sake producer by volume in Japan after Niigata. The Fushimi district in particular has a rich sake legacy, thanks to its access to the Horikawa River, which meant sake cargo could flow freely out of the area; its access to Kyoto aristocracy, who made up the bulk of the sake market until the end of the Edo era; and its supply of the pristine Gokosui underground spring water found in the area. Kyoto sake tends to be delicate, pure and mellow which originates from its low mineral water quality. The flavours tend to have fruity characteristics such as fresh melons and green apples, pears, tropical fruits, and ripe banana. Today, Fushimi boasts of 24 Premium Sake breweries. The key to an excellent Sake brew is the quality of water that is used in the process. The underground water in Fushimi has been continuously selected as one of the “100 Best Water Sources in Japan” for many years.
“GOOD HARMONY MAKES GOOD SAKE”
The Ito family have been growing rice in Akita for more than 17 generations and according to their records began brewing sake in 1865 when the founder of Akita Seishu, Jyushiro Ito, converted a 150 year old thatched roof estate into the Dewatsuru sake brewery. Five generations later, the brewery is still run by the Ito family. Chairman Tatsuru Ito works closely with his son Yohei, the President, to bring Dewatsuru’s award winning sake to consumers in Japan and throughout the world. The family’s history as rice growers explains the importance they place on using only local, unique rice varieties and the exceptionally soft water together with the heavy snowfalls and winter temperatures, which are ideal for sake brewing, contribute to the naturally smooth taste of the outstanding Dewatsuru sake. This brewery is even certified to produce organic sake, one of only a few such breweries in Japan.
“Balancing tradition with an open mind”
One of the most prominent breweries in the Niigata prefecture, the Ichishima brewery has been owned and operated by the Ichishima family since its founding in 1790. This illustrious clan played an important role in the history of the region. In 1700’s the Ichishimas were one of the top five land owning families in Japan and legend has it that one could walk the 40 miles from the brewery to Niigata city without leaving Ichishima land. The brewery still draws on its lengthy history and access to local ingredients to produce some of the highest quality sake in the region known for premium production. The brewery is also proud to be one of the first to employ female brewery workers and in fact is known in the industry for having the first ever licensed female toji. Balancing tradition with open mindedness, Ichishima Shuzo has been able to produce consistently high quality sake and to win many gold medals, nationally and internationally.
“Good water, good rice, good people equals excellent sake.”
In the middle of Japan, in a mountainous area of the prefecture of Gifu, near the town of Mizunami, we find a small brewery, producing sake with great passion in the tradi- tional way since 1702. It is said in Japanese mythology that Mizunami (which means rice ears waving in the wind) was at one time at the bottom of the sea. That is why they believe the water that comes from the soil in this area is soft and fertile, perfect to be combined with the local rice to produce outstanding sake. In addition, the local climate – very hot in the summer, very cold in the winter, with lots of snowfalls – favours the production of exceptional sake.
Small sake breweries are called “Jizake” or micro-breweries and Kozaemon is cer- tainly one of the best-known to produce high-quality, specialized sake such as the Double Kijoshu, an elegant and luxurious high-quality sake with a sweet, rich, velvety flavour, originally produced exclusively for the Imperial Family. With the help of the high-quality rice and water and the brewer’s obvious passion for a challenge to make special sake, this brewery’s sake is not only highly regarded domestically but also internationally. It is sold in all the best restaurants in the world and exported to 30 countries, including China, USA, Australia, UK, France, Germany and Sweden.
“A thousand years of happiness and lots of good sake”
Chitose-tsuru is the only local sake brewery in Sapporo, the largest city of the island of Hokkaido, northern Japan.The owners of this brewery are Nippon Seishu Co. Ltd., a much larger company that first produced sake in Sapporo in 1872.
A Tsuru is a Japanese crane, which is seen as “the bringer of wisdom, hope, a long life and happiness”. It also symbolises honour and loyalty. As it is believed that the crane lives for 1,000 years (chitose in Japanese), the Chitose-tsuru sake brand name might bring a thousand years of happiness and lots of good sake and the Tanchotsuru Jun- mai we offer is truly special.
Toyohira River water, pumped up from 150 meters underground, is used to make it, water which comes from the melting snow of the mountains in southern Sapporo and filters through rock over a period of time. Hokkaido has a cool climate with little humid- ity, so fermentation is restrained and it is easy to produce sake with a refreshing, dry flavour.
“Sake with true Samurai spirit”
The Suehiro Sake Brewery started producing sake when Inokichi Shinjo separated from the Shinjo family to start his own brewery at the end of the Edo period in 1850. It is situated in Aizu, the westernmost of the 3 regions of Fukushima Prefecture.
Aizu is famous for its sake and it’s not an exaggeration to say that in the careful prepa- ration of the traditional spirit of sake brewing, the true samurai spirit lives on in the workshops of the artisans there. Aizu is blessed with delicious rice, pristine water and a cool climate that is ideal for sake brewing, all of which contributed to the develop- ment of sake brewing.
Suehiro Sake Brewery has strictly followed “the 3 rules of craft sake brewing”: Use only natural pristine water, traditional artisanal techniques of the master brewers of the Aizu region and rice grown from the same pristine water. Aizu is famous for its highly skilled Toji master brewers, who are paid the highest prices in breweries throughout Japan and the Suehiro Sake Brewery has taken full advantage of the local talent, as the skill of the Toji is clearly reflected in the quality of the sake. This is sake producing that spares no time or effort.
“Tradition for an exceptional sake”
Tsuki no Katsura was founded in 1675 and its traditions have continued for over 340 years by 14 generations of the Masuda family. It is located in Fushimi district in the southwest of Kyoto city. Fushimi is famous in Japan for its sake production because it has particularly soft water.
Tsuki no Katsura is one of the oldest sake breweries in Kyoto and is famous for its high- grade sake. In 1964, the brewery created Nigori-sake, a coarsely filtered sake and became famous throughout Japan.
As the Nigori-sake is bottled during the fermentation stage, the sake is called spar- kling sake. Tsuki no Katsura also has Koshu or aged sake, probably the oldest in Japan (over 50 years old). Wishing to innovate, the brewery got involved in the cultivation of a variety of ancient organic rice from Kyoto called IWAI with the help of Kyoto farmers. It was the first brewery to brew a Junmai Daiginjo Nigori-sake, which has become very popular around the world.