ChuToroZuke’s Sake Chronicles Vol. 3 - 16 varieties of sake you must try!
Some of you may already be familiar with certain sake brands that are exported overseas, such as Dassai, Kubota, Hakkaisan, Daishichi, Born etc.
Today we will go over a list of high quality sake, some of which are not exported outside Japan and may have a cult following, but they are quite famous for various reasons. Some of these are very difficult to procure, or are top quality small producers, and some cannot be bought from shops in Tokyo, so you may want to taste them at different restaurants if you ever have the chance. You will be amazed at their quality, characteristics, and their interaction with food.
This list is not in any particular order, but is an excellent starter for those wanting to explore sake.
1. Juyondai 十四代 - Yamagata Prefecture
Every sake lover in Japan (and outside) likely has heard of this mythical brewery. They are the equivalent of a DRC or First Growth Bordeaux in status. Production is extremely limited, and demand is at an all time high. They produce a wide variety of bottles and styles and is not easy to keep track. If a reputable restaurant offers by the glass even at 3000 yen per, it is worth exploring just so you can understand why this is so sought after. It is best to taste Juyondai in Japan, as there are no proper distributions channels for export (with one exception in Hong Kong under the “N” label), so the quality of your bottle or glass is better handled. In terms of procuring, any shop that manages to secure a small shipment, will only sell to certain restaurants, and anything remaining in retail will be by lottery only for purchase. Most of their sake is either unpasteurized, or single pasteurized. Improper storage and handling will lead to severe degradation in quality, so please only try and buy to drink from reputable places that handle them properly.
2. Banshu Ikkon 播州一献 - Hyogo Prefecture
Banshu Ikkon 播州一献 is produced by Sanyouhai Shuzo 山陽盃酒造 in the suburban town of Shiso, about an hour north by bus from Himeiji Station in Hyogo Prefecture. That area is said to be historically the birthplace of sake, and Banshu Ikkon has much historical significance to that. Their sake has a lot of great flavor, elegance, minerality, and softness with complex cascading finish. The brewery had a fire in November 2018 where the ancestral home got burnt to the ground, but brewing operations continued fortunately. Most recently L’Effervescence in Tokyo started carrying their sake and will incorporate into their beverage pairing program. Very few shops and not too many restaurants carry their sake in Tokyo, and seasonal releases tend to sell out very quickly. But if you ever have the opportunity, please try Banshu Ikkon.
3. Aramasa 新政 - Akita Prefecture
Aramasa can be easily found at many high end Tokyo restaurants, and seems to work particularly well with Japanese French or equivalent styles. They brew their sake to be light, flavorful, low alcohol percentage, and have effervescence for texture and feel. Perfect as apertif, digestif, and sometimes just as a small pour of a welcome sake drink. Food pairing range is a bit specific and limited, but perfectly enjoyable on its own, although some restaurants will offer it as part of a beverage pairing course at any given time. They also have a lineup of ~ 2 aged sake (kijoshu) that can have interesting food pairing results. A lot of their sake are unpasteurized, and due to its lighter structure, more perishable (so consume quickly). Production is limited, and they are already well known within Asia. Do not miss the chance to taste this cult sake that is light, aromatic, yet has good character and depth.
4. Kamonishiki 加茂錦 - Niigata Prefecture
Similar in some ways to Aramasa but a bit different in style that is not as easy to articulate. Effervescent and quite a lot of body. Their sake are mostly unpasteurized, so please try a glass whenever available. If these are available retail they are typically under 2000 yen for a 720 mL bottle.
5. Akabu 赤武 - Iwate Prefecture
Medium bodied to light (depending on type) and easy to drink. Their higher end offerings are fruitier and perhaps more approachable for beginner drinkers. Their Junmai sake however, are especially delicious and offer a wider range of food pairing.
6. Isojiman 磯自慢 - Shizuoka Prefecture
Isojiman is arguably the most famous of all sake from Shizuoka. Their higher end sake are expensive, very limited, and almost celebrity like status. If you ever encounter some of their more expensive Daiginjo or Junmai Daiginjo, consider trying a glass just to experience. For example Nobilmente 28 Daiginjo may appear in random high end Tokyo sushi restaurants, and is very dry but impactful yet elegant.
7. Kaze No Mori 風の森 - Nara Prefecture
This sake offering from Nara prefecture is making waves in the sake industry and is putting Nara sake back on the map. It does not taste like a traditional sake, but is modern yet retains the old flavor in a very positive way. There is no better way to describe this other than to try it for yourself. You cannot go wrong having one of their sake, even their lower end Junmai, even if to experience the different rice types they use to brew.
8. Denshu 田酒 - Aomori Prefecture
A highly coveted offering that does not appear in many restaurants, but when you do, do not miss the opportunity to try. Medium bodied with grassy light aromatic tones, and very good structure and plentiful umami. Their Junmai Daiginjo higher end sake are excellent with kaiseki cuisine, and their Junmai or Junmai Ginjo are versatile to handle heat to be served hot, cold, and room temperature. Take note of the rice varietal used in a specific brew, as the taste and profile can change. All of their sake are good with sushi as well.
9. Hiroki 飛露喜 - Fukushima Prefecture
Another very difficult to procure sake from Fukushima Prefecture. Hiroki is either pasteurized or single pasteurized typically so must be kept under refrigeration. Personally ChuToroZuke prefers Hiroki over Juyondai, but you cannot go wrong ordering a glass of Hiroki to try (provided it is from a fresh bottle). It may cost you more if it is the Junmai Daiginjo, but a great alternative to have if Juyondai is not on the menu.
10. Miyaizumi / Sharaku 宮泉/写楽 - Fukushima Prefecture
Miyaizumi is the main label of the brewery, and Sharaku is a sub label by the same parent company. Both are quite excellent, light, full of flavor, effervescent, yet balanced and well structured. Please try it if you ever see it on a beverage menu. It may be easier to find their sake at a good izakaya than at a fancy restaurant.
11. Tatsuriki 龍力 - Hyogo Prefecture
I chose to include Tatsuriki despite their lack of general availability in restaurants, because they are one of the few breweries that focus their sake rice based on (sake rice) terroir philosophy (similar to DRC of wine). Not only that but they have done extensive studies with them, and to figure out how to maximize the best out of the king of sake rice, Yamadanishiki of which they have access to some of the best quality rice from the best fields in Hyogo Prefecture. You will find their sake in Tokyo at high end department stores, and certain varieties at random shops. You won’t find many restaurants that carry this label for various reasons, but if you are really into wine, you will understand what they do and why it tastes so good. If you ever encounter a restaurant or sake bar that carries their sake, or if they have a tasting booth at a department store, please try it, even if only for educational purposes. With the right food match, the pairings can be absolutely incredible. This is a sake for more advanced drinkers, when you understand their approach, you will be amazed.
12. Hitakami 日高見 - Miyagi PrefectureMiyagi Prefecture
Hitakami is very famous amongst the sake world and fans, as the president of Hitakami is a sushi fiend who has directed the brewery to create some very interesting sake just to pair with specific cuisine. The most well known is Yasuke Houjun Karakuchi Junmai Ginjo 弥助 芳醇辛口 純米吟醸 , that is so well structured, balanced, and it almost drinks like a great complex wine. On top of that, it was built specifically to pair with sushi after the president dined at Komatsu Yasuke in Kanazawa Prefecture. When you find the right sushi restaurant that offers their food to match the sake’s profile, it cannot be beat. Their other sake are quite good as well, but Yasuke is probably the best of the lineup. Fewer sushi restaurants carry this these days as it is not as interesting and exciting, but if you have not tried it before with sushi, you should if the chance comes!
13. Jikon 而今 - Mie Prefecture
This cult status brew from Mie Prefecture is in extremely high demand and limited quantity and virtually impossible to find in retail shops. There are however, restaurants that carry Jikon. If at all possible, please try the unpasteurized unfiltered versions (there are also single pasteurized ones) when in season. Higher acidity, effervescence, and beautiful minerality. Their Junmai Daiginjo when paired with certain seafood (shellfish) is as good as a White Burgundy (Chablis Premiere Cru or better). The brewery also has another label called Takasago that should also be very good, but Jikon seems to be more sought after.
14. Nabeshima 鍋島 - Saga Prefecture
Nabeshima also has a strong cult following within Asia. Light, good flavored, and pretty easy to drink. In some ways they are also like a celebrity. Their lower polished Junmai sake are also very refreshing and enjoyable to drink, and worth tasting even if as a starter.
15. Toyobijin 東洋美人 - Yamaguchi Prefecture
I’ve had this sake once at Goyrukubo and it amazed me so much. If you ever get the chance, try their Junmai Daiginjo Ichibanmatoi 純米大吟醸 一番纏. The label may have changed, but this sake has excellent minerality and is super impressionable for taste. It is a great performer for the price on top of that, with plenty of elegance. It is a sake that beginners and advanced drinkers will appreciate, and sets a great tone to start off a nice meal. Some wine drinkers liken this to a fine White Burgundy Premiere Cru or better.
16. Harukasumi 春霞 - Akita Prefecture
This sake from Akita prefecture is very versatile and was recently incorporated into the beverage pairing program at L’Effervescence. The new batch (shinhu) unpasteurized releases have higher acidity and structure, but no one component of the sake overwhelms the other and does very well with various food and styles. If you ever get the chance to try some of their low temperature aged offerings at a restaurant, please do not miss the chance. They are also part of a collaborative effort called Next 5, or five regional breweries doing random rare projects to come up with unique next generation style sake and pushing boundaries.
ChuToroZuke is an avid enthusiast of Japanese cuisine and culture and remembers his first ever sukiyaki experience at the tender age of 6, particularly the magical combination
of dipping sukiyaki beef into raw egg and then chowing it down with a bowl of Japanese rice. However years later in adulthood, a passion ignited with a great explosion one evening 4 years ago, as a result of experiencing a bottle of sake with perfect otsumami and sushi at a favorite restaurant, that was so impactful and memorable. This lead him down a geeky journey of discovering sake as well as rediscovering food with sake. Suddently traveling to Tokyo and dining at various establishments (high end and low end) last few years became a whole lot more exciting, allowing this geek to deep dive and meet other fellow lovers of the beverage (and food of course).
It is with great pleasure and honor that he was invited to contribute to TokyoTableTrip, as a means of giving back to the community and help spread the word and love of sake, and to help promote sake in Japan from overseas.