Tokyo Sake: Natsuzake Tasting @ Honoka

When the temperate days of spring turn to the humid monsoon days of early summer, brewers around the country wrap up production for the year and enjoy a well deserved break. By now, the first batches of new spring sake have already been released, and the rest is settling & aging in tanks, so the market goes a bit quiet as everyone waits expectantly for the release of the year’s fully matured sake in October. But fear not, there is still plenty of great sake to look forward to during the summer season. It’s around this of year that pretty bottles of lively and intensely fruity summer namazake begin to appear in the refrigerators of good sakaya. These sake tend to be light, refreshing and, due to lower alcohol levels, eminently quaffable – perfect for quelling the meanest summer thirst.

Keen to keep abreast with the seasonal offerings, I made a reservation at my preferred venue for a serious kikizake: Honoka. The beauty of this place is not just the owner’s outstanding selection, meticulously detailed sake menu and inspired recommendations; it’s also the ability to order a broad range of sake in half-sized tasting glasses – thus avoiding any irreparable damage to one’s wallet or constitution.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Before any visit I make sure to first pop into Kagataya, the specialist jizake (small kura production) sakaya, in nearby Nishi-Koyama, to glean information on the latest releases. Currently, Kagataya are devoting 4 full fridges to natsu namazake releases – it really is a glory to behold. But you need to get in quick, especially with the more desirable brands, as limited production numbers means that once they have sold their stock – that’s it.

So after a quick perusal and chat with the friendly staff, I made a mental note of labels I wanted to try, gathered up my purchase (Kameizumi’s Junmaiginjou Namazake CEL-24) and made haste to my awaiting seat at Honoka.This evening I would be supping in the fine company of the erudite Asomaniac along with fellow contributor to Chow’s Japan boards, Ninisix – the Yoda of sushi. I must admit to being a little apprehensive about introducing my cherished Honoka to diners of such refined tastes, but after one look at the four page sake menu, Asomaniacs eyes lit up with boyish glee. Phew!

With a sashimi-moriawase already pre-ordered, food and the daily specials were momentarily ignored so that we could get on with the most pressing issue at hand: deciding what to drink. Sake can be ordered by tokkuri (¥850), 120cc glass (¥550), 90cc glass (¥450), or a 60cc tasting glass (¥300). There are also six sets of tasting flights (¥850): an osusume set; karaguchi, full-bodied and sharp tasting sets; a flight focusing on a particular rice variety; and the kimagure set which lets you select your own choice of three from the menu. Having quite particular preferences, we took full advantage of the latter option.

Our first flight was a comparison of two ‘wine like’ sakes and – as he knows my preferences better than anyone – a recommendation from Takisawa-san.

(Left) Sogga Pere et Fils “Neuf” Junmaiginjou Nama Genshu (Miyama 59%) – Nagano.
ソガペールエフィス 「NEUF」純米吟醸 生原酒 (美山錦 59%).

Brewed by Obuse Winery, the Sogga is named after the #9 yeast that gives it its upfront and fruity bouquet. Although its flavour is initially fairly sweet, this is balanced out by a big wallop of acidity (酸度 2.5!!!) and some gentle astringency. Crisp, fruity, and dry in the finish – this sake doesn’t just look like white wine, it thinks it’s white wine too!

(Middle) Hououbiden “Wine Cell” Junmaiginjou Muroka Nakazume (A-Grade Yamada Nishiki 55%) – Tochigi.
鳳凰美田『WINE CELL』純米吟醸酒 無濾過生詰 (特A 山田錦 55%).

Superb! The crisp ginka fragrance that emanates from the glass comes courteous of the French wine yeast used during fermentation. It’s a wonderfully bright and finely textured sake with a seemly effervescent mouth feel. They’ve got the balance of sweetness and acidity spot on here – a much more successful attempt at a white wine-like sake than the Sogga.

(Right) Ikki Junmaiginjou Namashu Jikakumi (Gohyakumangoku 55% – kouji: Yamada Nishiki 55%) – Mie.
一喜 純米吟醸生酒 直汲み (五百万石 55% – 米麹: 山田錦 55%).

Takisawa-san’s pick, and Asomaniac’s favourite of the set. I haven’t paid much attention to sake from Chiba, but this sub-label of Kinoenemasamune has certainly inspired me to try more. It has the youthful and fruity flavour one would expect from a summer namazake, but with much more finesse than many of its brash counterparts.

On a recent visit I was fortunate enough to try a rare release from Tabika – so rare in fact that it was only distributed to two restaurants. I was given strict instructions that it was not to be photographed or even blogged about, but Takisawa-san allowed me to snap a photo as a memento, which I will share here – albeit heavy censored. Sadly, it was already sold out, so Takisawa-san suggested a tasting of three sake from the same brewer: Hoshigawa Shuzo, in Mie.

(L) Tabika Omachi Junmaiginjou Muroka (Omachi 50%) – Mie.
田光 雄町純米吟醸 無濾過 (雄町 50%).

The Tabika Omachi was definitely the stand out for me, and reaffirms my opinion that Omachi is the true king of sake rice.

(M) Soushun Tokubetsu Junmai Muroka Nakadori Nama Genshu (Miyama Nishiki 55%) – Mie.
早春 特別純米 無濾過 中取り 生原酒 (美山錦 55%).

(R) Tabika Natsunama Junmaiginjou Nakadori Fukuroshibori (Omachi 50%) – Mie.
田光 夏生 純米吟醸 中取り袋搾り 無濾過生原酒 (雄町 50%).

Fukuroshibori is the labour intensive method of pressing sake in bags rather than using machinery. The resulting sake is referred to as “shizukuzake“.

Nakadori: The middle part of the pressing of a batch of sake. This usually implies using a fune (traditional box press) rather than a machine. Nakadori (also known as nakakumi) is considered the most prized portion of pressed sake.

(L) Orouku Choukaraguchi Jikakumi Muroka Nama Genshu (Kakemai: Yamada Nishiki – Kouji: Gohyakumangoku 60%) – Shimane.
王禄 超辛純米 直汲 無濾過生原酒(掛米:富山-五百万石 – 米麹:兵庫-山田錦 60%).

I’m a big fan of this Shimane label, so its arrival was preceded by much effusive praise from me. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to impress my companions I failed to note that I had ordered the extra dry, unfiltered and undiluted junmai – a complete mismatch to the refined Nabeshima. This gusty little Orouku would have been best sampled alongside the drier sake of the next round.

(M) Shinomine “Rokumaru” Junmaiginjou Muroka Nama Genshu (Oyama Nishiki 60%) – Nara.
篠峯「ろくまる」純米吟醸 無濾過 生酒 (雄山錦 60%).

This was my first experience of Oyama Nishiki, a new sakamai variety bred from a cross between “Hidahomare” and “Akita-sake No.33″. It was developed in 1986 at the Toyama Agricultural Research Center to create a variety of early maturing sake rice with a large white (starch) core – the ideal characteristics of rice used to create daiginjou grade sake.

(R) Nabeshima Junmaiginjou “Passion Label” Akaiwa Omachi Namashu (Omachi 50%) – Saga.
鍋島 純米吟醸 赤磐雄町 生酒 (雄町 50%).

“Passion Label” is a fitting epithet for this sublime Nabeshima sake. It’s a kura can do little wrong in my opinion. The union of the toji Naoki Iimori’s craftmanship and Omachi rice is truly a match made in sake heaven.

(L) Hitakami “Yasuke” Houjunkaraguchi Junmaiginjou (Miyagi Kuranohana 50%) – Miyagi.
日高見 弥助芳醇辛口純米吟醸 (宮城県産 蔵の華 50%).

This sake was developed over the course of three years in order to exactly match the subtle flavours of sushi. It’s clean, dry taste and subtle fragrance are designed specifically to complement delicate sweet white meat, shrimp, squid, and shellfish.

There is a cute story behind its name: from the Meiji to early Showa era, sushi was referred to as yasuke in the world of the geisha. Its roots go back to performances of the popular kabuki drama “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” (義経千本桜). Defeated in the Genpei battle, one of the heroes of the story, a Taira General called Koremori, escaped and fled to take settler in a Tsurube shop where we worked under the alias “Yasuke.” As geisha were connoisseurs of both kabuki and in jokes, it became common practice to refer to sushi as yasuke in the floating world.

(M) Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmaiginjou (Omachi 50%) – Aichi.
醸し人九平次 純米吟醸 (雄町 50%).

A celebration of nashi pear notes, crisp acidity, anchored by the soft umami flavour of Omachi rice, this is an accomplished and immensely satisfying drop. Many will be familiar with their wildly popular “Eau du Desir” label, also a junmaiginjou with a seimaibuai of 50%, which is made with Yamada Nishiki. While the Omachi version lacks the soft, round texture of its coveted sibling, I personally find it just as desirable.

(R) Shirataki “Doshin” +15 Junmai Binhiire (Menkoina 65%) – Akita.
白瀑「ど辛」+15 純米酒 瓶火入(めんこいな錦 65%).

As it says in the name, this Akita sake delivers a big “thump”. Super dry and plenty of impact, it’s definitely one for the “I only drink karaguchi” fan club. It’s intense, but in no way rough, and bottle pasteurisation has probably helped to soften the blow of its punchy flavour. Crisp, refreshing with the mellow flavour of rice in the background – a great sake to pair with food.

(L) Ippakusuisei Arabashiri Junmaiginjou Muroka Nama Genshu (Miyama Nishiki 50%) – Akita.
一白水成 あらばしり 純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒 (美山錦 50% -秋田県酵母).

Ippakusuisei is a label created 7 years ago by the young president, and 16th generation head of Fukurokuju Shuzo, Koei Watanabe. It has quickly earned popularity for its distinctively crisp, clean and aromatic sake.

The “arabashiri” in the name of this jungin means the “rough first run” – the first 1/3 of a batch of sake that seeps out of a fune press before any pressure has been applied. This first trickle is then collected, bottled – without any dilution or pasteurisation – and immediately sent out to market as arabashiri sake. As is characteristic of this style, the Ippakusuisei had a slightly cloudy appearance, an upfront fragrance and a lively, assertive flavour. While I’ve enjoyed Ippakusuisei’s sake on many occasions, I was not so enamoured with this one: too rough and astringent for my tastes.

(M) Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmaiginjou (Omachi 50%) – The same as above.

(L) Kameizumi Junmaiginjou CEL-24 Nama Genshu (Hattan Nishiki 50%) – Kochi.
亀泉 純米吟醸 生原酒 CEL-24 (八反錦 50%).

I’ve affectionately dubbed this the “flower bomb”. CEL-24 is one crazy, mixed up Franken-yeast, but boy does it create smile inducing aromas. This Kameizumi jungin is an explosion of sweet florals, pear and ripe melon – lush, vivacious and enormously fun to drink.

The CEL-24 yeast which gives the sake its over the top fragrance, was developed by the Kochi Prefecture Industrial Centre. The features of this idiosyncratic little yeast are its exaggerated fragrance and high acidity. One look at its -12 nihonshudo will have ardent karaguchi lovers aghast – but don’t let the saccharine scent fool you – its sweetness is a bit of olfactory trickery. The high acidity levels even out the flavour into a pleasant balance of sweet and sour. Of course, at first your brain will register sweetness, but this dissipates as the full-bodied flavour spreads across your palate, leaving an apple cider-like acidity in its wake.

Many friends have sneered in derision at my favourite little flower bomb, but oh how their tune changes after the first sip. Curled lips evaporate into childish grins, and I see them struggling to reconcile how something so seemly wrong could be oh so right. Quite frankly only a completely joyless person would fail to be charmed by this quirky little sake.

There was, of course, food involved in our night at Honoka, but you can read my previous review for more details. It suffices to say that it was good: the garlic miso-yaki being a highlight; the uni – a monumental fail. Sadly, our three hour seating was over all too soon. We left considerably more wobbly than we arrived, but elated and determined to find an excuse to return. So while I still haven’t quite worked out what my excuse is, I’ve made a booking for next week, nonetheless.

A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a tiny, busy izakaya, that seats only 8 people at the counter. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend…or booking elsewhere.

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