Review: Kibo Junmai Sake

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Canned beer is old news. Canned sake, now that’s something else.

Kibo, made in Japan and imported by Oregon’s SakeOne, is released in memory of the 2011 earthquake that devastated Japan and the Suisen Shuzo in which this sake is made. Rising from the rubble, Suisen Shuzo is now exporting Kibo (the name translates as “hope”) to the U.S. — its first ever product for our country.

The choice of a can is unique and intriguing; Kibo is designed for outdoor festivals and the like, for party-goers tired of the usual beer and wine options.

As for what’s inside that can, it’s a largely traditional example of Junmai sake, heavy with melon overtones, somewhat earthy and mushroomy as the palate expands, and lightly sweet on the finish. It’s pleasant enough for sipping while you’re watching Arctic Monkeys jam and you’re grooving with the masses, but Kibo doesn’t even pretend to offer the refinement of a more elegant sake. Totally worth 6 bucks.

15.5% abv.

B / $6 (180ml can) / sakeone.com

Book Review: Sake Confidential

sake confidentialTo say that sake is a poorly understood beverage in the U.S. is an understatement. Never mind understanding the various grades and styles of sake, how to drink it (hot or cold?), and what kind of food to drink it with, there’s the not-so-little matter that most imported sakes don’t have anything written in English on the label.

John Gauntner’s Sake Confidential can’t teach you Japanese, but it can give you everything you really need to know about sake in one slim tome. Just 175 spare pages in length, the book breaks sake down by topic; each chapter is a myth about sake that Gantner is prepared to debunk. Is cheap sake supposed to be drank warm and good sake cold? (Not necessarily.) Is non-junmai sake garbage? (Not necessarily.) Should you only drink sake out of one of those little ceramic cups? (Not necessarily.)

Gauntner’s world of sake is a complex and decidedly confusing place, and even in the end the writer confesses that there are no clear answers to anything in this industry. At the same time, the book works well as a primer for both novices and intermediate sake drinkers who want to know more about this unique rice product. While the book’s design — slim and tall like a pocket travel guide — makes little sense for a topic like this (and, in fact, makes it unfortunately difficult to comfortably read), Gauntner nonetheless does us all a much-needed service by digesting all of this material into one place — and inexpensively, too.

B+ / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]

Tasting Report: When Sake Met Cheese

Sake is traditionally thought of as a pairing for Japanese cuisine… but how about cheese? SakeOne put together a little sampler in conjunction with the Marin French Cheese Company (plus friends) — an amazing producer that’s all of 8 miles from my house here in Northern California.

We’ve reviewed most of these sakes before, so today I’m just looking at the concept of pairing rice wine with rich cheese. Here are some case-by-case thoughts on a quartet of duos.

Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo ($14) with Marin French Petite Breakfast Brie – This is an interesting combination and great first exploration, coming across a lot like the way that melon and parmesan cheese can match up swimmingly. The brie is beautiful alone, and the sweeter sake does work as nice foil to the umami in the cheese.

Momokawa Organic (Unfiltered) Nigori ($14) with Laura Chenel’s Chévre – Fresh, moist, and creamy, this slightly grainy cheese pairs nicely with the cloudy, more savory sake. Overall it’s less of a counterpoint though, and more of a happy companion with the cheese.

Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra Dry ($27) with Laura Chenel’s Ash-rinded Buchette – This very pungent cheese might have been a bit spoiled during shipment to me. That said, this sake is also more pungent than those preceding it here, balancing its melon notes with some deeper, funkier character — so I can see how the combo would work.

Yoshinogawa Winter Warrior Junmai Ginjo ($27) with Rogue River Blue Cheese – Sake + blue cheese? Another surprising winner. This recalls the first pairing — a little sweet meets salty/savory — but amps things up quite a bit. Winter Warrior is a lively and balanced sake on its own, but this is a wonderful example of how a big, punchy cheese can elevate a quality sake into new and exciting territory.

Review: Ty Ku Silver, Black, and Coconut Sake

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One of the bigger names in imported sakes (in addition to a panoply of other spirits like soju and other Asian-inspired liquors), Ty Ku hails from Nara, Japan, where it’s produced in iconic, triangular-base bottles.

Ty Ku produces four sakes (one flavored). Only the white bottling (Ty Ku’s highest-level sake) is not reviewed here. The three bottlings below are also available in a gift pack (pictured) of three 330ml bottles ($39).

Thoughts follow. (Prices are for individual 720ml bottles.)

Ty Ku Sake Junmai (Silver) – Slightly brooding on the nose, with more of a winter squash character to it. Modest honeydew notes emerge on the body, with a very gentle sweetness to it. Initially a touch jarring, it grows on you over time. Drink very cold. B- / $16

Ty Ku Sake Junmai Ginjo (Black) – Gentler, with notes of melon and coconut on the nose. More fruit, with cantaloupe and some pear character, emerges on the palate.  Quite fresh, it’s a classic, if simple, junmai ginjo. B+ / $22

Ty Ku Coconut Sake – A nigori (cloudy) sake produced at junmai quality and flavored with, of course, coconut. Pina colada on the nose, but tempered with melon notes on the body. It’s sweet, but not as sweet as you might expect, with the coconut notes coming off as rich and filling. The finish, however, gets a little mouth-coating after awhile, leaving one running for the water. C+ / $13

trytyku.com

Review: 4 Imported Sakes from SakeOne

WinterWarriorKOOregon-based SakeOne is America’s largest producer of sake, and it’s one of its biggest importers of Japanese sakes, too. Recently the company added two new imported sakes to its lineup. We tasted them both (plus two previously available expressions), and have some opinions to share.

Here are thoughts on the four new products, which should all have fairly broad, national distribution.

Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra Dry Sake – A dry style, with fresh melon and light almond notes on the nose. Some earthiness adds curiosity (particularly on the nose), but the fruit is solid, with a big cantelope finish. Refreshing and easy to drink, with plenty to explore. B / $30

SakeMoto Junmai Sake – A bit more rustic, with some bite on the back end that you don’t get in more refined sakes. Still, at this price you’re getting a surprising level of quality: mushroom layered with melon and some floral notes, with a fresh, honeydew-infused finish. B- / $11

Murai Family Nigori Genshu Sake – Undiluted (genshu) sake bottled at 19.9% alcohol. Unfiltered also, which makes it creamy and cloudy, an increasingly popular style. Big nose, bigger body. Melon meets roasted nuts, with a palate that features tapioca, sweet mango, and cotton candy. Easy to love. B+ / $25

Yoshinogawa Winter Warrior (pictured) – Nigata (snow based) style sake, this sake has perhaps the most fruit of the bunch, as well as the best balance. Tropical notes with melon, lightly floral aromatics, and a lightly oily body that is still refreshing and clean, this is my favorite sipper of the lineup. A- / $27

sakeone.com

Review: Iichiko Shochu

frasco_main_1Shochu is something we see so seldomly here at Drinkhacker that we don’t even have a category for it. (I’m putting it in the sake category for lack of a proper one.)

Shochu has many of the same flavor characteristics as sake, but it can be made from other starches than rice — namely barley, potatoes, or even chestnuts. The shochus reviewed here are all barley-based.

As with sake, the barley is polished until just a core remains, purifying the grain. It is fermented and mixed with a specific type of barley mold, then (unlike sake) distilled, typically just once, and can be . This raises the alcohol level to 25 to 30 proof, considerably higher than sake, while keeping that unmistakable melon character intact.

The two shochu bottlings below are from Iichiko, the best-selling shochu bottler in Japan. Thoughts follow.

Iichiko “Silhouette” Shochu – Polished to 60% of the original grain. A typical shochu, with modest, crisp melon on the nose. Underneath there’s fresh grain character — think white whiskey — but more of that melon on the finish along with a touch of dried herbal character. Nice and fresh, a solid example of what a simple shochu should be like. 50 proof. B+ / $23

Iichiko “Frasco” Shochu (pictured) – Polished to 50% of the original grain and produced with a more delicate and expensive method that I won’t try to explain here. This is a fruitier and slightly sweeter style of shochu, with a lasting finish that offers lots of melon but also pepper, and — late in the finish — neat butterscotch notes. Very silky and well-balanced, a lovely and elegant sipper. A / $70

iichiko.co.jp

Review: Hiro “Blue” Junmai Ginjo Sake

Hiro Red Blue sakeHiro is a Japanese sake brand that comes in two varieties — “Red” (Junmai) and “Blue” (Junmai Ginjo). We tasted the Blue variety

Very fresh on the nose, Hiro Blue offers big cantaloupe character. Some lemon peel notes on the finish, and a mild green character follows. Overall a modest body. Some vegetal character on the finish mars an otherwise fine little sake.

B+ / $35 / hirosake.com

Review: Four SakeOne Sakes

We’ve got a sake primer, courtesy of SakeOne and Momokawa, for you right here — and this week the Oregon-based sake empire sent us four samples for our consideration, particularly as cocktail ingredients. There’s a whole bunch of recipes involving these sakes available here. We won’t reprint them all but encourage you to pick up a bottle of one of the below — they’re very affordable — and experiment all you’d like. Just remember: Sake is at its best when it’s very fresh.

Comments below are based on the unadulterated stuff.

Momokawa Organic Medium Rich Junmai Ginjo Sake (re-reviewed) – A sake with a moderate body, quite a tart and sweet little number, rich with malty notes, melons, pears, and an easy earthiness. Quite drinkable, but the finish fades too quickly. 14.5% abv. A- / $13

SakeOne G “joy” Junmai Ginjo Genshu Sake – As much as I like the Organic, this sake is immediately bigger and bolder, which creates a stronger and rather immediate impression. Filled with big, stewed fruit character, it comes with a powerfully sour finish that is almost overwhelming. Likeable, but less easy-drinking than the Organic. 18% abv. B+ / $20

Moonstone Asian Pear Sake – The pear is right there on the nose, almost candy-like. That continues into the body, where you’ll find a Starburst-like sweetness that plays, not entirely harmoniously, with the melon tones of the sake underneath. 12% abv. C+ / $12

Moonstone Plum Sake – Lightly pink, very bright fruit on the nose. Drinking this you’d have no idea this was sake at all. The sweetness is reminiscent of a white zinfandel or a fruit-based wine, with a thick, syrupy finish reminiscent of an (admittedly better-tasting) cough syrup. Not my favorite of this bunch. 7% abv. C- / $10

sakeone.com

Tasting Report: Momokawa Sake

When he stopped by with six bottles of domestic rice wine, I asked Dewey Weddington, VP of Marketing for Momokawa, why anyone would want to drink an American sake. The answer was not exactly surprising: Because it tastes good… just like American red wine is as good as French, just as American beer is as good as German. And in the case of Momokawa’s sake, that’s because, Weddington says, it uses the exactly same equipment and production methods as they do in Japan. But making sake here offers one huge advantage: Cost. By producing domestically, Momokawa saves on shipping and taxes, big time: The same bottles produced in Japan would cost $25 to $30 once they arrived on shelves here, instead of the $12 or $13 for which these domestic versions retail — and which are some of the country’s best-selling sakes.

Momokawa, part of the SakeOne empire, is produced in humble Forest Grove, Oregon, a rural community about an hour outside of Portland and just north of Oregon’s increasingly popular wine country. Why make sake here, I wondered? It’s all about the water, says Weddington: When SakeOne — which also imports a dozen or so brands of sake in addition to the ones it makes — was looking for a place to build its brewery, it tested the water in a variety of regions of the country. Forest Grove had what it was looking for: No iron and no manganese in the water supply, both of which muck with sake production in unpredictable (and usually funky) ways.

Momokawa’s sakes are all junmai ginjo varieties, and all are produced using California “Calrose” rice. Only the yeasts and filtration methods differ, and the two organic (green bottle) sakes produced use organic strains of rice. We sampled all six. Thoughts on each follow.

Momokawa Silver Dry Crisp Sake – Aged 4 to 6 months. A classic sake style, very crisp and light in body. Easygoing, with good melon character. A- /$12

Momokawa Ruby Lightly Sweet Sake – Aged about 3 months, this has touches of sweetness (as the name suggests), and a good balance. The mouthfeel is round and the finish is long, offering some earth tones. B+ / $12

Momokawa Diamond Medium Dry Sake – A blend of Silver and Ruby. It offers a mix of the two styles, but they just don’t come together in the right way for me. This is my least favorite Momokawa offering, though admittedly I liked it more today — when fresh from the brewery — than the last time I reviewed it. B / $12

Momokawa Organic Medium Rich Sake – Green bottle = organic. This sake is produced in the same style as Ruby, but the ultimate impact is much different. It’s got a bigger and bolder attack, with a really robust flavor that offers better balance. Definitely worth the extra buck. A- / $13

Momokawa Organic Creamy Nigori Sake – The first of two nigori, or cloudy, sakes reviewed, this sake and Pearl (below) are identical except for the organic rice used. Big melon character works well with the slightly stronger (16% alcohol vs. about 14% for the four sakes above) alcohol content, giving this sake a good complexity to match its strong back. A- / $13

Momokawa Pearl Creamy Nigori Sake – At 18% alcohol, it’s a bit of a bruiser, and has more heat to it than I’d like. Big and intense, with a tart finish, and it plays with a lot of sweetness and chewy fruit in the body. This style of milky white sake is looked down upon in Japan, but it’s the top selling type of sake in the States. Curious. B / $12

sakeone.com

Review: Joto Sake’s Chikurin and Yuki No Bosha Sake

Joto Sake is a relatively new but already massive sake importer here in the U.S. (it was founded by the man behind Ciao Bella Gelato), and recently the company sent a couple of its bottlings for us check out.

Chikurin Fukamari Junmai comes from the only 100% estate bottled sake made in Japan. The brewery dates back to 1867. This sake is rich and pungent, featuring big melon notes and a bigger finish. More melons, earth, and evergreen character in the finale — but the conclusion comes off as a bit rough on the palate. B / $34

Yuki No Bosha Nigori Junmai Ginjo is an unfiltered sake: Lots of sediment can be seen settled at the bottom of the bottle. The drinker is intended to shake it before pouring. Very bright on the nose, this sake is tart and citrus-inflected, with a lot of earthiness, too. Melon comes on strong in the finish. Tricky and complicated, it lacks both smoothness and balance. B- / $36

jotosake.com