Before I go – a few of my favorite things
By JOHN GAUNTNER
After precisely eight years, this is to be the final installment of the Nihonshu column. It has been extremely enjoyable write it over the years. The amount I have learned along the way has been nothing less than phenomenal — and it only got more interesting as time went on.
Let me leave you with a few of my favorites sake, sake pubs and retailers. Forget terminology, technology and analogy; no talk of koji, toji, yeast or rice. Culture, schmulture; history, schmistory.
Admittedly these choices are a tad adulterated with emotion, and who knows whether I could pick them out as favorites in a blind tasting (although I think I could). But over the years they have proved worthy of my unwavering adulation.
At the risk of being thought unimaginative, let me state right away that I am extremely fond of Juyondai (Yamagata). Then again, few are not. But don’t go above junmai ginjo or the character fades. The same could be said of wonderful Isojiman (Shizuoka); stay with the tokubetsu honjozo or junmai ginjo for maximum character.
Then there is Suminoe (Miyagi). The wonderfulness of this sake will most likely be intuitively appreciated, but though not everyone shares my fanaticism, I stand my ground. Fabulous Kotsutzumi of Hyogo is similar in its intuitively sensed goodness.
Kaiun (Shizuoka) is another brewer that can do no wrong. Everything from their lowly futsu-shu to their daiginjo are eminently enjoyable. Same goes for Kamoizumi of Hiroshima, but theirs is a meaty, earthy sake, and most of their products are also wonderful when warmed.
Speaking of warmed sake, if you are a fan of o-kan, my absolute favorite candidate is Shinkame (Saitama). And don’t be afraid to drop some cash on their daiginjo; it is one of the best sake for warming in existence.
Nanbu Bijin of Iwate is one of the best bargains in the country, and a sterling example of good Tohoku sake. Rihaku of Shimane has an excellent thread of distinction running through it, a pumpkin- laced aroma and a killer acidity. Despite the small size of these breweries, both of these sake are well distributed. Rikyubai of Osaka is settled and mellow, yet flavorful and aromatic. I have to admit that these three brewers have become friends of mine and I know their sake very well. But I recommend them without hesitation as my high opinion of their sake is shared by many sake lovers.
I was never much of a fan of Niigata nihonshu. While I respect the pristine work of art that such sake can be, and do recognize it as superb, I personally go for stuff with more backbone. I am definitely in the minority on this point, and if you are fond of such sake, look for Kirin (not the beer!) and Tsuru no Tomo. Among the big Niigata names, I suppose I like Hakkaisan best.
Over the years, I’ve become more fond of sake from western Japan, and Otemon (Fukuoka), Azuma Ichi (Saga) and Tenzan (Saga) are rich, well-crafted and flavorful representatives. Some harder-to-find names I enjoy include sake from the tiny Benkei brewery (Ishikawa), the minuscule Tokaizakari (Chiba) and Tsukuba (Ibaraki).
At the other end of the scale, my favorite large brewers are solid Kikumasamune, mellow Hakushika and funky Kenbishi. Three great mid-size brewers are the fantastic Masumi (Nagano), the finely wrought Urakasumi (Miyagi) and the lively, yet graceful, Dewazakura (Yamagata).
Ah, there is no end to this. The more I think about it, the more names I want to list. Please keep in mind that this is but a static shot of a moving picture.
OK, so where do you buy it? That’s not as subjective. Most good department stores, especially Shibuya Tokyu, Shinjuku Keio and Ikebukuro Seibu, are all well-stocked. Beyond that, Sakaya Kurihara, (03) 3408-5379, Suzuden, (03) 3351-1777, Aji no Machidaya, (03) 3389-4551, and Hasegawa Sakaten, (03) 3644-1756, are the best. Suffice to say that between these four there is more great sake than you could ever drink.
How much should we be paying? My personal rule of thumb is up to 5,000 yen for a 720-ml bottle, and up to 10,000 yen for a 1.8-liter bottle, although I find you can do very well at about half those prices. Going beyond them, we see the law of diminishing returns kick in with a vengeance.
What about Tokyo sake pubs? (Years of apologies to readers not in the Kanto area!) Lately, more and more good sake pubs are popping up all over, so it’s harder to nail down favorites. For discovering new brands, Akaoni, (03) 3410-9918, in Sangenjaya has always proven to be the best, albeit perhaps not as relaxed as most places. Sasagin, (03) 5454-3715, in Yoyogi Uehara is a great blend of user-friendliness, food and sake selection.
Sasashu, (03) 3971-9363, in Ikebukuro might be the most traditionally beautiful, and Fukube, (03) 3271-6065, in Nihonbashi is likely the most shitamachi. Sister shops Chihana (Yaesu), (03) 3245-1666, and Mushu (formerly in Awajicho, now moving to Ginza and reopening Nov. 1,  5537-1888) are the most modern and slick, and boast excellent sake selections and food. These are some of my favorite pubs. But there are so many more . . .
At the end of the day, it’s possible to read forever about sake, but a few sips will say much more than a thousand words. Tasting a wide range of sake is the best way to learn about it and, of course, to enjoy it. And, although there is better sake now than any other time in history, the sake industry is contracting. We must all do our part to help. Kampai.
Those that are interested in continuing to read about sake can sign up for my free monthly sake-related e-mail newsletter and visit www.sake-world.com (where you will also find more recommended sake, pubs and retail stores).