Twice a year, Yamaguchi sakagura and several gourmet Japanese restaurants near Tokuyama station in Shunan host the Guruguru Yamaguchi no Sake event.
For a 7000 yen ticket, you get a name tag and the right to visit 5 restaurants, each of which hosts 1 or 2 different sake brewers for a tasting and pairing experience.
I joined for the first time on April 19 out of pure accident: I went to Espoa Yamada, a sake shop near the station, looking for Abu no Tsuru, and the owner told me I could try it at this event the very next day. I felt the hand of serendipity, and dove right in.
I’ll be honest, I was not prepared for the night. I was thinking it was a sake tasting, with guidance and perhaps a chance to talk with kura workers. What it was, though, was a gourmet night on the town. Members were dressed to the nines, and some of the very best (and classiest) Japanese restaurants offered their most innovative, and rare, dishes. Which I…could not eat. I’m sorry. Jellied octopus eggs and parboiled baby fish just aren’t something I call food. I was able to down some of the cooked fish dishes (which, in all fairness, were amazing) but I focused mostly on the sake.
And oh, what sake there was. All of Yamaguchi’s major players were there: Dassai, Toyobijin, Gokkyou…the list goes on.
Each brewery offered two or three sakes, making for…a lot. I had 14 different ones, and I missed one shop (Dassai and Gokkyou…I just couldn’t hit them all).
I was trying to be serious, making sure I took it slow and savored the aromas and flavors of each sake. I took copious notes and drank lots of water to keep myself sharp, and I feel like I actually succeeded in breaking through to a new level in tasting. I could identify particular points in most of the sakes, and I had a chance to actually discuss the differences with brewery workers (and a couple of Toji) to zero in on judgement.
So here are a few highlights!
I started at a local traditional izakaya, Densuke, with sakes from Miyoshi Abu no Tsuru and Nakajimaya.
Abu no Tsuru is a very new kura (and also a very old one). It is a label that went out of business in 1984, and has been revived through the work of Ryutaro Miyoshi, the last owner’s grandson, and the master of Sumikawa Shuzo’s Toyobijin label. The sake is making waves for the narrative (the old phoenix story) and the striking design of the label/advertising. Miyoshi returned to sake from the interior design world, so he has an eye for visual appeal in addition to his family’s sake making history.
The simply named “Black” is a new brew, set to release in Autumn. It’s currently limited to a few bottles of nama, which is what I tried. It was a solid nama ginjo. Sweet and fruity, with a limited aftertaste and very mild aroma. Refreshing, simple, OK.
Green, their standard offering, is much more complex. It has a mild banana topnote with an umami-rich aftertaste. I found it much more pleasing than the relatively standard nama Black.
Nakajimaya, I have to say, was MUCH more interesting in the glass.
They had two sakes on offer as well. A nama genshu and their Kanenaka Gekikarakuchi. The nama genshu was of course highly sweet, but it had an unusual, very mild, anise-like top note with a rich, round mouth feel. It wasn’t at all the kind of fresh, apple-y taste I’ve come to expect from a nama genshu.
The real show-stopper for me, though, was the Gekikarakuchi. The name means “super dry,” so I was expecting something almost astringent. That wasn’t what I got, though. This was a very profound, nutty drink, with a dry sherry aftertaste and an extremely smooth mouth-feel. It was a yellow-gold color that makes me feel like perhaps this was an aged koshu? but I didn’t get the details. I’m kicking myself for that.
My next stops were Toyobjin and Gangi (three of each). I’m going to let those slide, because everyone knows Gangi and Toyobijin these days, and I want to talk about some lesser known ones.
My last stop was at a local Ikesu (live-fish stock) restaurant called Fujiyoshi.
The staff wore kimonos and the place felt like walking into a stylish shrine. My old batman t-shirt did not really fit in…but there was sake in there, so I persevered.
It was hard to judge the aroma of these because the glasses had a fishy smell (Perhaps because of the enormous live tank of fish in the lobby?) but the flavors were hard-hitting.
Let’s start with Harada, my local-est brew.
The Origarami, a type of nigori sake bottled with the lees and absorbing umami from them, had a very rich, cake-like sweetness. The aftertaste had vanilla and caramel notes, very lightly, and was quite pleasant. It wasn’t cloyingly sweet like most nigoris I’ve had.
The Tokubetsu Junmai Saito no Shizuku also had that caramel note, along with a deeper, full bodied sweetness reminiscent of plums. It was heavier, with a stronger alcohol aftertaste. The Saito no Shizuku in the name refers to the local Yamaguchi sake rice, used instead of the much more common Yamada Nishiki.
But my favorite sakes of the evening came from Ube city’s Nagayama Honka and their label Taka.
The Taka Muroka Nama was lively and fresh, almost tasting carbonated but not enough to warrant the name sparkling. It had a mild rice aftertaste and was very refreshing. It was a good nama, among the best of any I’ve had so far.
The Nojun, however, was a beast. It had a heavy, rich flavor with touches of molasses, and a mildly sour aftertaste. The umami was strong, as well, and overall it was a drink I would leave for after meals, for leisurely sipping and savoring. A great, great sake, and one I can’t stop thinking about.
The truly amazing thing about this sake is, it’s only got a mill rate of 80%. That’s right, it’s basically using unpolished rice. The recent focus on ginjo and daiginjo, with Dassai taking the limit to 23%, has pulled attention to mill rates and light, fresh sakes. This is a bold challenge to that thinking, showing that rice doesn’t need to be completely milled away to offer incredible sake.