Today’s sake is a particularly special one, and one that I’m quite excited to share with you. But in order to explain why it’s special, we need some cultural context.
In the traditional Japanese calendar, the seasons are fixed to slightly different dates than most westerners are used to. The first full season of the year is Spring, which is February 5-May 6. Then comes Summer, May 7-August 8; Fall, August 9-November 7; and of course Winter, November 8-February 4. Since spring is the first full season, it is the symbolic beginning of the year (see the Lunar New Year celebrated across east and southeast Asia celebrated around the end of January-beginning of Februrary).
Winter is, like in many other traditions, the long season of dark. Traditionally, houses were locked up tight against the cold and farm work was left for the warmer seasons. Then, when spring came it was time to open up to the fresh air and let all the winter dark out. This is symbolically celebrated in the festival of Setsubun.
Setsubun is on February 3, and the day is marked by people dressing up as Oni, or monstrous ogres, and entering people’s houses. The residents, especially the children, defend their homes by throwing roasted soybeans (a symbol of prosperity) at the oni and chanting “Oni was soto, fuku wa uchi!” (Devils out, good luck in!). The new cycle of seasons is then brought in by driving out the bad luck and dark of winter, and calling in the bright good luck of spring.
The next day, which marks the beginning of Spring (with Feb 5 being the first full day on the calendar), is called Risshun, “Spring arises.”
This cycle also intricately tied to the history of sake, since winter is when the brewing season was set. Since all those rice farmers were sitting around doing nothing all winter, an Edo period edict fixed the sake brewing season to winter and encouraged farm workers to take up the task.
So making sake was winter work, and thus when spring came and it was time for those farmers to go back to their fields, the sake would all be done. Naturally, since sake is historically a very spiritually significant drink, it would be crazy to not mark this connection between the cycle of seasons and the making of sake: and thus we have Risshun Asa Shibori sake.
The name literally means “Pressed on the morning of the rising of Spring,” and that’s what it literally is. Early in the morning on February 4th, sakagura all around the country press their first batch of sake after the winter season is over, bottle it, and ship it to be drunk that day. Many of them (including Gokyo makers Sakurai Shuzo) invite important people related to this business (distributors, rice farmers, local officials, etc.) to help bottle and label the sake. There is a shinto blessing of the sake, and everyone takes home some to help drink in the new year of seasons. The blessed sake is there to help bring prosperity and good luck to all involved in the making and selling of sake. Liquor store owners who are invited take reservations from customers to have some on stock for those who missed the ceremony, but there is no large scale distribution of this particular pressing.
And so this sake is, indeed, special. Both as a cultural marker, and as a drink itself. It’s the year’s first pressing for most kura, and this a big deal.
Now, to the sake itself! It’s a junmai ginjo nama genshu. It’s big and fresh, still mildly carbonated from the fermentation but not “fizzy.” Like all Gokyo sake, it’s imminently pleasant to drink, with a smooth balance of junmai umami and big ginjo fruitiness. This one has very pleasant melon and peach notes with a mildly sour aftertaste that is quite more-ish. I have no illusions that anyone out there will just stumble on a bottle of this, but if next spring you get a chance to have some Risshun Asa Shibori, do try it. It’s a valuable part of the sake tradition.