January 2007

Sake Spotlight - John Gaunter Looks At The Kubota Experience

Posted by admin in 2007, January, Newsletter, Sake Spotlight

"Sake Spotlight" is a unique section within the Newsletter that takes a closer look at specific sakes that may be purchased at True Sake. I approach different professionals within the industry to give their perspectives and insights to the how, what and why's for very special sakes. These insiders are importers, brewers, authors, sake sommeliers, or just enthusiasts who will take your knowledge base a little further. What I like about this segment is that often my review is quite different than that of the guest professional's adding to the point that there is no right or wrong when discussing your opinion about sake.

This month's Spotlight features the high priest of sake John Gauntner, who takes a peek at one of the more "talked about" breweries in Japan. Asahi Shuzu from Niigata Prefecture is better known by their "branded name" Kubota, and it represents one of "those" kind of breweries that everybody in Japan knows about - for good reason!

So take it away John:

"Few sake brands in Japan can equal the combination of ruthless branding power and true quality of Kubota. Perhaps the quintessential representative of Niigata sake, their reputation is all but unparalleled in the world of sake.The brand name Kubota was actually only created in 1985, with the original brand name being Asahiyama, and Kubota being a "yago" or nickname for the company used by locals around the time of its inception back in 1830. Their timing was good, as at that time (in the early to mid 80s), a combination of the "ginjo boom" and a nationwide frenzy over Niigata sake were both taking root. Kubota rode this, fueled no doubt with diligent marketing efforts coupled with pristine quality, so that within a scant ten years, Kubota grew to unprecedented heights of popularity that it still enjoys today.The company (Asahi Shuzo) is the largest in Niigata, which is the third largest sake-producing region in Japan, and one of the largest kura in all of eastern Japan. They have long been innovative, and were one of the first kura to commit to going from wooden tanks to ceramic lined steel tanks back in 1929, way ahead of the national curve. This doubtlessly helped create the light, dry, very refined style that is Kubota, if not Niigata sake in general.

And it is not as if their success or penchant for quality is something new, either. In 1932 and 1933, they won first place among all sake in the country in the national new sake tasting competition; then in 1938 they won both first place *and* second place in the same vaunted competition. Few kura in the country can claim a feat equaling this.

Back in October of 2004, a brutal earthquake hit Niigata, and Kubota was one of 40 breweries hit hard. Tens of thousands of full bottles awaiting shipment were lost or damaged. "I can't imagine the total damage," said a company rep in a newspaper article. "It's no exaggeration to say this is our company's biggest crisis since its foundation in 1830. We're going to do our best to overcome this difficult situation." But overcome it they did, even employing some clever marketing like a "muroka nama genshu" (unpasteurized, unfiltered, undiluted) sake. Such a product had never been offered by the company, and was hailed as being in honor of 20 years of Kubota. Needless to say, it sold out in a jiffy (it was good, that's for sure), providing much-needed revenues and stability, I imagine. But it was wonderfully indicative of the great leadership that has obviously always been behind that company.

There are about six grades of Kubota, depending on the season. Rather than go by simply the grade, such as ginjo-shu or daiginjo- shu, they all have a product name that is somewhat indicative of the level - assuming that is you can speak and read the language.

The three most well distributed and representative of Kubota are Hyaku-ju, Sen-ju and Man-ju. The "-ju" in these three means "congratulatory" or "long life," and is the same character as the su- of sushi, for what it's worth. Hyaku means 100, Sen means 1000, and Man means 10,000. Put them together and you can see how they are fairly easy to figure out. For the record, Hyakuju is a honjozo, Senju is a Tokubetsu Honjozo, and Manju is a junmai daiginjo.

By far the most popular of these is Kubota Manju. It has come to represent fine sake for so many Japanese everywhere. If you know nothing about sake, order the Kubota Manju. You will be safe, and no one will smirk or giggle. That is what it seems so many people are doing. But in truth, you will never go wrong with this product, so that conventional thinking holds up well.

Kubota Manju is incredibly clean, crisp, and elegant. It is indeed light and refined, but not at the expense of either flavor or aroma. Not by any stretch. Distribution is tightly controlled and it is not cheap, but what it is and what it represents almost dictates it must be tried"

Great read John! On the retail front we did see a shortage of Kubota product after the 2004 earthquake (that was one river that I would have liked to drink out of). But they quickly caught back up on supply and we have been able to lower the prices on these sakes. We carry a serious collection of sakes from Asahi-Shuzo. We carry the Kubota "Big Three" Manju, Hekiju, and Senju as well as their "Ultra Dai Ginjos" in the form of Tokugetsu and Senshin both of which have been milled/polished to an extraordinary 28% figure where 72% of each grain of rice has been discarded.

Kubota Senju 
From Niigata Prefecture.
Honjozo.
SMV: +6 Acidity: 1.2
The nose is a party of dried fruit, minerals, nutmeg, ripe plum, and banana cream pie. Oooooh the Kubota legend brings forth a honjozo that belts around flavors such as caramel, cotton candy and cocoa in a very dry and of course clean package. There is a bit of back door acidity and an unmistakable aftertaste that revisits the cotton candy elements. Clean and clear this honjozo gives one a good impression of a layered sake that works better at or near room temperature.
WORD: Clean
WINE: Dry reds/crisp whites
BEERS: Dry ales
FOODS: Sake pup fare, salty and savory, grilled everything!
$25/720ml
Kubota Hekijyu 
From Niigata Prefecture 1830.
Yamahai Junmai Dai Ginjo. SMV: +3 Acidity 1.3
This Dai Ginjo, which we call a Ginjo in the store, is the perfect example of a Niigata style sake known as tanrei karakuchi or light and dry. Hekijyu has a nutmeg and pear nose. This Ginjo is as smooth and clean as they come, and subtle flavors of ripe pears and grapes pervade the middle mouth. The ending is anything but, as you will not remember swallowing. This is an ultra-popular sake in Japan and should be tasted by all sake connoisseurs.
WORD: Stellar
WINE: Dry crisp whites
BEER: Light Ales
FOODS: Seafood pate, ankimo, cold lobster, seared albacore, and white fish sashimi.
$50/720ml
Kubota Manju 
From Niigata Prefecture 1830.
Junmai Dai Ginjo.
SMV: +2 Acidity 1.2
This is one of if not the most sought after sakes in Japan. Manju is sophisticated and yet very drinkable, perhaps too drinkable as the phantom finish leaves you wondering if you swallowed or not. The nose is a clever balance of honeysuckle and tuberose. The first sip spells the strength in clarity of this sake. Subtle flavors of fuji apple and tart pear dance through the cleanest mouth in the sake world.
WORD: Divine
WINE: Light Sauvignon Blancs
BEER: Light Ales
FOODS: Shellfish, light seafood salad, sushi/sashimi
$75/720ml
Tokugetsu "Harvest Moon"
Niigata Prefecture.
Ultra Junmai Dai Ginjo
SMV: +2 Acidity: 1.3
This sake is the "step above" from the makers of Manju and Hekiju (Kubota). Each grain of rice has been milled to 28% and the nose is filled with hints of apricot, flower blossoms, salt water and koji rice. Perhaps one of the "cleanest" like water sakes on the planet. A phantom sake where you do not remember swallowing. The watery feeling and taste is amazing, and deep within there is a layer of fruit tones. It is a seasonal sake in that they only release this sake in the Fall, when it's gone you will kick yourself for another year.
WORD: Crystal Clean
WINE: Soft reds/most whites
BEER: Ales
FOODS: Oysters, sashimi, shellfish.
$95/720ml
Senshin - "Sophisticated Mind" 
Niigata Prefecture 1830.
Junmai Dai Ginjo.
SMV: +2
This Dai Ginjo has been milled to 28%. It takes 3 days and nights to gently polish the rice grains to reach the incredibly small (2mm) pearly beads. Senshin is then aged "quietly" for over a year. Thus, we are talking about one of - if not - the most pampered sakes in Japan. The nose is laced with young cantaloupe and honey. This supreme sake borders more on a traditional flavor profile that is not afraid to use acidity to balance out the cantaloupe and citrus flavors. There are definite peppery flavors at work and the over-all mouth is multi-layered and delightful.
WORD: Supreme
WINE: Zins/Zesty Whites
BEER: Peppery Pilsners
FOODS: Light fare with attitude!
$80/720ml

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