Sake - Cowboy Yamahai!
So there I was in Niigata City three days after the horrible and extremely tragic earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown in March this year. Obviously it was a difficult time for everybody, but there was also a sense of let's keep moving on. Let's try to get back to a sense of normalcy. Let's keep functioning. So we tried.
A dear sake friend and a friend of True Sake in a big way, Mr. Kazuyuki Yoshizaki invited me out for dinner to meet "a very special person." K-san is a wonderfully spontaneous and exciting guy who loves all things sake. He designs sake labels and has been helping many small breweries in Japan export their wares to the US. He is a man of many talents. (He also has hand carried more sake to the US than anybody that I have ever met - we think his record is over 30 bottles in his luggage. Yes he is a madman, and that's why we love him. You may have met him last year at Sake Day 2010 when he was pouring some really great boutique brewery sakes and showing off his amazing sake label designs.)
So when K-san said that he wanted to introduce me to a "special person" I was quite intrigued. That evening as I was walking from the hotel, I still noticed the calm and collective depression of people that I passed. It was extremely difficult to get one's mind off of what had happened several days before as the reminders were everywhere - incredibly sad images in newspapers and on TV - groups of kids asking for donations for those greatly impacted - and the looks on people's faces when they recognized somebody they knew and had not spoken to since the tragedy - the same shaking of heads in disbelief the same hands to the mouth in an "Oh my god"- like fashion. Basically the air was sad! And I really wasn't in the mood to be happy, but I am glad that I ventured out to meet this special person.
I met K-san in front of a small izakaya and standing with him was a gentleman who was introduced as "One of the new young talents in Niigata." His name was Shiokawa Kazuhiro, and he is the owner and head brewer for the Shiokawa Brewery in Niigata. His brewery is extremely small in terms of production, and he makes roughly 14-17 shikomi each season. (A shikomi is basically a brewing vat of sake - I won't bore you with the actual quantity - so think in terms of 14 fermentations. That's not a lot at all.)
We sat for dinner and started drinking his wares, which he brought along. We tasted some Ginjos and if I recall a Daiginjo, but what stole the show was a Yamahai Junmai Ginjo that drank so big but elegant, so bold but so smooth, so unique, but oh so friendly. At one point I stood and shook his hand for making such a great sake. I think he was pleased. I know that I was. And incredibly, we momentarily forgot the tragedy that continued to unfold on the other coast.
Niigata sake as we have come to generalize is colloquially called clean and dry sake that is made to emphasize a quick finish - flavor first then gone. So this beefy Yamahai was intriguing for me, as it didn't have the characteristics of typical Niigata sake, but yet it wasn't also like an Ishikawa-ken massive and moody Yamahai. In a word it was different. Different feeling, different flavor, and different personality altogether. And that is when I said "Man, I wish I could sell this to my customers."
Now, perhaps we had been drinking too much, or perhaps because of the amazing experience that we all felt (for almost three minutes of terrifying earth movement three days earlier and the 2,000 aftershocks that we experienced - some as aggressive as 6.4mag) a very funny thing happened to me. I felt reckless, and I said, "Screw the system I want you to send me cases directly to True Sake. Screw the government and its ridiculous three tier system, screw the importers, screw the distributors, screw everybody!" Screw the damn system and let me share this brilliant sake with True Sake's customers. And the idea was hatched.
Right there at the table I made my first order for the Yamahai Junmai Ginjo. They were going to send the first case by mail. I felt giddy. I felt a little like an outlaw. I felt like a cowboy. So I said, "This is going to be a Cowboy Yamahai." And the name stuck! Both of the guys were laughing and saying "Cowboy Yamahai - Sugoi!!" We were having a blast thinking about the concept of just making a sake and sending it to somebody who wanted it without all of the rules and regulations and bullshit. Cowboy Yamahai! (On a side note, K-san later told me about Japan's fascination with the whole Cowboy lore and image, so the idea made them both extremely proud and stoked.)
It was a good night.
But eventually reality sets in. The cost to ship a case of sake by mail is extravagant. It's totally cost prohibitive. Even enlarging the order for the economic scales angle wasn't an option. Cowboy Yamahai was a dream. A renegade dream. So it fell to the back of my mind. Shoot!
Last month Kazuyuki Yoshizaki-san came to SF to help yet another small brewer break into the US market. If you recall we had a small tasting for the brewery called Katafune from Niigata, and their sakes were very well received. When I saw K-san he had a huge "crap eating" grin on his face and I asked, "What?" he then went into his bottomless suitcase and pulled out a series of sake boxes. "Look" he said, "It's Cowboy Yamahai!" And by God it was. There were three different Cowboy Yamahai images on each box and their subsequent labels. Remember Kazuyuki is a label designer and he was totally enamored with the idea of Cowboy Yamahai. I was looking in disbelief at three different very Japanese images of cowboys and their horses. Ha! They were so funny, and looked pretty damn cool.
K-san wanted me to write a review for the Cowboy Yamahai, and as I knew that I was going to my Great Grandfather's dude ranch in Wyoming later in the summer I said that the tasting must take place in a corral around horses and real cowboys. He loved the idea. So I did! I took two bottles to Saddlestring, Wyoming and tasted the sakes at different temperatures and used different sized glasses per usual. And of course I tried to capture the perfect picture of the sakes in a "Cowboy" setting. And yes, I was nipped by a very large beast in the process.
Herewith is my review for the "Cowboy Yamahai" from Shiokawa Brewery
Shiokawa "Cowboy Yamahai"
From Niigata Prefecture. Yamahai Junmai Ginjo. SMV: +3.5 Acidity: 1.9
The nose on this traditionally made sake, which uses a newer Niigata rice vareital called Koshitanrei is a wonderful collection of straw, leather, wood, wet wool, ice cream, cocoa, and caramel aromas. Talk about a smooth operator, who so happens to operate heavy machinery of flavors and feelings. This brew is a rodeo of flavors from start to finish, and as the sake warms in the glass, or is warmed to begin with, it has an entirely different set of rich tones. Lasso in flavors such as dark chocolate, blackberry, cooked vanilla, smores, sweet nuts and caramel. And take note of the stampede of acidity play that brings out a vast umami element and produces a sake with a long rich tail. Capture the flavor of the Wild Wild East in this rich and frisky Yamahai that is both complex and smoothly accommodating, and extremely food friendly. WORD: Frisky WINE: Deep Reds/Rich Whites BEER: Stouts FOODS:Anything a Cowboy would eat!
The good news is that you will be able to taste the Cowboy Yamahai at this year's Sake Day Celebration called a "Toast To Recovery." And you will be able to meet K-san, who will be bringing other brewers and other sakes that are not available in the US. And word has it that "Cowboy Yamahai" may be picked up by one of our importing companies, so you may not have to ride off into the sunset without ever tasting this unique Yamahai. Yeehaw!