“Ask Beau” – “What did the 1% milled sake taste like?”
So this question came from our Instagram account and I don’t know the person’s name, but I liked the question and I never in a million years thought that I would answer something like this.
In Yamagata Prefecture there is a brewery called Tatenokawa, and before last week I had never heard of it. They only make Junmai Daiginjo sake. Why? I’m glad that you asked. From what I could surmise the brewery has two of their own rice milling machines and the toji loves playing with polished rice of all varietals. This is cool and I know many makers who do the same. But these guys are crazy town! They have taken milling to the end of the line. They have taken the act of polishing rice to the absolute limits, and may folks ask why? What is at the heart of a grain of rice? Is there a heart? Is there a soul of a grain of rice? Is there an absolute sweet spot that represents the best of the best of the best of the center of a grain of rice? If there is then I tasted it last week.
The sake market is very mixed when it comes to milling and over-milling sake brewing rice. Many will say that you absolutely can mill away the impurities to the point where the little remaining dot of rice is absolutely perfect and void of anything but the soul of the rice. Others say hogwash and feel that over milling is a disease and the result is actually impure. They feel that there is no perfect spot within the rice that is worth milling to such an extreme. I am swayed by both arguments.
First of all milling or polishing rice changed the sake industry forever. It was probably the largest jump in the advancement of sake ever! And of course it started a nuclear arms race of sorts for breweries to see how far they could go or in this case how low they could go. But they went! And kept going. In my brief tenure in the sake industry milling went from the 35% down to 33% then 28% which was at the time the end all be all. Then came 17% to my doorstep by a brewer in Hyogo who had heard about the store and wanted me to sell his 17% then his 14%. Then along came the Super 9% then 8 then 7. Get the picture?
Well a few months back I read somewhere about a 1% sake. No way! Why? Are they crazy? How much rice at 1% does it take to make an ishobin? Stupid questions, because I never thought that I would be introduced to a sake where 99% of each grain of rice is milled away. And then the export director of Tatenokawa came to the store with several other sakes (including an amazing Daiginjo Nigori Ume-shu that looked like pound water) he said quote unquote, “I have dreamed about visiting True Sake, and this is a dream come true.” Awesome! I loved his energy. Then he said, “How would you like to taste a sake that has been milled to 1%?” I said No! Just joking.
I have never opened a sealed bottle of sake that was half full before. As I mentioned this to Masa Togami he said that the sake is so precious that he broke a 720ml bottle into three 300ml bottles for his trip. He said that a 720ml bottle would sell for $1,000 easily in Japan. He valued our half filled bottle at about $350, and joked that our pours in our tasting glasses were about $50 each. Thank God Mei and Shin were with me so we could all be a part of this sake history. So what did a 1% milled sake taste like? Good question!
My immediate impression of the 1%er was that it was incredibly soft. It was more than silky it was almost slippery soft. Then the hot tail finished in the back of my throat. I tasted a minerality that was subtle but present. It tasted good. But I think I just actually tasted the fact that it was 1%. Seriously, this fact alone superseded my taste buds and palate. I literally tasted a story. I tasted a sake that was on a milling machine for 2 ½ months. Come on! I tasted the final frontiers of sake. I tasted the end (unless of course somebody goes for ½%) and it tasted like sake. And maybe that's the point. It tasted like sake.