September 2005

Sparkling Sakes

Posted by Beau Timken in 2005, Newsletter, September

Several years ago in Japan, I tasted a sparkling sake. At the time I was saying to my dinner partner who happens to be an owner of a sake brewery that I thought sparkling sakes were sort of like wine coolers – a novelty to get people to drink sake. Well, I wasn't far off base, as I will touch upon in a second. The first sip of Ichinokura's "Suzune" was an eye-opening experience. I was completely taken aback by the refreshingly light and flavorful sake. What impressed me most was the fact that it was very "Champagne" like but in an honest to goodness sake sense. It was so unique that I found myself trying as many sparkling sakes as possible on that trip and subsequent visits. I immediately approached my exporting contacts in Japan and urged them to start sending sparkling sakes to the US, because I felt that they would speak to a large portion of established and new sake drinkers.

Although "Suzune" has not made it to the US (too limited in production), several sparkling sakes have hit our shores and more are on the way. In a small way, I take pride in developing this unique sake experience in the US. That said I cannot take credit for the first Sparkling Sake to land in the US, but it is so expensive that very few people have ever tried the "Formula Nippon" from Okunomatsu. This 720ml gorgeous bottle in a wooden box sells for $115 and was created to replace French Champagnes in the winner's circle at Formula One racing events in Japan. The good people at Okunomatsu thought "Why should we use a French product to celebrate races in Japan?" and they produced a semi-sweet and ricey sparkling sake that is lightly effervescent and very well balanced.

But on my urging more affordable Sparkling Sakes can be found in restaurants around the US. True Sake currently carries 4 sparkling sakes and will offer two more by year's end. Is this then the future of sake in America? Hardly! Sparkling sakes are being produced in Japan to court a new type of alcohol drinker to the sake table. They are specifically being made to target women and younger drinkers, who consider sake their father's drink. These sakes are all a little sweeter than your average sake (even Nigori's), and they are lower in alcohol content as well, with an average between 6-9% as opposed to the typical 15-17% for regular sakes. They are all made in mysterious and secret fashion, and most brewers will point out how their competitors make fake sparkling sake by adding carbonation. Bottom line is that they lightly pasteurize the sakes, which keeps the fermentation process going and results in naturally occurring carbonic dioxides (bubbles). It is fun to experiment with carbonic acids in sake, and I am certain that every type of sake drinker can find a sparkling sake that would speak to them in specific times and occasions.

Currently True Sake carries the following:

  • Harushika "Tokimeki" -- SMV: -80 Acidity 5.5 -- $14/300ml
  • Poochi Poochi -- SMV: -20 Acidity: 1.5 -- $12/300ml
  • Gekkeikan "Zipang" -- SMV: -14 -- $8/280ml
  • Okunomatsu Formula Nippon -- SMV: -25 Acidity: 2.5 -- $115/720ml

By the end of the year I expect to add three more Sparkling Sakes from Sudo Honke (makers of Sato No Homare – the oldest brewery in the world founded in 1147), Gokyo (amazing Sparkling Sake with incredible balance and flavor), and "Moon Rabbit" from Umenoyado (I pull a lot of watermelon from this). I figure if the oldest active brewery in Japan is making Sparkling Sake then it's time has come! (Note: These must be shipped overnight for those outside of the Bay Area.)

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