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Sake Spotlight – Henry Sidel Speaks to the "Seven Spearmen"

"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.

sake spotlight may 2006This month I get great pleasure in welcoming another sake soul to the Newsletter. Henry Sidel, a professional in the food and beverage industry since 1986, launched Joto Sake LLC in 2004 and takes rank with a handful of sake-only importers, who are changing the sake landscape in the US for the better. Joto Sake has a brilliant collection of sakes from some amazing breweries. Currently, True Sake carries four of Henry's brews but this is just a starting point. I have asked Henry to comment on one of these four and he has chosen a very solid Junmai from Shiga Prefecture.

Take it away Henry:

Shichi Hon Yari 
The Seven Spearsmen
Made at the Tomita Shuzou, Kinomoto, Shiga-ken (north side of lake Biwa, not far from Maibara or Nagahama (bitchin' onsen))
Sakamai: Tamazakae, from Shiga-ken
Seimaibuai: 60%
Nihonshudo: +4
Sando: 1.5

Although history is a major part of many sakes and one that is all too often overlooked, Shichi Hon Yari is a brand that is truly steeped in history. Founded in the 1540's it is one of the oldest breweries in Japan. It is also one of the smallest, producing just over 5000 cases (270 koku) per year. We get about 500 cases for the United States. The company is now managed by the 14th generation son, Yasunobu, but his mother and sister are very much involved. The Shichi Hon Yari, the Seven Spearsmen, were the main lieutenants of Hideyoshi and became legends in Japanese history in the battle of Shizugatake, which was fought outside the town where this sake is made. In the Battle of Shizugatake, Hideyoshi defeated the Nobunaga's. One battle later, he defeated them for good and united Japan for the first time in its history: but it was really the battle of Shizugatake that made his dominance inevitable.During the Edo Period, when the Tomita's started shipping their sake to Tokyo (the new capital), like other breweries, they needed a brand name for their sake: until then, it was just the local sake, From Kinomoto, made by the Tomita's. They then named their sake Shichi Hon Yari after these great warriors who won this battle just outside their town. Now, when I show this sake to Japanese, they say "wow, that's a really historical name." And I say, "yeah, but the brewery was founded BEFORE the battle!"

Fast forward some three or four hundred years later to the early 1900's when a then-young, poor artist named Rosanjin was still making his way through Japan, exchanging his craftsmanship for food and lodging. Somehow, he ended up in the town of Kinomoto and stayed with the Tomita's, becoming friends with the great grandfather of today's managing director. In exchange for the Tomita's hospitality, he created a wood-block etching of the characters for Shichi Hon Yari. This still hangs above the entrance to the brewery and these kanji grace every bottle of Shichi Hon Yari. Rosanjin went on to become one of the most revered Japanese artists, considered the Da Vinci of Japan. He was a potter, craftsman and even a cook, making pottery for his restaurant, where he served hand crafted and delivered foods.

This Junmai is made with Tamazakae rice, which as far as my research has told me is only grown in Shiga-ken. The Tamazakae used in this is grown locally in cooperation with local farmers. Although not certified organic, it is grown without fertilizers or chemicals. The first thing you'll find about this sake is the wonderful aroma. There's no getting around it, it's just mushroomy. Kinoki, shitake, porcini, who knows what kind, it's just got this deep, earthy mushroomy nose on it that neither I nor anyone else I've tried on it has found any other description for. But when you drink it, it has some real fruitiness to it. It's also made with very soft water, which contributes to a wonderfully creamy, melting texture. It doesn't have a long, lingering finish. It's actually pretty quick, which means, hey, you gotta have some more!

I like it for many reasons, many of them "philosophical" or "conceptual." First, wine people have a widely known reference point of Old World vs New World (Europe vs America, Australia, etc.). It is not widely known, nor crystalized in the same way, but in sake, there is "old style" vs. "modern" or what people would call "ginjo- poi" or "ginjo style." Ginjo style is what's evolved over the past 40 or 50 years and is best described as fruity, aromatic and complex. Wine drinkers love it. "Old School" or "Old Style" sake is much more austere, in my mind more balanced and a bit, well, crustier. It's hard to describe exactly, but having tasted many Japanese (especially older sushi chefs) on it, they often remark, "oh, this is like the sake my dad drank, or my grandfather.

This isn't like the ginjo style sake so many people make today." I also love it because it demonstrates a side of sake not talked about that much--structure. It is loose, open and expansive, whereas other sakes can be tighter, leaner and more defined. John Gauntner talks about structure and it's a cool side of sake that takes a little time understanding but then becomes very fun to see. Lastly, one of my favorite things about all sake is that often the nose and the palette are on two different planets. Here you get earthy mushroomy notes on the nose and then fruity notes on the palate. Just one of the great joys of sake.

Thank you Henry! Before I give my thoughts on this brew I love the fact that Henry uses the word "Mushroomy," a term that I have been using for several years, but at great costs to my ego as my Queen's English-speaking friends have reminded me countless times that the word does not exist. Yes it does! And here is liquid proof! (Also this brew has some similar qualities to Gokyo Junmai, which is our SECRET WORD sake of the month – see below!)

We at True Sake selected this sake out of three offerings from the brewery because it had a certain style and solidity. It is very "Junmai" in feeling and flavor, and drinks very wide in scope. Shichi Hon Yari Junmai also embraces several temperature zones. Out of the fridge it is clean and earthy. Room temperature sees the brew really opening up, allowing a wide array of richness to flow on a silky fluid. And lightly warmed this Junmai gets very earthy, with deep layers of elements that look great on a forest floor.

I was also pleased to see Henry throw down the "aroma challenge" on this sake, which he feels has lots of mushroom nose elements. Gladly, I feel that there is a sweetness to the scent that pulls a different aroma profile, and that is why I love people's opinions on brews, as there is no wrong or right. It's all about you! Herewith is my store review for SHY Junmai:

Shichi Hon Yari 
"The Seven Spearsmen"
Shiga Prefecture.
SMV: +4 Acidity: 1.5
This semi-dry Junmai is made by a brewery that consists of four people. The nose is a mix of sweet rice, butterscotch, coffee, and ü earthy elements. Think rich and layered, as this semi-thick sake is round and full-bodied. Amazingly it drinks clean and smooth for all of the deep Junmai flavors that hide veins of caramel and toffee tones. A great Junmai to explore a brew that is "all night long" drinkable.
WORD: Slick
WINE: Merlot/Sauvignon blanc
BEER: Ambers
FOODS: Anything off of the grill, anything on a stick, anything with grease.

Again, thank You Henry for the review and if there is room left in the tasting, please do not miss the "Importer's Feedback Tasting" on May 9th. Henry and team True Sake will be reviewing 6 or Henry's sakes in a very intimate and educational environment. And by all means please check out Henry's website, and keep this man in business! (True Sake can special order any of Henry's sakes by the case!)

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