July 2007

Sake Spotlight - David Cheek Speaks To Sawanoi

Posted by Beau Timken in 2007, July, Newsletter, Sake Spotlight

Basically I was told to introduce David as a "sake drinker." And that's it! But, that's a little unfair, as he has knocked out a great review for one of my favorite brews. David is a top-tier alumnus of the True Sake Tasting Events. He has attended more tastings than just about any other sake soul. And we are always glad to have him. I could go further and call him a powerful "casual" chef and super creative guy, but let's just keep it simple and call him a "sake drinker." Herewith is David Cheek's Spotlight on Sawanoi's Kioke Junmai:

SawanoiSAKE STOOP REVIEW- SAWANOI KIOKE JIKOMI IROHA SAKEI have to be honest up front. I love this sake. When I first tasted this elegant junmai, it lulled me with its fruity sweetness up front, then gave a little kick on the way down to a soft landing. If you like bold, complex. and full-bodied sake this is the one for you. It hits me where I live.This is one of the sakes I very much enjoy sharing with friends or neighbors on my stoop, to catch some sun at the end of the day (or week). We frequently hang out and try a variety of sakes once or twice a week. My friends keep saying they are not very "sake savvy" but have sampled quite a few and are able to pick out subtleties in the flavors. They also really enjoy it. Today is our lucky day. We're drinking Sawanoi.


This sake is brewed kimoto style, made the way all sake was once made and fermented in cedar barrels. Kimoto literally means "original yeast starter." Started in the 1700's, brewers using this method mash up yeast starter with bamboo poles. Mushing the yeast starter tightens the mixture and removes oxygen so that unwanted bacteria cannot easily survive and lactic acid is naturally created. There is an artistry and craftsmanship to this fine brew, which gives it a funky edge and long flavor length. This is where old school got it right. Since its also fermented in cedar barrels instead of your standard issue enamel lined, stainless steel tanks, you get citrus and woody flavors that aren't really undertones but hidden flavors that give this sake a hide and seek quality.

Upon opening the bottle, the aroma is a puff of floral. I pour glasses all around. My friend Jess immediately says "this sake pretends its going to be sweet and then disappears into an apple and banana taste." My neighbor Michael said he gets a sweet grassy impression. "Its sweeter at the beginning and then gives you a little kick in the pants- but doesn't really taste like alcohol." Other comments were it was like a strand with a lot of sub-tastes. It has a citrussy cleansnap with velvety undertones. We all agree it's a very classy sake with a myriad of flavors. Everyone wants to try another glass to discern the different flavors they couldn't pick up the first time around. This is a unique quality of this sake. Its like a painting That has many different colors that make up this beautiful image. With every sip you taste a different color than you did before.

As I always drink Sawanoi chilled, it was suggested to me to try it at room temperature. So I took a bottle down to my local pub, which I do on occasion, to check it out. It was amazing how the taste is transformed by temperature! The kick at the back end jumps to the front seat. The sweetness is a bit more subtle and sits a little more to the back. The flavor is big and robust. But to me, the depth of the taste is different. Its like two pictures taken of the same thing but from different angles. We decide to try a little experiment. We put the sake on ice and let it chill slowly. Then have a glass at different temperatures. It really took us by surprise how these wonderful flavors do a dance up and down on the palate as it chills. The volume or tone of the sake seemed a little louder at room temperature. As it chills the volume goes down but the depth gets bigger. It seems the flavors are the same but move to different places. By the time we're down to our last glass the bottle is completely chilled. It was really cool how this sake takes you to a place and tells you its story with just a little change in temperature.

This sake is the gift that keeps on giving. It pairs really well with fish and pork and I frequently use it in several sauces. I also enjoy it with deserts, particularly if there is chocolate involved. Sawanoi is a sake that will keep surprising you every time. It will take you on a little journey and back again. I love this sake. It hits me where I live. I hope it hits you where you live too.

Thank you so much Mr. Cheek!

I enjoy this brew on so many different levels (stoops) as well. Firstly, it is a throw-back attempt at making sake in a traditional method. Why? Why does this brewery and many others try to go back in time? The effort is so great, the task is so difficult, and the failures far outweigh the successes - so why? Because the result is glorious - a triumph - a perfect union of success in accomplishing the very difficult and the making of a really tasty sake. This is made all the more impressive as I have tasted similar efforts from other kuras, who want to try to tackle the beast of hard work and unpredictability. In many cases they fail and I mean fail badly!

Of course there are several "non traditional" elements to this brew and that is the second reason why I enjoy it. This brew is pretty highly polished/milled compared to the sakes that used to see the insides of these wooden brewing vats. Thus, one benefit is that it does taste great at several temps as it is more than a Junmai. It drinks like a Ginjo when chilled and of course like a Junmai when at room temperature.

When I visited Sawanoi last Fall, I brought them a bottle of their sake - back from America - back from the long road that sake travels. They were so excited to taste this "traveled" brew that they gave me a bottle of the same sake, but it was a Nama Genshu! They made a limited release - for local customers - that was huge in fruitiness and fun. Full-bodied and pretty darn sweet, with a hint of sizzle! Quite frankly I prefer the pasteurized version. Here is the store review for this banquet of flavors:

Sawanoi "Fountain of Tokyo"
Tokyo Prefecture.
Kimoto Junmai.
SMV: -1 Acidity: 2.1
This traditional old method sake was fermented in a cedar tank. Consider it a new version of old-school sake, with a gentle nose made up of dry cedar, celery, and pepper. A tremendously elegant sake with tons of character but in a very mild presentation. There are flavors galore such as white pepper, cinnamon, and chestnuts but they all stay forward as this brew has no tail! Perhaps it is the stellar balance of this sake, or just a new twist on an ancient brew.
WORD: Elegant
WINE: Complex reds/peppery whites
BEER: Woody ales
FOODS: Smoked fish, creamed fish, grilled fare.

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