September 2009

Sake Spotlight - Rob Mathews Goes 2 For The Price of None!

Posted by Beau Timken in 2009, Newsletter, Sake Spotlight, September
"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.

I'm glad to say that this month's Sake Spotlight was a true challenge! One of my favorite customers entered the store on the wrong - or in this case the very right day - when I was feeling frisky and impish! (Did I just type that?) Let's just say that I was in a goofy mood when Rob Mathews walked in and I said are you ready to write a Sake Spotlight? He agreed, but almost wavered when I said "BUT WAIT!" I wanted to test Rob as per how sakes test us! So I gave Rob two sakes from two different prefectures made with two different rice types and made in two different manufacturing methods - but with the exact same SMV and Acidity levels. And the point is? Well, my point in principal is that SMV and Acidity mean a lot and can mean nothing at all - they are a benchmark or a handhold grip to understanding a brew, but they can also mean nothing!

Rob Mathews lives in Silicon Valley and works in high-tech engineering and marketing. We met at a food and sake pairing that I led. Evidently I impressed him with a killer pairing of truffled mac and cheese with a nigori and some recommendations for izakayas in Tokyo. Herewith is Rob's story about two sakes that should or could be considered almost the same in certain capacities, but are actually quite different!

Sake Spotlight - Chikurin vs. Kokuryu

I keep sake in my Vinoteque. Don't get the wrong idea -- mostly I keep vino in there -- but over the past few years, sake poked its nose into the tent. Let me explain... or alternatively, you can skip down to the sake tasting notes.

Wine came first for me. I gave it a 35-year head start. After a few years of reading and taking wine classes, in 1976, a friend of mine and I went to the inaugural meeting of a wine-tasting group. That night, he met his wife-to-be. I met several people who are close friends to this day. That tasting was the birth of the Wine Group With No Name. We still taste, drink, make, drink, age, and drink wine together.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, the Japanese had been making sake for hundreds of years or so. I didn't care. Great wine from Napa was cheap and easily available. Great wine from France and Germany was affordable. My friends and I spent our alcohol tolerance on wine. (OK, and on cognac and single malts.)

Five or six years ago, I started traveling to Japan on business two or three times a year. I had a few sakes with dinners. My Japanese friends gave me sake as gifts. Applying my vast wine experience, I tried to make sense of them, but sampling them one at a time wasn't helping.

So about two years ago, I decided to start to educate myself about sake. I read books on sake. Four of us went to a food and sake pairing led by our editor-in-chief, Beau Timken. I started going to izakayas in Tokyo with my Japanese business friends. We started ordering two or three sakes at once so that we could compare them.

Before, I couldn't even spell kikizake-shi; now, having experienced several dozen sakes, I am one. Or probably not, but I'm learning.

I visited True Sake a week ago to reload the sake stash in my Vinoteque. Beau selected two brews for my friends and me to compare, on the condition that I write about them. Now I'm taking up space in Beau's newsletter.

Naturally, I wanted to compare the sakes carefully and clinically. Accordingly, I brought them to a combined winemaking event and casual get-together. First, some of us pressed our half-fermented Pinot Grigio, which is almost rosé-colored because... oh, sorry, back to sake. Then more people arrived for a casual Friday dinner. During the ensuing chaos of dinner and wine, I held forth on sake with whoever wanted to listen and a few people who didn't.

(Start here to skip the history and get on with the main event.)

We compared two junmai ginjos, Kokuryu "Black Dragon" and Chikurin "Bamboo Forest" Karoyaka. Both are +3/1.4, dated May '09. Their similarities mostly end there.

First, we tasted them without food. We observed our usual strict tasting protocol of trying to influence each other as much as possible.

The consensus favorite without food was the Chikurin. It looks a touch yellow. It offers gigantic, complex smells and flavors of nuts, spices, citrus, and stone fruit. Mulled wine notes, even mince-pie- spice notes. It feels fairly viscous, seems a little sweet, and has a super-long, complex finish.

In comparison, the Kokuryu looks nearly clear. It has a delicate peach/ cherry nose, touches of nuts in the flavors, and seems sharper and more alcoholic. Surprisingly, it is also fairly full- bodied, but less than the Chikurin. It also seems a little sweet, and has a fairly long finish. Generally, the nose led us to expect a "cleaner" style, so the flavors surprised us. It's nice, but finished round one in second place.

For dinner, we had the sort of sakana that Beau talks about: BBQ'd sausage, corn on the cob with butter, spinach salad with feta... nothing even vaguely Japanese. The seven or eight wines were mostly big reds. Beau didn't pick the sakes for these foods. Could these two stand up to this onslaught?

Breaded, fried eggplant, anyone? Sign me up, and I'll have Chikurin with it. The eggplant is fairly mild, letting the intense Chikurin act almost like a sauce. I rate the combo WWC, Works World Class in Beau notation.

Next time you have grilled sausage, try the Kokuryu. It counterbalances the meat in a palate-cleansing kind of way. Several of us liked its touch of sweetness and fruit with sausage and Dijon mustard. Several of us also rated this combo WWC.

Since I just used WWC twice, I'll need to add a higher ranking to Beau's system for the last combo. I suggest WOW, works outrageously well.

Try St. André cheese with Chikurin. Sip, cheese, sip, slosh in your mouth. The triple-cream lays down a mild, unctuous base for the sake's complex flavors. Everyone who tried it loved it. Bleu and goat cheese worked well, too, but not to WOW level. Hold out for St. André.

Thankfully we discovered this combo at the end of evening. Otherwise, several of us might be dead from clogged arteries by now.

In closing, both sakes make excellent choices in the right situation. Surprisingly, both of them drink more like +0/1.4 than +3/1.4, so expect a touch of sweetness. Pick the Chikurin if you're sharing sake with a wine drinker. Pick the Kokuryu if you want a more mainstream sake. Or better yet, pick both and compare them.

Ahhhhhh very tricky Rob - combining the Sake Spotlight with the Sake Challenge - well done! Thank you for showing the vast differences between two brews that should be in the same ballpark, but as you point out are really two separate beasts all together. I will add my reviews for these two brews here and will say that they both are superb sakes - absolutely superb! I will also recommend that if you would like to challenge yourself, by all means come in and we will offer you a big selection of sakes with the same SMV and Acidity for you to attack.

Chikurin Karoyaka "Bamboo Forest"
From Okayama Prefecture.
Junmai Ginjo.
SMV: +3 Acidity: 1.4
This Ginjo is actually milled to 50% Dai Ginjo levels, and has a gentle aroma profile with hints of plum, yellow bell pepper, grass, and sunflowers. Think silky when first tasting this extremely soft Ginjo that is so clean it is almost watery. There are taste treasures of apricot, watermelon, white grapes, and a hint of cherries in this semi-thick "like water" brew. The slippery semi-dry flow is perfect for those looking to find a gentle sake void of harsh booziness.
WORD: Slippery
WINE: Soft reds/silky whites
BEER: Clean ales
FOODS: Sushi, sashimi, grilled white fish, creamy risotto.
$18/300ml $35/720ml

Kokuryu "Black Dragon"
From Fukui Prefecture.
Junmai Ginjo.
SMV: +3 Acidity: 1.4
A tantalizing nose filled with hints of roasted coffee, mint, salt water taffy, tropical flowers, grapes and honey. This extremely well balanced sake achieves the near impossible of being both expansive in character and clean in feeling. There hints of fruits, minerals, and caramel but also peek-a-boo layers of grains and umami. Almost sweet and savory at once with a dry quick finish.
WORD: Big Clean
WINE: Merlot/Pinot Noir/Sauvignon Blanc
BEER: Blond Ales/Hefeweizen
FOODS: Anything Grilled!

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