May 2010

Sake & Miwa: NAMA SHY

Posted by Beau Timken in 2010, May, Newsletter
I have a little secret I'd like to share with you. I've always been a little shy of nam-zake (unpasteurized sake). For all these years I've preferred the taste of pasteurized over unpasteurized sake. However, I recently have found myself drinking more namas and enjoying them quite a bit more. I even had an epiphany of sorts.

When I travel to Japan, which is home for me, I tried to bring back a nama or two. I recently went to Japan and bought a bottle of Tenju Junmai Ginjo Nama. I've had their Junmai and Junmai Daiginjo (under the name of Chokaisan) few times and always liked them. So I thought, "Why not give it a try?"

Taking advice from my husband-to-be, I waited a day to let my mind and palate recover from jetleg. The following evening, we carefully studied the label and opened the bottle. It poured so beautifully and had a very elegant fruity aroma. When we took a sip we both said "WOW" at the same time. It was by far the best nama I've had so far this year, and I have to say, the best sake for that matter. Moments like this are rare, so I try to honor every sip of every sake I taste. I want to keep a totally open mind and clear palate to all things sake.

For the past several years, more nama-zakes are being introduced to this country. I believe we had a record high of seasonal nama imported last year. Being at the store all these years, I've noticed more and more people are specifically looking for this style of sake.

So what is the taste difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized sake? My simplest reply is this: "It is like the difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized orange juice." Nama orange juice has sharp, vivid flavors; each element (sweetness, acidity, tanginess, aroma, etc) is easier to detect and understand. Pasteurized has a bit more of a soft, round feel. I think the same could be said about sake.

So, why have I been nama-shy? While I do enjoy round, subtle layers of pasteurized sake, it is not the "vividness" of the namazake I that enjoy less. It's actually a very specific flavor I find in some nama that I can live without....... "wax". Yes, it reminds me of when I was little and would lick the bottom end of a candle from a birthday cake.

Although being nama-shy, I taste every nama-zake that comes into the store and beyond! I must admit there are a couple that I like and drink occasionally. Over the past few years I have come across several namas my palette did not say "wax!" to.

So, in honor of my little epiphany, I decided to dig through some old notes of a namazake. I wanted to see if I could find one that I taste from year to year and how it compared. Well, I managed to find notes on Otokoyama Yukishibare, a seasonal nama. This sake is imported by JPSA, which brought its first namazake to the U.S. back in 1996! I spoke to the importer Kazu-san and learned that in Japan, this particular sake doesn't circulate beyond Hokkaido, where the brewery resides. (We are lucky to have it.)

Here is a synopsis of my notes:


Condition: Open for a day.
Glass Nose: Cantaloupe juice, slightly caramelized cooked banana, a hint of bubble gum.
Feel & Taste: Super light texture, almost non-existent (transparent). Flavors of Pione grape (Kyoho grape) and coconut water. Feel tropical and fun. No "nama"-ness.
2 days later: there is still fruit tone. Cantaloupe juice in the taste.


Condition: Opened for 12 hours (Beau had it first.)
Glass Nose: Pasty cream (milk and egg) with hidden fruitiness.
Feel & Taste: First sip is Pione grape. Grassy and botanical. Acidity is so subtle that one has to look for it. Compared to a year before, the sake is simpler and slight drier. Light, smooth and soft: water-like quality.
2nd day: the aroma of grape is still intact yet slight bitterness has emerged. Cream like aroma is gone.


Condition: Just opened
Glass Nose: Blend of melon and milk.
Feel & Taste: Melon tone is carried over to the taste and with a hint of saltiness. It is like have a slice of prosciutto over melon. Texture is Light and shimmering, water-like easy flow. Ends with slight "kire" (quick/dry finish) yet without any acidity or astringency. No "namaness" of wax.


Condition: Just opened
Glass Nose: Banana and cream, melon and vanilla.
Feel & Taste: Honeydew! Pione grape (again!) with a hint of "horonigasa" (subtle bitterness) as in the oil of citrus skin. Touch of umami.


Condition: Open for a day
Glass Nose: Bubble gum.
Feel & Taste: Combination of bubble gum and young banana with a hint of unsweetened cream. Faint umami as after taste. Pretty dry. (I wish there was a touch of sweetness.)

One unique aspect of seasonal nama is its taste variance from year to year. While pasteurized sake (including single pasteurized) aim for a consistency, seasonal nama can be quite different from year to year--I refuse to use the term "vintage" here. Sometimes, I am nicely surprised or unexpectedly disappointed by the difference. Otokoyama Yukishibare is one of namas that I found no wax taste and seems quite consistent. I like it quite bit. After all, I am not-so nama shy.

Domo Arigato for reading this.


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