August 2010

Sake & Miwa: One Sake. Nine different ways.

Posted by Beau Timken in 2010, August, Newsletter, Sake & Miwa
Occasionally at the store, customers will ask us which one glass is best for sake. My short answer is usually the one you feel good holding and sipping out of, but overall it's the one that makes the sake taste best to you. This is a really good question, so I thought it deserved a long answer.

Thanks to Beau, it was suggested to me to use different drinking vessels when I started to take sake notes seriously. Using two or three drinking vessels, even for a casual evening drink at home, became the norm in my sake life. It is truly amazing how the sake changes depending on glassware: variations in sweetness and dryness, acidity, texture, and aromas. Different flavor elements can get highlighted while others are more muted. For this reason, we try to suggest to our customers to try their sake out of different glasses or cups at home. Compare and contrast: one sake, a dozen ways to enjoy.

While many sake books talk about matching different styles of sake to different shapes of vessels (i.e. slightly flared glasses for aromatic sake to slender glasses for refreshing chilled sake, and so on), I feel people can play around choosing glasses based on one's mood, season, serving temperature or even an image of a brew.

Traditionally sake is served in tokkuri and poured into ochoko, a small cup. This encourages drinkers to pour for each other. Well, at my humble home, my husband and I usually pick our favorite glasses for the evening and pour sake directly from the bottle. We will use a tokkuri if we are warming the sake, and compare the warm with the cold.

Sake drinking vessels come in many shapes and sizes, but they are also made from a whole array of different materials. Some are made of wood, such as cedar and bamboo. Natural stone cups are carved from marble and agate. Metal cups come in silver, tin, and stainless steel just to name a few. There are a number of cups made of porcelain, ceramics, and glass, but did you know there are edible ones made of dried squid and also kombu (seaweed)? One thing I have not tried yet is to drink sake out of my cupped hand. I bet taking notes afterward will be messy but fun. I will let you know how it goes when I try.

Sake Homework

This month, I decided to taste sake out of 9 different vessels and record an impression of each sip (or two.) I focused on changes in these basic flavor elements for each vessel: "amami" (sweetness), "sanmi" (acidity), "nigami" (bitterness), "shibumi" (astringency), and "umami" (savory yummynesss-for a luck of translation) for comparison.

The two sake I chose are: Ichinokura Junmai Nama (unpasteurized), which is available year-around; and Shutendouji Miteiken Junmai Ginjo, which arrived a few weeks ago, very fresh. Ichinokura Junmai Nama Shutendouji Mitaiken Junmai Ginjo
Drinking vessels I chose are:
  1. Very small porcelain ochoko-given to me by a brewery in Hyogo.
  2. Gold sakazuki-a wedding gift that we used for "san-san-kudo."
  3. Egg-shaped glass-we sell it at the store, but I had yet to ever try it.
  4. Square glass-hand-blown, modern looking Sugahara glass that we also carry at the store.
  5. Ceramic guinomi-bought in Japan.
  6. Central Brewer's Association glass-I also call it John Guantner's glass because he uses it in his class.
  7. Trumpet glass-a typical restaurant style, I shall say.
  8. Mom's glass- a conical shaped glass handed down from my husband's mother.
  9. Riedel glass-stemless daiginjo glass I call "wino".
Well, here are my notes. "A" stands for aroma and "T" stands for taste.

Ichinokura Junmai Nama
From Miyagi prefecture. SMV: +3 Acidity:1.5

1. Ochoko
A: Rice and fruits.
T: Combination of sweetness and acidity. Coffee-like aftertaste with good "kire", dry and crisp finish.
2. Sakazuki
A: Almost none.
T: Rice sweetness hits the palette first then the weight of sake. Intertwined sweetness and bitterness is nice, and the sake feels solid, like food. (The coolness of the vessel is quite prominent.)
3. Egg shaped
A: Faint rice tone.
T: Sweetness and acidity is well combined, and coffee-like aftertaste.
4. Square
A: Slight mineral and a touch of vanilla.
T: Drinking from the flat side, the sake feels sweeter and acidity becomes flat. The texture also becomes thinner. Drinking from the corner, the sake feels richer with a hint of umami and cooked sugar, like flan caramel sauce.
5. Guinomi
A: Almost none.
T: Sake feels more viscous, mild and calmer. Bitter element is trapped in the sweetness of rice.
6. Brewer's Association
A: Koji rice and mineral.
T: Sake feels smooth, and the aroma and flavor flourish upon the first sip. There is a balanced of texture, acidity and sweetness.
7. Trumpet
A: Vanilla, mineral and touch of peach.
T: Sake flows smooth and highlights umami element. Acidity of sake becomes like shibumi, gently astringency.
8. Conical
A: Faint herbs, green leaves.
T: Koji rice and nama-feel are highlighted. Sweetness and acidity become well combined, and sake gains crispness. Good "kire", crisp finish.
9. Riedel
A: Prominent acidity hits a nose like when you cut into a tart apple. A hint of rice and lactic tone plus a thin layer of ethanol are present.
T: Subtle sweetness is followed by subtle acidity and crispness. Fruity note is airy, and grain-like aftertaste has no bitterness. Sake feels very light in this glass.

The favorite:
I pick #8 for introducing the crispness to the sake. This version of sake was slight richer than what I previously tasted, which has more sweetness and lightness, so brining out the acidity and holding it in place made sake more balanced.

Shutendouji Mitaiken Junmai Ginjo
From Kyoto Prefecture. SMV: +2 Acidity: 1.5

1. Ochoko
A: Acidity and rice powder
T: Bright acidy hits the pallet first and slight bitterness follows like grapefruit. The sake feels medium body. "Sanmi" lingers and a slight heat from alcohol is at the end.
2. Sakazuki
A: Almost no aroma can be detected.
T: Calms down the acidity and introduces grain-like after taste.
3. Egg shaped
A: Rice powder, vanilla. Tapioca pudding.
T: The texture of sake feel lighter like water with thinner acidity. Umami stays as after taste and slight fizz and heat at the end. Citrus.
4. Square
A: Nama nose. Aroma of koji rice.
T: Drinking from the flat side of the glass, gentle acidity followed by rice sweetness. Nice balance. Sake coats a palette evenly and spreads the flavors. In contrary, drinking from the corner highlighted the acidity and slight bitterness surface as after-taste.
5. Guinomi
A: Touch of rice.
T: Sake feels soft, gentle, thus balanced. The cup suppresses the acidity.
6. Brewer's Association
A: Citrus, vanilla and touch of cream. It is easier to pick up aroma from this glass.
T: Compact acidity and slight bitterness lingers. It gives "kire", dry-feeling ending.
7. Trumpet
A: Faint citrus, like summer air.
T: Sweetness hits the palette quick then the sanmi and nigami follow.
8. Conical
A: Delicate cream and rice tones. I feel like finding the unique aroma of Iwai rice again. (Iwai is a type of brewing rice grown in Kyoto. First time I opened the bottle of this sake, I found comfy and sweet mochi and bean paste like elements in the aroma. )
T: Makes sake flows smoothly and brings a touch of sanmi. The balanced sweetness and the acidity is like sipping citrus soda without bubbles. The finish is calm like how waves retreat themselves from the shore.
9. Riedel
A: Super bright aroma of acidity as in lemon juice and unripe green pear
T: In contrary to the aroma, sake taste sweet with teasing acidity. Umami stay on the palette and touch of grain flavor as the finish.

The favorite:
I pick #5 for making sake feel smoother. I must say this version of Sutendouji (with a very recently bottle date) had lots of brightness compared to the one I tasted several months ago. I am sure if I were to try this again in a few months, the outcome would be different.

Final thought:

This time I poured sake into each vessel and wrote a quick note, then moved onto next. Next time I want to try the sake all at room temperature. That way I can pour the sake all at once and can "compare and contrast." I guess what matters most is what you like. My hope is that this will inspire all of you to experiment a little bit with sake that you really like. Take out your cups and glasses--they don't have to be Japanese. Let us know what your discovery is. Kanpai!


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