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Sake Busts - Chapter 11 in a Sake Sense

Start humming the Queen song "Another One Bites The Dust."

Yes it is a sad day when sake breweries go out of business. Happens all too often these days. Some of the names don't surprise you and others leave you scratching your head and wondering, "How in the hell did they go belly up?" Some breweries close their doors forever, and others get bought back to life. Some change their entire work force and others keep the entire kurabito work force in tact. Some change their brand and others continue on. Basically it's the proverbial box of chocolates, you just don't know what to expect.

Each year the store has lost a brew to this phenomenon. In some cases the sake came back in a new form or incarnation. One sake I featured in my book with a whole page dedicated to how to read a sake label - then whoosh - it was gone from our market, replaced by a lesser version (in quality) with new packaging (not as cool). I like saving extinct sakes, and my fridge has four different sakes of days gone by! And I just added another.

This year we lost Hatsuhana Utatane - one of the best value and extremely cool packaged sakes in the store (tall skinny grappa looking bottle with cork) and there has been no word if the brewery will be bought/brought back to life. Then two months later we learned that Bishonen "Beautiful Boy" went toes up. Huh? How in the hell could that happen. This has historically been one of the best selling sakes in the US and does very well in Japan. "If Bishonen goes than nobody is safe," was my immediate line of thinking, but then more information came out about the company's demise.

Last year a huge rice scandal rocked Japan in the food and alcohol industries. Companies bought what they thought was Japan grown rice, and instead found out that what they paid for had come from the black market in China. Don't mess with the rice people! Now Bishonen bought some of this rice and although they say it never entered their sake making process it did pervade their shochu business. It was a large hit to say the least, especially for an industry that has such a narrow profit band. This was a major problem, but further questioning also produced the fact that the brewery did some accounting monkey business with their taxes etc. This double-trouble took the brewery down.

But wait! As I mentioned, some breweries come back to life! And so too has Bishonen thanks to a local owner of a chain of ramen stores. They bought the kura and kept the entire team in tact. So Bishonen is back! But in what form? Is it the same brew? Many sakes change with such abrupt conditions such as bankruptcy. And as I had not tasted Bishonen in quite some time I thought it would be best to do a Taste Test.

I do remember Bishonen as being a deep and rich Junmai Ginjo with a crème brulee sweetness on a thick and chewy flow. But that seemed to change over time and the sake got leaner and more compact. (Was this during the time of problems? Did the sakes reflect the turmoil around them?) So I decided to get some older Bishonen, some current Bishonen and the new Bishonen and do a comparison.

Who better to taste Bishonen with than the man who imports it into the US - Kazu Yamazaki from the Japan Prestige Sake Association. Kazu was in town and I asked, "When was the last time you tasted Bishonen?" He said it had been a while and he was excited to see the new (horrible) packaging and taste this very affordable sake.

The Three Bishonens: (They did not put the date on the previous Bishonen labels, but I know one brew was probably two years old, the other about a year (these were both former versions) and the new Bishonen with a release date of 10.04.E)

Older Bishonen: The nose was creamy with elements of rice pudding and caramel. A chewy and rich sake that has deep rooted sweetness that drinks even and round. Hints of a rice dessert-like flavor flows on a smooth and semi-thick fluid. Very good body with a quick finish. This brew does not drink fruity sweet, but rather creamy savory sweet and it fills the pallet well.

Old Bishonen: The nose on this version had more overly ripe fruit tones mixed with nutty elements. This Bishonen drank far more compactly than the older edition, and was without a doubt more astringent. There are plenty of sour faces amongst the crowd of cooked rice and plum flavors. The acidity is far more pronounced in this take, and this impacts the finish greatly as there is a long twisted tail. The balance of this effort seems to be as gone as the richness - it's just more tight and jagged.

New Bishonen: The nose on the new Ginzukuri Bishonen (they mill this sake to 58% where the older version was 60%) was a collection of earthy, dusty, rice, hay, and light fruit tones. This version starts smooth and ends creamy with a round, even, semi-thick flow. There are lots of rich and deep flavors to explore - crème brulee, burnt sugar, cocoa - and they all dance with a creaminess that boarders on savory. The body on this version is plump and seductive similar to a fat Pinot Noir. A very sound sake.

Wow! A very unique look at the same sake. Let me put down my reviews from the past and add the new review for the "new Bishonen" and then I will summarize.

Old Store Review:

Bishonen "Beautiful Boy"

Kumamoto Prefecture. Junmai Ginjo. SMV: +2 Acidity: 1.7

The nose is a blend of steamed brown rice and custard. The sweet and savory play is very evident in the first sip that moves from caramel tones into a rich and creamy rice pudding flavor. It has a very plump mouth feel that borders on thick and chewy and the viscosity is teased by a nice acidity play that leaves a deep rich warm smoothness on the back of the throat. This is a great example of a red wine drinker's Ginjo with full ripe flavors that are forward in the mouth and leaves with a full-bodied aftertaste. WORD: Caramel WINE: All Reds/Strong Whites BEER: Pilsners/Big Ambers FOOD: Fried Meat Dishes, Burgers, Salmon in butter sauce, miso-based dishes.

New Store Review:

Bishonen Ginzukuri "Beautiful Boy"

Kumamoto Prefecture. Junmai Ginjo. SMV: +2 Acidity: 1.7

The nose on this new version of a great sake is a collection rice, hay, earthy, and dried fruit tones. Despite the new look this is the same old Beautiful Boy filled with luscious deep rich and chewy flavors from crème brulee to cocoa and caramel on a smooth round flow. This is not your fruity Ginjo sake, rather it is a full-bodied sexy beast that has hints of creamy and savory flavors at every turn. With an elevated acidity it has the structure to support large flavored cuisines, but is smooth and velvety enough to enjoy both chilled and room temperature. The Boy is back and as beautiful as ever! WORD: Rich WINE: Pinot Noir/Deep Chardonnay BEER: Creamy Ales FOOD: Anything off of the grill, rice and pasta dishes, burgers.

In summary, this story is a win win situation for the consumers of Bishonen. First of all the sake is not lost to the wilds! It still exists. And secondly, it not only exists in name, but has that great rich and full-bodied flavor and texture from its storied past. Lastly, at $18 it still represents one of the best sake buys in the business. Great quality sake at a great price point. That's Beautiful!
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