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Sake Discovery - Sake "Synergy" and "Themes"

Synergy! Does synergy exist within the sake making process? Are there common threads between different sakes made by the sake brewing team? Do breweries have "themes" that manifest a "collection" of drinking experiences up and down their line-ups? The obvious answer is yes, isn't it? Tojis like to make sakes in certain ways to achieve certain feelings and flavors. Sometimes the owners tell the tojis to make sakes in certain ways. In fact I heard one brewer say that the job of the owner is to know what the market wants, to do outreach and discover what drinkers want out of their sakes then inform the toji of this for his production skills to achieve. Similarly I had one major major player in the sake industry look me in the face and say that he doesn't care what drinkers want in their sakes, because he tells them what sakes to like. Honestly, the guy said that! He said, "I tell people what they like and then I make all of my breweries make sake that way."

So do they? Do breweries make all of their sakes taste in similar fashion? Yes and no! On one hand many brewers let their raw materials do the talking. They let individual rice varietals shine by focusing on the strengths of those specific rice components. They simply try to highlight the flavors and feelings of each rice varietal by using different yeast etcetera to be different. On the other hand many brewers will take different rice groups and try to make them all taste or drink the same. This is an effort to produce a synergy within their sake offerings.

My favorite example of tasting a "synergy" came in Tokyo when I was honored to spend the evening with the owner of the Nishinoseki brewery in Oita prefecture. That evening was so damn special because I tasted seven different brews including namas that all had a deep theme, a profound synergy. It was truly amazing, and I found myself sort of giggling as I continued to taste the pattern within each sake. Holy Smokes! There it is again, I kept saying. What was the "it"? Well within seven different sakes, using several different rice varietals from Junmai to Junmai Daiginjo to namas the "it" was a smooth richness that drank with a gentle thickness. Each brew to a "T" had this silky weighty push of rich flavor and drank as round as round can drink. Each one! Even at different temperatures. This was the definition of synergy!

We have several sets of sakes at the store, so you can look for your own themes and synergies. Some "sets" have them and others don't! For example Urakasumi is a brewery that makes sakes in the same "themed" fashion. They have a well established pattern. You can drink the synergy! Kikusui, Dassai, Yuho, Born, Jozen, and Kikuhime fit into this group of sake brewewries that make sakes taste in a uniform capacity, the ol' thumb print on each brew. On the other side of the coin are two well-known breweries in the form of Masumi and Dewazakura, who push the "let the raw ingredients speak for themselves" mantra, and consequently make sakes that differ in an overall fashion up and beyond the basics of great balance and structure. Add Wakatake to the mix and you get a collection of sake breweries that have varying sake offerings, some rich, some bright, some fruity, some with big acidity, some with quick finish, some with earth tones, some that are bitter, some that are frisky and on and on. The point being their sakes don't taste totally similar or from the same cut.

If I lined up three different sets of three different sakes, and asked you to pick the sets in most cases it would not be noticeable. (Maybe I should do this for my own blind tasting exercise.) I think the strong "themed" brews would be easy to hit, but the others would be difficult. And therein rests the point, why do brewers make sakes in certain ways? They do so for their customers local and otherwise. That is their most salient selling point, the taste and texture of their line-up of sakes. It's hard to cram a style down a market's throat if they do not like it. Likewise you cannot be all things to all drinkers. Certain prefectures play the "theme" game in styles of sakes, but they are pretty much generalized. For example Niigata is the pristine and clean with quick finish "theme," Ishikawa is the bold and full-bodied with huge presence "theme," and Koichi is the light, dry and very drinkable theme.

On my holiday I wanted to go "theme" and "synergy" hunting and took three of our very popular sakes from the Yamagata brewery Gasanryu. In my luggage I packed the Junmai "Fuka," the honjozo "Ura" and the Junmai Daiginjo "Gokugetsu." Knowing that these sakes are single pasteurized I got them into the fridge as quickly as possible, as soon as I got to my destination.

Okay, was there a synergy? Was there a theme? First let me get "me"! I am a sake perfectionist, and I wanted to make sure the playing field was fair. As the brews are single pasteurized I wanted the dates to be relatively close to each other for comparison's sake. Two of the brews were two months apart whilst the Daiginjo was almost 14 months old. (Whoops!) Would this be a problem? Hmmmmm! As I always say, if a sake is constructed well it will last well. So I did not think that this would be too much of a disqualifier.

Without boring you with the full reviews I will throw around some possible similarities that may be construed as "themes." (The reviews for two of them will be added this week.)

All three sakes had a brightness, which may be on account of the single pasteurization. All three drank with a zestiness, which sometimes comes in the form of acidity or alcohol. And all three had "big presence," which means that they all spoke out rather than being quiet and withheld.

That said, two of the sakes had similar flavor profiles and the third wasn't even close. And what confused/enlightened me was a creaminess that snuck out, amongst the bright flavors. Hmmmmm? Bright and creamy? Yikes! I tasted the sakes one day at a time so my palate wasn't rigged. My "Word" for each brew was "bright," "rich light," and "snappy."

First of all these are really good sakes. The balance is evident in each offering and the flavors are quite nice. And each sake is extremely food friendly. Is there a synergy amongst the three? I would say a moderate yes! There is brightness, presence, and a peek a boo creaminess that surprises with the zestiness of the sakes.

In summary, it's up to you as a sake drinker to start thinking in groups. Each sake is not a single sake. It is a sister, brother, father, mother, cousin of sakes within the same family. Is it the black sheep or is part of the tribe? Can you pull out the themes? Can you detect the synergies? As Bob The Builder would say "Yes We Can!"
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