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Sake Exploration - Recapping the Blind Hot Sake Tasting

"Blind Hot Sake Tasting?" "Man, you guys are sake freaks!" I heard a lot of that when I told people about our tasting. I also got a lot of "thank you for pushing the sake envelope" and "thanks for showing us yet more avenues with sake" at the tasting. Basically we wanted to produce an event that made our tastees walk away with two more bullet points in their sake belts. The first was - and this is no secret - a majority of hot sake in the US is inferior sake that more often then not is made locally, as in the US. I am not knocking western-made sake, I just see if from a different angle than most consumers. The second point is that you do not have to think Junmai or Honjozo sakes as the only categories that warms well.

On the last day of a cold January we offered 7 warmed sakes to our guests. They did not see the bottles and were given a nice "note" sheet to put down their thoughts. I thought that people would progress in order from Sake A through Sake G, but what I forgot was that our tokkuris didn't hold enough heated sake for everybody at one time, so I turned into a heat magician and encouraged some folks to go from Sake G through to Sake A. Smart heh? Up until the point when they met in the middle. Ha Ha. In any event I made certain that each sake was served at 50C (122F) and made folks wait to achieve this standard. I was seriously juggling the tokkuris, which each had a colored string attached. Feel the heat, look for the string color, back to the thermometer, turn the heat down, pull tokkuris out of the heated water before they got too hot, look at the string color, match it to the right sake, figure out which order the sake taster wanted, etc, etc. It was crazy, but extremely fun.

The seven sakes, in the order that we had planned, were as follows:
  1. Ozeki Junmai (California)
  2. Kuro Kabuto Muroka Junmai Daiginjo (Fukuoka)
  3. Nishinoseki Junmai (Oita)
  4. Harushika Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu (Nara)
  5. Sho Chiku Bai Junmai (California)
  6. Sougen Junmai (Ishikawa)
  7. Kamoizumi Shusen Junmai Ginjo (Hiroshima)
Firstly there were no losers! There was not one sake that anybody said, "this blows!" or "yuck" or "spit bucket please!" And that is a good thing. Perhaps it was the sake-centric crowd, or maybe the brews just tasted so good on a very chilly night. But in this light, and I am speaking from what I heard, the two domestic sakes were detectable or noticeable in their heating quality. So, in a sense, the first objective of the tasting was reached. Again, not to knock the locally made brews, which both sell retail for below $10 for a 720ml bottle, but they were easy to deduce when stacked up against well made sakes. Period. 'nuff said. The tasters had no problem figuring these sakes out.

Secondly, there was a newfound appreciation for warming sakes of elevated categories. "A Daiginjo? You heated a Daiginjo? I didn't think you were allowed to do that?" "A nama? You heated a nama? Aren't they only served chilled?" And voila. The second objective was reached. Every sake served received at least one "favorite" vote. But the brew that received the most "favorite" votes by over a double margin to the second place sake was the Nama Genshu. Yes! The Nama Ginjo Genshu from Harushika just blew people away. I discovered that this brew warmed well on a trip to Osaka when I was drinking at a small izakaya. I was enjoying a chilled glass of the nama when a fellow drinking asked what I was drinking. I told him and he said Hmmmmm! He then offered me a sip of his hot sake. It was really full and fruity but not acidic or harsh. "Nice!" I said. "What sake is it?" "The same one you are drinking!" Cool!!

The second most popular sake was a tie between Kurokabuto the Junmai Daiginjo from Fukuoka and Sougen the Junmai from Ishikawa. Third place was a tie between one of our store's top recommended warming sakes Nishinoseki and a sake that we won't sell, Ozeki. What is truly surprising is that our store's other top recommended sake "Shusen" received only one vote. Huh? So we learned as much in this tasting as our "tastees."

The bottom line is that when thinking about sake think that anything is possible. The most expensive and pristine Daiginjos, which really should be served chilled, just might take heat well. Namas or single pasteurized sakes, like hiyaoroshi, also lend themselves to heat in many cases. It's all a function of exploring and playing with fire.
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