Sake Tastings - Koshu Old School Bonanza
The offices of Japan Prestige Sake Association are located down on Watts street and they indeed felt the wrath of Sandy as their basement saw the beginning of the flooding. Luckily as Kazu Yamazaki of JPSA pointed out the water stopped accumulating on their basement floor and receded before complete destruction. But during the process Kazu had to move some sake inventory to higher ground.
While moving some of the precious sakes to a safer spot he discovered many brews that he had forgotten about. And this is probably the number one "koshu maker" in the sake industry - forgotten bottles. No kidding! Of course they make sakes specifically for aging. Over the years they have discovered the better yeasts for aging, the better amino acid levels, the better rice varietals, the better storage techniques etc, but most of the koshu could very well be forgotten bottles. Self-aging sake is very much like the Forest Gump syndrome "It's like a box of chocolates and you never know what you are going to get." Sometimes self-aged sake works incredibly well and sometimes it doesn't. But it's always fun to taste a sake out of its intended comfort zone.
Back to Kazu! On the night I arrived he started pulling out sakes that were accidentally aged, purposely aged and koshu sakes that were really aged. One sake was used as a display sake over 15 years ago in a wine shop in Manhattan. Kazu was so worried that they would sell it that he wrote "DISPLAY" in huge letters on the side of the label. Another sake was purposely aged for 16 years, and then Kazu didn't touch it for the last 10 years! So basically being the sake freaker that I am I was in hog heaven.
For discussion's sake let's call koshu that was made specifically to age "Purposeful Koshu", forgotten sake called "Accidental Koshu", and sakes that were laid down to age that aren't true koshu "Self-Aged Koshu." Some people refer to really old koshu as Dai Koshu, which usually means aged over 10 years. But in the grand scheme of things in the sake industry koshu is such a small segment that I'd bet more koshu is "accidental or self-aged" at least in my universe. There is also a term for sake that you age in the tank before release called "Jyukusei," which means "matured" or purposely aged more than the typical 6 months of "mellowing."
The first "Self-Aged" koshu that Kazu poured was a Shizuku Nama Daiginjo Genshu from a brewery called Kaika, which comes in the killer Tobin small blue round bottle that is a replica of a larger vessel used for collecting shizuku (drip) sakes. I personally have aged this sake and actually had it for my 40th Birthday dinner. (We currently don't carry it but can easily get it if you would like to try it $$$!) The date on the label was 09.10 (Oct'09) but the wooden sign that hung on it's neck had the heisei (Emperor's) date of 19, which means the sake was either 3 or 5 years old. I guess that I should have actually called this an "Accidental Koshu" because he couldn't remember the actual date. Basically this sake did what many "fruity" sakes do when aged, it started fruity then got very acidic and "hot." The aged version lost a ton of body, which is very prevalent in the fresh version, and drank rounder rather than brighter which is to be expected. All in all it was okay, but not great!
The second sake Kazu poured we carry at True Sake and has been one of my favorite sakes to "Self-Age," because it not only ages well sealed but when opened it oxidizes better than any sake that I have ever self-aged. I have tasted and written about a bottle that was in my folk's house opened for three years and it still had a great nose and the flavor was superb. As Kazu pointed out the Hitorimusume Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo had been opened for two years and had a label release date of 06-11 (Nov'06). And true to form it drank great with soft fruit tones that were very well balanced on a soft fluid that was "totally drinkable."
Next came the 1996 version of the same Hitorimusume Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo, which was in an entirely different bottle with a different cap. I mention this because we couldn't get the bottle open. The cap would not budge. We twisted. We tapped. We pounded. We re-griped. Etc. And that cap just wouldn't open. Finally I turned it and the outside of the decorative cap came off. And then the inside cap succumbed. Our hands felt the pain of self-aged sake! This particular bottle was a display bottle that was in Sherry Leihman in NYC for many years and then spent the last 6 years in Kazu's basement at basement temperature. My notes: proper koshu aroma - has a flat personality with an acidity on the tip of the tongue, the flavor is not koshu per se but has vanilla and creme brulee. Oddly enough in some "self-aged" sakes there will be some freaky acidity issue or nuance. In this example the acidity came back from the swallow to the tip of the tongue. Not kidding! You gulped and then zing! On the tip and the tip only. Truly unique!
Kazu then poured two more of the same sakes, but this time they were Junmai from Nishinoseki. One was from 2002 and the other 2005. The older Nishinoseki had a red cap and plastic covering, but the labels were the same. Of all the sakes we tasted that night I enjoyed the 2005 Junmai the best. Typically this is a soft sake but in aged form it gets even softer with a honey nose and silky and velvety fluid that was so damn flavorful and far less sweet than the fresh version. It drank great! Kazu preferred the 2002, but I found it to be tighter in flavor with far more acidity and there were orbs of converted proteins called ori that floated in the sake like a lava lamp. (This happens in far older accidental or self-aged koshus)
Next up was a very unique super sweet sake from Otokoyama called Fukkoshu, which is a Junmai genshu with an SMV: -50 and an Acidity: 3.5 (Extremes on both sides!) Usually this sake is a golden color, but the version Kazu poured was black like molasses. It had been opened for over a year and had a label date of 2005. The nose smelled like veggies and soy sauce, but it drank way too abused. The flavor was sideways. Maybe if we heated this one it may have worked but not in that form. I do know that this sake drinks great when it's about three or four years old. Too old and it doesn't work! We sell this guy at True Sake and it is one of the most unique and connoisseur sakes we have in the store.
Last but certainly not least was an aged kijoshu from Hanahato that was given to Kazu as a gift over ten years ago. The brewery is famous for their kijoshu, which is sweet desert sake, and we sell a ton of their 8 year-old version. But the bottle given to Kazu was one of only 100 made and it was aged for 16 years. 16 + 10 = 26 For those counting. The packaging alone was worth the pour, but what was on the inside was equally as delicious. It was superbly balanced for such an exciting and different sake and was far more mild and low key than the 8-year-old version. Rich and light sweet and dry, truly a magical flavor and a great ending to a powerhouse koshu tasting.
And to think if super storm Sandy didn't rear her ugly head then I would never have had the pleasure to drink "age" in the bottle koshu-style.