I recently went to my local, high-end alcohol shop (Bottle Apostle) to purchase some more delicious whisky to sip on at night. I just may have held out a few more days than I wanted to so that I could show up on one of their free tastings days. Okay I definitely waited to show up on a free tasting day.
Now they are primarily a wine store with free tastings on Friday afternoons … what great way to kick off the weekend. However they also have a section in the store which is known as the Brew Testament where they have a pretty good range of local London and UK craft brews from outfits such as Kernel, Beavertown, Camden Town, Gipsy Hill, Siren and plenty of others. The smallest section of the store is dedicated to spirits although they have a nice selection of whisky, vodka and obviously gin.
About every other Saturday they will do a free tasting for something other than wine and this past weekend was sake. Now I like sake but it’s really only something I either order a nice bottle of when I’m at a fancy Japanese restaurant or bomb some shitty warm with some Kirin at a local sushi joint. It’s never really crossed my mind that this would be a nice thing to have around the house to sip on every once and awhile since a good bottle will be pretty smooth, not give you a hangover like a lot of spirits or make you feel bloated like beer can.
I was shopping for some whisky, which was my original intention of going in there in the first place, and one of the women behind the counter said that if I liked whisky I should try this sake that was fermented in an oak barrel and gave off a whisky-ish quality. I decided that was a great idea and ended up sampling all 6 offerings they had … 4 were sakes and 2 were plum wine sakes.
I did the tasting backwards from what they had intended but it still worked as I started with the heaviest … Kinpo Honjozo Sake NV from Fuyou. It’s got an ABV of 14.5% and a Rice Polishing Ratio of 70%. It’s spicy and peppery with a peaty flavour and an easy transition for whisky drinkers to really take to.
Going backwards the next one I tried was the Anaze Ginjo Sake NV from Tomio. It was the highest ABV at 15.7% but the lowest Rice Polishing Ratio at 49%. For a Ginjo it was a high polish ratio which gave it a fruity, smooth and easy drinking quality. This may have been the one closest to something I would normally do in a nicer Japanese restaurant and one of only 2 on the table that had alcohol added to it.
Next up was the one I ended up purchasing, the Hakuko Red Label Junmai Sake NV from Morikawa Brewery. It has a 15.5% ABV and 70% Rice Polishing Ratio. It was one of the smoother sakes I’ve had with an all around great nose and silky smooth taste to it. It is made in smaller quantities and the story behind the brewery may have also been a reason that drew me towards it. 2 brothers now run the small production in Japan which their family started in 1887. One does the marketing while the other is in charge of the production and each of them one have 1 assistant. They also have a river (the Norogawa) in the back of their house where the brewery is which is the source of their (soft, unfiltered and naturally delicious) water, which is a huge part of any sake. This bottle also won the 2014 International Wine Challenge gold medal in one of the sake divisions.
Finally I got to the lightest one which was the Banryu Jungetsu Junmai Sake from Eiko Fuji. Again it has a 15.5% ABV and a 65% Rice Polishing Ratio. This was the lightest of all of them and the other one which also had alcohol added. It was light but fruity with notes of green apple and pear and was the one they recommended for any novice sake drinker to start with.
Next it was onto the 2 plum wine sakes which were similar to dessert wine or aperitif. The first one, Tsuyahada Umeshu NV, was also from the Morikawa Brewery. It was a cloudy liquid due to the fact that they leave some of the plum skins on to naturally sweeten the drink. I was expecting this 12% ABV to be incredibly sweet but it was not intensely and overbearing since it was natural.
The last one, and 2nd plum wine sake, was more what I was expecting from plum wine. The Mitobe Umeshu NV from Mitobe was only 10.5% ABV but much sweeter and coated the glass when you swirled it. It was silky and smooth for sure but a bit too sweet and decadent for me however it could be great after a large meal or even incorporated into a dessert.
Now the one thing I was not aware of was the Rice Polishing Ratio. Essentially a drink with a 70% RPR means that 30% of the rice husk or outer part has been stripped or peeled away leaving 70% of it to make the sake. As you can imagine from simple deduction, rice that has a lower RPR (meaning that more has been milled away) is usually more expensive since it has required a greater time of production. However this doesn’t always mean that a 40% RPR is better than a 70%, just that it’ll probably cost more.
It, like everything, is all a matter of taste and palate. I’m excited to now have both my whisky and sake at home to sip on throughout the evenings. Next time you’re at a good alcohol shop where they have knowledgeable employees, tastings or specialize in sake I suggest picking some up. It can be stored anywhere (out of direct sunlight and huge heat fluctuations) until it’s opened … then it will last at least 3-4 weeks or more in the fridge.