On Tap In Saké Coun­try

DINE and Destinations - - JAPAN UNDISCOVERED - By Adam Wax­man

“It is the man who drinks the first bot­tle of saké; then the sec­ond bot­tle drinks the first, and fi­nally it is the saké that drinks the man.”


Faster than a speed­ing bul­let train, I am at the Pon­shu-kan shop within the Echigo-yuzawa train sta­tion. I slide my 500¥ coin across the counter in ex­change for five to­kens. Then, giddy-eyed, I scan a wall of 120 taps dis­pens­ing saké from across Ni­igata Pre­fec­ture. Each one has tast­ing notes. I place my cup in the slot, insert the to­ken, and twist. Out pours 1.5 ounces. If I drink 100 cups, I get my name on the board!

Saké is Ja­pan’s na­tional bev­er­age. The key in­gre­di­ents to Jun­mai-style saké are wa­ter, rice, koji (fer­ment­ing agent) and yeast. Ja­panese wa­ter is soft. The saka­mai rice used has a larger grain. Dur­ing the mul­ti­ple-par­al­lel-fer­men­ta­tion, starch moves to the mid­dle of the grain while the fat and pro­teins form a husk around it. The more the husk is milled, the higher the grade.

Wa­ter is the se­cret to the saké, which, for lo­cals, is the only re­prieve from the harsh win­ters. With its pris­tine wa­ter sup­ply and more than 90 brew­eries—the most in Ja­pan—ni­igata’s saké is clean, dry, crisp and known for its mel­low sweet­ness and aro­mat­ics. What is par­tic­u­larly spe­cial about saké from this area is the great depth of snow­fall that cleans the air and wa­ter. Mas­sive amounts of snow pack the rice fields two me­tres deep. It also at­tracts ski-buffs from around the world who ap­pre­ci­ate hot springs and fine saké af­ter a long day on the moun­tain slopes. When the snow melts, it nat­u­rally fil­ters un­der­ground over hun­dreds of years to a su­pe­rior soft­ness.

In an­cient times, women work­ing at shrines chewed on steamed rice un­til it be­came sweet. They would then put their man­d­u­cated mouth­fuls into a bowl, and wait un­til it be­came al­co­hol. Oh how times have changed. To­day, the process of making saké is del­i­cate and re­fined, and there are so many vari­ables to elic­it­ing its sub­tle qual­i­ties.

Raised on Un­cle Ben’s, I never thought I would de­scribe rice as “de­li­cious,” but the har­vests in Ni­igata are with­out par­al­lel. Rice for saké is more solid and is high in glu­cose. Ap­ply­ing more can make the saké sweeter; less can make it dry. The yeast pro­vides dis­tinct flavours and flo­ral aro­mas like ba­nana, melon and pineap­ple. At Hakkaisan, the koji is sprin­kled onto the rice as it rests on a bed un­der a blan­ket in a 40°C room. In an­other fa­cil­ity, 800 tanks are stirred by hand. This per­sonal touch pro­vides unique per­son­al­ity. In or­der to keep the saké at a cool 5°C, 1,000 tons of snow are packed into the ware­house and last through­out the sum­mer. It cer­tainly helps with the elec­tri­cal bills.

At the adjacent Na­gasaka Soba restau­rant the menu com­ple­ments the saké. We pair Hakkaisan Jun­mai Ginjo with soba and veg­eta­bles steamed with koji to elicit an umami flavour. A blend of three types of rice milled to 50 per­cent, this Jun­mai Ginjo ex­presses the pu­rity, mel­low el­e­gance and typ­ic­ity of the re­gion. In the café we eat cake made with the saké lees, drink sweet amazaké, and gaze out the win­dow as mon­keys dart out of the woods to­ward us. It seems so oth­er­worldly.

Un­der­stated, saké doesn’t fight with food; it plays a sup­port­ing role in el­e­vat­ing a meal. Saké cleans the palate be­tween cour­ses. Higher acid lev­els pair with more fatty, oily foods. Gen­er­ally, strong flavours

re­quire stronger saké; lighter flavours, lighter saké. Pair sushi and sashimi with a medium grade saké, for ex­am­ple. Higher-grade saké should be en­joyed on its own. Most saké is served chilled. Warm­ing it can ruin the del­i­cate flavours and aro­mas, so earth­ier styles like Hon­jy­ozo from Hakkaisan are well suited to be­ing warmed.

At Obata Shuzo Brew­ery we sam­ple Man­ot­suru Gen­shu. Un­re­fined and un­pas­teur­ized, the stronger flavour pairs with fried meat like pork tonkatsu. It also com­ple­ments mar­bled steak and fatty seafood. Bull’s Eye is sweet and vo­lu­mi­nous, and could match steak with ponzu, hoisin or a thin ver­mouth-based cream sauce. The Daig­injo is smooth, clean, mild and sweet, and pairs with mild, sweet and creamy dishes, with flavours like co­conut or maple.

Kikusui Brew­ery’s Per­fect Snow is co­conut-tex­tured and ideal on its own or in a Piña Co­lada. Fu­naguchi, full-bod­ied with in­tense fruity aroma, is sold in a can be­cause it is un­pas­teur­ized, so the en­zymes are still ac­tive and need pro­tec­tion from the light. It is per­fect with grilled steaks and burg­ers, lemon chicken or pro­sciutto-wrapped moz­zarella. With the Jun­mai Ginjo try smoked salmon with goat cheese and or­ange mar­malade. More than a brew­ery, Kikusui is a mu­seum, li­brary and re­search fa­cil­ity to ed­u­cate us on the fu­ture as well as the history of saké. Ce­ramic dishes and bowls, as well as drink­ing games from 500 years ago are on dis­play, while a tem­per­a­ture­con­trolled room of ti­ta­nium-sealed bot­tles tests how saké will age. Ten-time

gold medal win­ner, Taiyo Saké Brew­ery pol­ishes rice, on av­er­age, to 60 per­cent, mean­ing that the grain is milled down by 40 per­cent to an el­e­gance that is a crisp and dry re­flec­tion of Ni­igata. The To-ji (brew mas­ter) sug­gests pair­ing by tex­ture—cloudy saké with thick dishes like stew. Taiyo har­vests straw­ber­ries as well as its own rice. Their straw­berry liqueur is a sur­pris­ingly clean and com­plex elixir. The sweet and aro­matic Jun­mai Daig­injo pairs har­mo­niously with Ni­igata’s renowned wagyu, the juicy and ro­bust Mu­rakami beef, as well as with lo­cal salmon.

Mu­rakami is where the spawn­ing habits of salmon in Ja­pan were dis­cov­ered. The Iy­oboya Salmon Mu­seum within Salmon Park tells us all about it, but I’d rather skip ahead to Tesshou Kikkawa’s salt-salmon shop for a taste. Stand­ing un­der a canopy of 1,100 salmon hang­ing to dry from the ceil­ing, Kikkawa (shown left) tells me his wife will make it look pretty, he just makes it taste good. Flavours vary by salmon type, sea­son in which they’re caught, and whether they’re boiled, grilled, salted or steamed. The roe, the most prized in all Ja­pan, is mar­i­nated in lo­cal Jun­mai Daig­injo, mirin and soy sauce. Each or­ange pearl is a salty pop of flavour that is re­fresh­ingly height­ened by pair­ing with the house saké.

There is a so­cial rit­ual to drink­ing saké. Long ago, sol­diers would pour for each other to es­tab­lish good re­la­tion­ships and team­work be­fore bat­tle. It is as much a sign of def­er­ence and ca­ma­raderie as it is a com­ple­ment to a meal. En­trenched in the Ja­panese cul­ture, when we pour saké, we don’t pour into our own cup, but into an­other’s. It is a ges­ture of friend­ship.

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