NAVIGATING the world of saké can be as fascinating as it can be overwhelming. The terminology alone, coupled with the language barrier can be intimidating. And then there are the labels that only one familiar with the Japanese writing system can decipher.
There are books, subscription magazines, courses and even mobile-phone applications for both the serious student and the enthusiast. Thankfully there are also the get-togethers where one learns both from the tutored tasting and from the helpful tips of seasoned drinkers. There was such an opportunity at the recent dinner hosted by saké enthusiast Raymond Joseph, whose family owns Philippine Wine Merchants, the local importer and distributor of saké labels Gekkeikan, Hakkaisan, Kozaemon, Shinomine and Tatsuriki. That evening at the Makati Shangri-La’s Inagiku, it was the turn of Kozaemon to shine.
The Nakashima Sake Brewing Company, founded in 1702, makes Kozaemon in its small brewery in the mountainous Gifu region in Central Japan. Did you know that Kozaemon has three employees? Raymond had to point out that Kozaemon is a jizake, a boutique brewery focusing on a line of saké, mostly junmaishu or pure saké—saké made with no addition of distilled alcohol. We were to experience Kozaemon’s Junmai Daiginjo, Junmai Ginjo Miyama Nishiki, Junmai Ginjo Dewasansan and Junmai Banshu Yamada Nishiki—paired with Chef Wataru Hikawa’s menu.
But first, Raymond led us through the definition of terms. Miyama nishiki, yamada nishiki and dewasansan are rice varieties used only for making saké. Ginjo and daiginjo are saké categories and are also terms that denote premium saké. To make the grade for ginjo, 40 percent of the outer portion of the rice grain must be milled away, so that no more than 60 percent of the original size of the grain remains. For daiginjo, at least 50 percent of the rice grain must remain, with some daiginjo polished down to 35 percent, explained Raymond. And then Raymond let each saké do the rest of the talking.
The Kozaemon Junmai Daiginjo was fragrant and delicate, with floral notes underneath lovely melon and pear aromas. Served cold, this was paired with the equally delicate sweet shrimp, isaki and toro sashimi. Made with two kinds or rice—yamada nishiki for making the malt and aiyama as the brewing rice—the Kozaemon Junmai Daiginjo had a richer fragrance and was finer and more elegant than the Kozaemon Junmai Ginjo Miyama Nishiki. It was the Kozaemon Junmai Ginjo Dewasansan that was paired with Chef Wataru’s lobster tempura, its not quite dry profile mirroring the subtle sweetness of lobster meat. The Kozaemon Junmai Banshu Yamada Nishiki was served lukewarm, its toasty, savory notes perfect for the richness of grilled wagyu.
Here are the top takeaways from that saké-washed evening:
1. Expiration Date: When refrigerated and unopened, drink saké within one year from the production date. The month and the year of bottling are indicated on the label. It is best to drink saké immediately after opening. But although an unfinished bottle of saké can keep for more than a week when kept in the refrigerator, it is still safer to finish the bottle within a few days. Store saké away from heat and direct sunlight.
2. Rice Polishing Ratio: The polishing ratio, indicated in percentage on the saké label, tells how much of the rice grain has been milled away. For example, a polishing ratio, or seimaibuai, of 60 percent indicates that 40 percent of the outer portion of the rice has been milled away and, therefore, 60 percent is what remains of the rice grain. The smaller the rice is milled, the more premium the saké. Highly polished rice also translates to richer, more aromatic saké.
3. Sweet or dry: The sweetness or dryness of saké, known as the Saké Meter Value, is also indicated as a number on the label. The higher the number, the drier the saké. A SMV of -1, like in the Kozaemon Junmai Ginjo Omachi 55, indicates more perceptible sweetness, whereas the +11 SMV of the Kozaemon 65-percent Junmai Banshu Yamadanishiki means the saké is dry.
Dinner came to a close with the Kozaemon Junmai Umeshu, a gently sweet plum liqueur and a superb black sesame ice cream. Raymond talked about his plan for saké tours and a saké club. How about saké courses in Manila? Or exploring the possibilities of saké with the local cuisine? At that moment, in that small gathering, there was no doubting the rising interest in saké.