The current sake trend in Japan is everything fresh and fruity. It's all about the nama-namas, namachozo, namazume, and shiboritate.
But we are never ones at Umami Mart to follow the trends, and this month we are all about aged, matured and smooth sakes! I've always been intrigued by aging and sake since there is so little on the market.
You may hear the term koshu if you look into sake and aging. Koshus are sakes that have been aged for a minimum of three years. They are typically darker in color, and have the sweetness and fragrance reminiscent of sherry. Koshus are a very rare (less than 0.1% of all sake produced), but all sake is typically aged for three to six months. Some brewers age beyond six months at different temperatures for varied reasons.
Sakes that are aged for longer periods of time vary in taste, color and viscosity, and generally, brewers age to "smooth out" a sake. Very fresh sake can sometimes be too lively (with noticeable spiciness on the tongue) or taste rough around the edges. Some sakes are better with age and benefit from an extra year or two of maturing.
We have a range of aged sakes represented in this month's Sake Gumi – all have been aged for at least two years. At Level 1, the Chikurin Karoyaka “Lightness” Junmai Ginjo is blended with aged vintages, while the Uonuma Noujun Junmai is aged for two years at a low temperature. Level 2 members will get the Hakkaisan Snow Aged 3-Year Junmai Ginjo Genshu, which has been aged in their snow refrigerator; and the 1996 Ginjo from Kirzakucho – an excellent expression of a koshu, bottled and stored for over two decades.
Because of the complexity of flavors that aging often brings out in a sake, food pairing is an adventure. For lighter aged sakes like the Chikurin Karoyaka “Lightness” Junmai Ginjo, you may not even notice the difference between another un-aged junmai ginjo and you can pair with fresh fare like sashimi or juicy vegetables; while the 1996 Kirakucho Ginjo, which is amber in hue and whisky-like in aroma, is a delight alongside more dramatic dishes like roasted duck or spicy Szechuan beef.
Mayuko Kita (center) of Kita Brewery stopped by Umami Mart last month
I aspire to age gracefully and these sakes provide some inspiration!
LEVEL 1: Introductory Membership (Two 300ml bottles)
Chikurin Karoyaka "Lightness" Junmai Ginjo
Marumoto Brewery (Okayama, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yamada Nishiki 50%, SMV: +3
Marumoto-san blends his new vintages with aged sake to create this junmai ginjo. The aged sake is unpasteurized and stored in stainless steel tanks in a cold room for up to five years. The result is a well-rounded sake that has some depth and complexity (from the aged sake), but still has the floral lightness of a junmai ginjo (from the new sake). This junmai ginjo uses daiginjo grade rice (rice milled down to 50%) with Yeast #9 (a fruity ginjo yeast) bringing out plum and cherry notes in the Yamada Nishiki rice grown on their farm. Great chilled with sashimi or steamed broccoli with miso dip.
Uonuma Noujun Junmai
Shirataki Sake Brewery (Niigata, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Koshi Ibuki 80%, SMV: +2
To exhibit the range of aged sake, I chose this Uonuma Noujun Junmai to contrast with the Chikurin. The Uonuma Noujun is aged in stainless steel tanks at 23-32°F for two years. Unlike the Chikurin, Uonuma is not a blend, and all of the sake is aged. The brewers at Shirataki use rice that has only been polished to 80%, so this sake is robust, acidic and savory from the start. To smooth out those powerful flavors, the brewers found that two years was the ideal amount of time for the sake to settle down and develop lingering mushroomy, buttery flavors. Enjoy at room temperature or warm with grilled meats or lamb stew.
LEVEL 2: Premium Membership (Two 720ml bottles)
Hakkaisan Snow Aged 3 Year Junmai Ginjo Genshu
Hakkaisan Brewery (Niigata, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yuki No Sei + Gohyaku Mangoku 50%, SMV: -1
Inspired by how people stored their food throughout history in Niigata, Hakkaisan piled tons of snow into a warehouse and created a yukimuro (snow refrigerator) that doesn't require any electricity and maintains a steady temperature of 35°F all year long.* This sake, made with Yeasts #1001 and M310, is umami-heavy with an apple-like sweetness and a clean finish that can only be achieved through aging. When I asked Hakkaisan’s Global Brand Ambassador Tim Sullivan how he enjoys this sake, he said, “To emphasize the dry finish I drink it chilled. To enjoy the savory umami notes, I warm it up and pair it with beef short ribs.”
*Kayoko and I visited the yukimuro at Hakkaisan – see the photos!
Kirakucho Ginjo 1996
Kita Brewery (Shiga, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Nihonbare 60%, SMV: +0.2
Kita brewery aspires to cultivate sturdy koji, so they spend 50 hours instead of the typical 40 hours to make the koji. That extra 10 hours really sets their sakes apart – with more body and acidity than most sakes. Their 1996 Ginjo qualifies as a koshu sake since it's been aged for more than three years. Using Nihonbare rice (native to Shiga Prefecture), this sake was aged in enamel tanks for over 20 years! The result is a deep amber brew, with hints of raisin, allspice, brazil nuts, sherry, and whisky. Since this is a honjozo, it has an easy, clean finish. The complexity of flavors in this sake pairs well with bold foods like pork belly or spicy Szechuan beef. It can also be enjoyed as an after dinner sipper. Enjoy at room temperature.