In Japan, animals are everywhere. Besides Hello Kitty and Pikachu, animal imagery adorn temples, shrines, storefronts, crackers and candy. Last names are also fair game for animals. For example, my own last name includes 熊, the character for bear – which has always made me feel like I have a certain kinship with that animal. Many sakes are also named after animals or incorporate animals into their logos. And like everything in Japan, with a little digging, you discover a lot of history and meaning.
One of Japan’s most iconic beverage mascots is the owl on Hitachino beers and sake. Kiuchi Brewery, who makes Hitachino beers is located in Konosu which translates to "large bird's nest." Although today it is just a regular suburban town, Konosu used to be full of forest birds, so the designers at Hitachino decided to use a forest owl as their logo. Referencing their natural past has created a memorable look, so much so that many people now refer to Hitachino as the "Owl Beer."
This month, I've chosen two Kuroushi sakes – one for each level. Located in Wakayama Prefecture, Kuroushi translates to Black Bull. Legend has it that the 1,200 years ago there was a cove surrounded by rocks that were hidden by the waves. When the tide was low, you could see a big rock formation that resembled a black bull. The brewery was named after this mythic black bull in the ocean. How picture-esque!
Shinkame, or the Holy Turtle is aptly named. Kayoko and I personally made a pilgrimage to the brewery in 2015 to ask seventh generation Shinkame Brewery owner, Mr. Yoshimasa Ogawahara, to consider exporting his sake for Sake Gumi. After two years, the stars have aligned and Shinkame has landed in America! Ogawahara-san is a legend of sorts – he was the first postwar advocate for junmai sakes. During WWII, brewers were encouraged to add distilled alcohol to sake due to the rice shortage. The practice continued after the war, but Ogawahara-san insisted that Shinkame exclusively brew junmais – despite higher taxation on 100% rice sakes. He was also a champion of aging sake – all of his sakes are aged for at least two years. The struggle to spread the junmai gospel was long and hard, but like the turtle versus the hare, I'd say Ogawahara-san has prospered. Thanks to his steady focus and efforts, junmai has made a roaring comeback. Brewers young and old have woken up to the merits of junmai (imagine a world only full of futsushu – it would be utterly bleak).
So why did they name it the "Holy Turtle"? There was a shrine behind the brewery that celebrated the god of wisdom. There was a turtle that lived there, believed to be the messenger of this god and the brewery named itself after this turtle.
Sadly, Ogawahara-san passed away this spring. Even though he is gone from this world, his legacy lives on and on – like the turtle at the shrine. Please read more about our visit to the brewery and Ogawahara-san on our blog.
Diving deep into the meaning of these sakes uncovered hidden stories, landscapes and memories, expressed when opening up these sakes with friends, family, and food. Enjoy the owls, bulls, and turtles!
LEVEL 1: Introductory Membership (Two 300ml bottles)
Hitachino Awashizuku Junmai Sparkling
Kiuchi Brewery (Ibaraki, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 65%, SMV: -10
This unique sparkling beverage is like a hybrid beer and sake, which is fitting because Kiuchi Brewery makes both. This is a sparkling sake made with sour white koji. Although most sparkling sakes I’ve had are quite sweet, I like that this sake has a hint of bitterness with a malty nose. Enjoy cold alongside salty snacks like thick cut potato chips and sharp cheddars.
Kuroushi “Black Bull” Junmai
Nate Shuzoten Sake Brewery (Wakayama, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 50%, SMV: +1
Not what I’d expect from a sake called “Black Bull,” this golden junmai is smooth and light. It has an appetizing nose - full of roasted cashews and yeast but has a lingering finish of bitter chocolate. The acidity works well with food that have a tart edge. They were a perfect accompaniment to a kale sauté topped off with a touch of sesame oil and rice vinegar. I’ve also been enjoying this brew alongside nuka pickles. Recommended warm or at room temperature.
LEVEL 2: Premium Membership (Two 720ml bottles)
Kuroushi “Black Bull” Junmai Ginjo
Nate Shuzoten Sake Brewery (Wakayama, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 50%, SMV: +3
This sake is delicate and has fresh, fruity notes often found in ginjos. Nada Brewery’s sakes tend to have high acidity, which makes them great candidates for pairing with foods that have umami and tartness. The acidity is best complimented alongside pickled fish (like saba or pickled herring) or chirashi rice. This is a delightful sake that has characteristics of fall fruits like pears and persimmons and is best at room temperature, not chilled.
Shinkame “Holy Turtle” Junmai
Shinkame Brewery Co.Ltd. (Saitama, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 60%, SMV: +5~6
My love for sake started with this bottle. Over 10 years after my first taste of this sake, it still blows me away. It took over two years and some arm twisting to get this sake stateside. Open a bottle and notice a bouquet of mushrooms and warm apples. This aroma is so unique to Shinkame, I can smell it a mile away. Taste one drop and experience how the umami expands in the mouth and on the tongue, yet finishes satisfyingly clean. Matured for over two years, this sake is smooth, complex and pairs with virtually anything – from sushi to turkey to shabu shabu. Drink it chilled or at room temperature, but you must try it warm too, or else Ogawahara-san will turn in his grave.