Father's Day is June 16


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My sake-loving father Kuni always calls himself a Junmai Guy – I didn’t understand until recently that this was a dig on aruten sakes, which are sakes made with the addition of distilled alcohol. It’s a category with some heavy baggage, with overall decline in popularity as brewers tell me that junmais are sold more these days. But I’m here to tell ya that aruten sakes of today are awesome!

Simply put, sakes are divided into two camps: junmai or aruten. Junmai is made only with rice, water, yeast, and koji, while aruten sakes also have distilled alcohol added to them. Aruten sakes make up 80% of the sake market in Japan, including the premium categories of honjozo, ginjo, and daiginjo (remember that if you don’t see the word junmai anywhere on the bottle, it is an aruten sake). Futsu-shu, the non-premium sake category, is what is sold the most in Japan – in large cartons and made with lots of distilled alcohol. This lowbrow category is perhaps what Junmai Guys poo-poo the most (and we don’t sell a lot of that at Umami Mart).

Aruten is not a formal category of sake, rather it’s more of a slang term, shortened from arukoru tenka which literally means added alcohol. Adding alcohol to sakes is nothing new: hundreds of years ago they started adding shochu (Japan’s distilled alcohol) to sake’s moromi (fermentation mash) to preserve sake from spoilage thus making it easier to travel. In the late 1800s, aruten was forbidden due to new tax laws, and it wasn’t until the start of WW2 when the government allowed alcohol to be added to sake once again, to increase yield of the beverage which had been reduced due to the rice shortage.

Born right after WW2 ended, Kuni and people of his generation grew up in a time when there were virtually no junmais on the market, and only aruten sakes were available. And they were awful – one could imagine these sakes were syrupy sweet and were not for the benefit of enjoyment, but rather immediate inebriation. So when efforts were made in the 1960s and 70s to improve the quality of sake, bringing back junmais and then with the discovery of ginjos, you can understand that an entire new squad of sake enthusiasts, or Junmai Guys like my dad, were born, swearing off aruten sakes forever.

The added alcohol of aruten sakes (that aren’t futsushu) is not to increase the alcohol percentage but rather to add dimension, texture, and aroma. You’ll find a variety of aruten from my selections this month, from fruity, silky, and lush, to refreshing and dry – I hope to change minds of the hardcore Junmai Guys and Gals out there and showcase the diverse range of Awesome Aruten.

This theme is an offshoot of my previous Sake Gumi series Holy Honjozo. Special thanks to Timothy Sullivan of Hakkaisan for guidance on honjozos vs. aruten sakes, and to Japan On Air podcast's features on aruten sake (here and here) which helped in my research on this often misunderstood category.


Aruten Gal


Dewazakura “Sakura Boy” Mini Daiginjo
Dewazakura Sake Brewery (Yamagata, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 48% Yamadanishiki, SMV: +6, Acidity: 1.2

Dewazakura has been making this sake for decades, and Mr. Naoki Kamoto of the brewery said, “When it was first released in 1983, sakes on the market were still mainly sticky and sweet. Instead, we produced this elegant daiginjo that was aromatic, light, and dry, with some umami.” We get a juicy front palette full of purple grapes, with a luxurious full, tropical ending. Enjoy cold with mussels and hotaru ika escabeche and prawn cocktail.

Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Honjozo 
Hakkaisan (Niigata, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 55% Gohyakumangoku, SMV: +4, Acidity: 1.3
Distillate made from sugar cane

All our sakes this month are made with rice that has been impressively polished to 60% or less. Photo by Hakkaisan.

I keep this honjozo in regular rotation in my fridge, and it is indeed tokubetsu (special), with a 55% rice polish! Mr. Tanamura, toji for this sake at Hakkaisan told us that this sake has been around since 1940 and he says, “The addition of brewing alcohol brings out the clear, crisp, light drinking taste and the original gorgeous aroma of sake.” He adds, “In recent years, there has been a boom in junmai and especially ginjo grade sakes in Japan, and it seems that fewer and fewer breweries are making new honjozo sake. Our special honjozo sake plays an important role in fulfilling our ‘responsibility to supply’ to our consumers, which is our company’s philosophy that everyone should have reliable access to an affordable and delicious sake.” I love this! This sake is great at any temperature, and I especially enjoy it cold alongside simple weeknight dishes like roasted potatoes with linguica, or anchovy pasta.

Sawahime Ginjo
Inoue Seikichi Shuzo (Tochigi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 50% Hitogokochi, SMV: +4.5, Acidity: 1.2
Distillate made from sugar cane

Inoue Seikichi Shuzo's President and Toji Hiroshi Inoue was especially pleased about our aruten feature and commented, "Adding alcohol to sake is often viewed negatively, but it is a very important and traditional method based on the history of Japanese sake. We believe that it is an avant-garde genre."

This sumptuous sake is all about local as Inoue told us, “My philosophy is very much about local rice, proprietary Tochigi yeast, and I play only locally produced music during brewing season. We serve and eat locally produced food. I am very involved in my local community and I have supported the local infrastructure.” Get fragrant notes of nectarine skin and cucumbers with a silky mouthfeel that disappears in a moment’s notice. I love this with sake chilled with freshly steamed local dungeness crab dipped in sweet vinegar.

Sakuragawa Dry Honjozo
Tsuji Zenbei Shoten (Tochigi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 60% Asahi No Yume, SMV: +2, Acidity: 1.5
Distillate made domestically from corn

Sign in front of Tsuji Zenbei, proud maker of Sakuragawa Honjozo. Photo courtesy of Tengoku Sake.

This sake has been around for 270 years! President Hiroyuki Zenbei comments, “In Japan, honjozo is a type of alcoholic beverage that is popular among customers who enjoy drinking it every night at home as an evening drink. The reason for this is that it is relatively reasonably priced and the quality of the sake is easy to pair with home-cooked meals.” Yoko and I first had this sake warm at Hana Sushi in Rohnert Park, and I’ve wanted to feature it in our club ever since. I love the notes of fresh steamed rice and sake kasu, with some banana at the end. “By aging it at a warm temperature for more than half a year, it has a calm aged aroma and smooth taste,” says Zenbei. Enjoy room temperature with spatchcocked roasted chicken with a yuzu kosho dressing.

Column: Sake Gumi News


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