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Female Frontrunner Nanami Watanabe Sake GumiSake Gumi is our monthly sake subscription service with 250 members throughout California. Join today!

This year, we are celebrating Female Frontrunners in March to coincide with Girl's Day on March 3, and International Women's Day on March 8. Every year (when we are open), Kayoko, my mom, and I set up the traditional hinamatsuri doll display at the shop and invite the public to celebrate with us on Girl's Day. It is a jubilant event that inspires us every year, as young and old gather at the shop and celebrate the energy and wisdom of women. Although we won't be able to have the event this year, we'll be celebrating in other ways including through this month's Sake Gumi theme, Female Frontrunners.

One of my favorite recurring Sake Gumi themes is Female Frontrunners, where I highlight sakes from kura (breweries) with female toji (brewmaster) or owners. We've been running this theme for five years now, and I am always a fan to see people approach traditional crafts from a different perspective. It almost always improves and helps spread the word of the craft. And as a fellow female business owner, I always feel a camaraderie with these women toji and owners, who have a passion for their team and sake making. I am also very happy to report that every year, it becomes a little easier to locate bottles that fit under this theme. When I first ran this theme in 2017, it was much harder to find bottles made by women.

So why are we seeing more women in sake-making? "In the old days, sake making required a lot of strength so a man was best suited for making sake. However, with the development of better technology, women are able to keep up with the demands of sake brewing. Also, it is not just in the sake industry, but in other sectors that women are able to enter many different male-dominated industries because people's consciousness is changing these days," says Maiko Tsuji, the toji of Tsuji Honten (maker of Level 2 bottle Mimasaka). While Rumiko Obata (owner of Obata Brewery, Level 1 Manotsuru Crane Junmai) gives us another interesting take on why more women are entering sake-making, "One of the reasons for that might be the declining birthrate. Traditionally, males would most likely be an heir to succeed family business. But in fact, there are many kuras with only daughters." I must say, it's somewhat disappointing that it took a declining birthrate to advance equality in the sake-making world :(.

Sake made by people from different backgrounds diversifies the way in which sake is made. For example, women toji in Japan have mentioned the use of new technologies, which eliminates some of the hard labor associated with sake-making. As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” And as more types of people make sake, its methods and applications become better, smarter and more available – that's why I think it's important to celebrate women sake-makers even after five years!

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Umami Mart

LEVEL 1: Introductory Membership (Two 300ml bottles)

Female Frontrunner Sake Gumi
Yoi No Tsuki “Midnight Moon” Daiginjo
Tsukinowa Shuzoten (Iwate, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Ginginga 50%, SMV: +4.5

Toji Hiroko Yokozawa makes this crisp, clean daiginjo from Iwate Prefecture. “I am a mother, and raising children teaches how to respond flexibly. Moromi (sake mash), like a child, often does not proceed as you would expect and you have to be ready to respond to those changes,” says Yokozawa.This is an excellent bottle to showcase the daiginjo style, with aromas of cantaloupe and Asian pear. I also loved the hint of minerals and kelp in the flavor. Notice the dry ending due to the fact that this type of sake (honjozo) has a little bit of distilled alcohol added. Enjoy this crisp daiginjo chilled with a smoked cheese, or smoked salmon.

Hiroko Yokozawa (left) of Tsukinowa Shuzoten using a funa press. Read the full interview with Yokozawa here.

Female Frontrunner Sake Gumi
Manotusuru Crane Junmai
Obata Shuzo (Niigata, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Koshiibuki 65%, SMV: +6~8

Rumiko Obata, the Vice President of Obata Shuzo named by Forbes Japan as one of the top 55 Local Innovators of Japan, tells us that the brewery is commited to sustainability. They recently converted an abandoned school into their second brewery, installing solar panels that power the whole building. Obata also says of their sake, “We try to reflect the natural beauty of Sado Island in our sake. Our motto is Shi-ho-wa-jo, to make sake by harmonizing the four treasures of Sado Island: rice, water, brewers, and terroir. Hints of mushroom, pistachio, and cacao nibs waft into your nose as you sip this sake, followed by flavors of caramel and strawberry, giving way to a clean, dry ending. Try this sake chilled, then let it come up to room temperature to explore how the sake changes. Pairs with savory proteins like tofu, eggs, and sukiyaki.

Female Frontrunners Sake GumiRumiko Obata, the Vice President of Obata Shuzo. Read the full interview with Obata here.

LEVEL 2: Premium Membership (Two 720ml bottles)

Female Frontrunner Sake Gumi
Hakurakusei “The Connoisseur” Junmai Ginjo
Niizawa Jozoten (Miyagi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Kura no Hana 55%, SMV: +2

At 25, Nanami Watanabe is one of the youngest tojis brewing today. Youth doesn’t hinder her ability to brew layered sakes like this one. Enjoy this grapefruit forward junmai ginjo that has an aroma of green melon and watermelon rind. In addition to having several females on their brewing team, Niizawa Jozoten believes that happy workers create better sake and grant their workers nine days off each month during the brewing season. Watanabe’s food pairing recommendations include one of her favorite foods menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and prosciutto draped in melon. I recommend having this bright, citrusy sake chilled.

Female Frontrunners Sake GumiNanami Watanabe of Niizawa Jozoten. Read the full interview with Watanabe here.

Female Frontrunner Sake Gumi
Gozenshu Junmai Mimasaka
Tsuji Honten (Okayama, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Omachi 65%, SMV: +5

This luscious, rich, and round sake that has been aged for at least one year, combines aromas of cream, koji, and mushroom, and has become a fast favorite of mine. Maiko Tsuji has been the toji at Tsuji Co. for 13 years. She describes this sake as having, “a soft umami and a round taste of Omachi rice. It has a gentle aroma which is produced by the Kyokai 9 yeast.” The pronounced acidity of this sake goes well with richer foods like uni, beef, and aged cheeses. Tsuji adds, “When it is chilled, it has a refreshing taste and when warmed (110-115°F), the flavor changes. The umami of the Omachi rice spreads out on the palate when warmed.”Female Frontrunners Sake GumiMaiko Tsuji of Tsuji Honten. Read the full interview with Tsuji here.