As a bartender for several years, the most common response when I would ask, “What kind of wine would you like?” would indubitably be, “Something dry.” We get this at our shop too, when customers are browsing sakes. They might recall a certain sake they had once that was “too sweet,” and most patrons assume they like dry sakes when they first walk through our doors.
In light of these assumptions, I am exploring karakuchi (dry) sakes this month for my bi-annual Sake Gumi takeover. Karakuchi sakes emerged around the 70s and 80s in Japan, along with the popularity of ginjo sake. When the war ended in Japan, sanzoushu became popular, which is a style of sake that had a boatload of additives in it, in order to increase yield. Due to a scarcity of rice needed for sake-making, sanzoushu was a means to an end for a country desperate for booze. It was thick and sweet, and as I could only imagine, quite gross. Once the economy started booming however, people wanted higher quality sakes, and any departure from this cloying sanzoushu.
Fermentation tanks at Sumikawa Brewery
There were two major turning points in favor of karakuchi sakes: Asahi Super Dry beer and Niigata Tanrei (formerly known as tanrei karakuchi) style sake. When Asahi’s renowned beer debuted in 1987, people went – excuse my French – apeshit. Sake drinkers now wanted a sake equivalent to this revolutionary concept of a “super dry” beverage.
Then, there was the introduction of tanrei karakuchi sakes from Niigata, for which they are most well known for throughout Japan. This region-specific style denotes sakes that are clean, crisp, and dry. Locals would also tell you that this style is very food friendly. These sakes are today dubbed as Niigata Tanrei and I am happy to present these sakes for both Level 1 and 2.
Entrance of Kikusui in Niigata
What happens to a sake when you strip it of its inherent sweetness from the rice? How is dry sake made? Most importantly, are karakuchi sakes delicious? Explore these questions with me this month!
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Kikusui Karakuchi Honjozo
Kikusui Sake Co. (Niigata, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 70% Gohyaku Mangoku, SMV: +7, Acidity 1.3
Kikusui released this sake in 1978, and it indeed embodies the Niigata Tanrei style – it is easy to drink, crisp, with a sharp spicy ending. Yoko said this reminds her of drinking at an izakaya in Japan where the sake flows all night. This sake is a namazume, meaning it is pasteurized just once, retaining a bit of the juiciness. It is refreshing when cold but I love it warmed, as the sweetness is enhanced but the texture remains light. Try with a creamy pasta or yakisoba.
Mixing the moromi at Kikusui
Ama No To Junkara Junmai
Asamai Shuzo (Akita, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 60% Miyama Nishiki + Gin No Sei, SMV +10, Acidity 1.7
Jun-kara means rich-dry and this sake is certainly that. Mr. Shuhei Ise of Asamai Shuzo says that this sake is made in the Akita-style using low temperature, long-term fermentation, which is how this balance of rich and dry is achieved. First developed in 2001, this sake is complex – I get hints of butterscotch yet is it mineral-forward with food. How is this possible?! Take this to your next outdoor barbecue as it goes splendidly with grilled meats, oysters, and vegetables. Drink cold, or if you want to enhance the dryness, warm it up!
Toyo Bijin “Asian Beauty” Okarakuchi Junmai Ginjo
Sumikawa Brewery (Yamaguchi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 55% Yamada Nishiki, SMV +12, Acidity 1.5
As a junmai ginjo, this sake is subtle yet aromatic. Introduced in 1998, Mr. Sumikawa of the brewery says, “Brewing a very dry sake requires a high level of brewing technique, and we pride ourselves on making a sake that is also fragrant and has a good level of umami.” One technique is using house-made koji, which allows them to make this sake with such a high SMV, while retaining aroma and umami. Enjoy cold with raw oysters, sunomono, and gyoza.
A mix of the old building and new at Sumikawa
Imayo Tsukasa Black Extra Dry Junmai
Imayo Tsukasa Brewery (Niigata, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 65% Gohyaku Mangoku, SMV +15, Acidity 1.2
To make a Niigata Tanrei sake, you must push the yeast to the limit, says Yosuke Tanaka of the brewery. He continues, “By making the environment for the yeast more challenging, we were able to achieve a clean, refreshing and dry sake.” This sake debuted in 2017, and shines at room temperature, where I get hints of spiced pear and licorice. Try this bone dry sake with canned Minerva sardines and shime saba.
Interior at Imayo Tsukasa