Me with Ohara-san, master brewer of Shroyakuji in Nara, at the birthplace of Bodaimoto and Seishu
During my time in Nara in March 2023, I visited woodworkers, ceramicists, textile makers, chasen craftsmen, and sake brewers. I found Nara to be compact, charming, and delicious; I could see myself living there. While Kyoto is inundated with tourists, and Tokyo is constantly hustling and bustling, I felt like Nara had a nice relaxing rhythm with all the amenities, and a rich history that is apparent in all that is crafted there – including sake.
A visit to Nara would not be complete without running into a few dozen deer
Much of the history of sake takes place in Nara. During the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), it was the temples of Nara that brought sake into the modern age. Sake made by monks in temples are referred to as soboshu (monk’s sake). Sake went from thick, porridge-like doburoku (usually made at home without licenses, and spoiled after 1-2 days) to clear, pressed, filtered and pasteurized seishu (clear sake, recognized by the Liquor Tax Law of Japan as legal sake) that could be shipped and stored for many months. With the establishment of seishu, a shelf stable product, sake became more marketable.
Shoryakuji Temple in Nara is the birthplace of seishu and sandanjikomi. In addition to establishing the steps to make seishu sake, they also developed the sandanjikomi method, which involves adding more rice, koji, and water to the moromi (starter mash) three times. This increased the volume of each batch, bringing sake-making into a mass commercial venture.
Shoryakuji Temple is also the birthplace of bodaimoto. A method of sake-making where instead of using steamed rice for the starter mash, the monks use rice soaked in water that runs along the side of the temple. Unfortunately, there are no bodaimoto in the lineup for this month’s Gumi, but I did want to touch on it since bodaimoto is an important part of Nara’s sake history. Bodaimoto, which are often high in acidity, are rare to come by. We do carry one on our shelves, and I encourage you to get a bottle if you come across one.
Yoshinosugi (cedar harvested in the Yoshino forest in Nara). Level 1 gets a sake aged in barrels made of yoshinosugi.
It’s hard to generalize the characteristics of Nara sake. Each brewer I asked says there are no defining aromas or flavors that sum up sake made in Nara. However, every brewer acknowledged the history of Nara sake. Tetsuya Sakai of Chiyo Shuzo says, “We aim to create new types of sake based on history and tradition.” While Kanako Yagi of Choryo Shuzo identified Nara sakes as, “The beginning and the future of sake.” I loved this phrase and have adopted it as the title of this month’s theme.
Yoko (Sake Director and Co-Founder of Umami Mart)
Early spring sakura in the Yoshino District
Harushika Junmai Ginjo
Imanishi Seibee Shoten (Nara, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yamada Nishiki + Fukunohana 60%, SMV: -2, Acidity: 1.3
This light gold sake offers green grapes in its aroma, while delivering tasting notes of juicy orange, Rainier cherries, and cotton candy. The sweeter flavors complement earthier foods like duck liver mousse. Enoy this sake chilled. This sake comes from one of Nara’s most famous breweries, Harushika Sake Brewery. It was founded in 1884 and is located in Fukuchiin-cho, Nara City. The brewery name Harushika (spring deer) reflects their surroundings as they are located in the middle of it all, where deer and humans coexist. Tetsuya Yoshida of Harushika explains the brewery’s philosophy, “’Polishing the rice, polishing the water, polishing the technique, and polishing the spirit,’ we are dedicated to brewing high-quality sake, with a focus on dry junmai.”
Yoshinosugi No Taru Sake
Choryo Shuzo (Nara, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Japanese Rice, SMV: 0, Acidity: 1.2
For this sake, Choryo ages their futsushu in cedar barrels for 20 days. Although tarusake has existed for hundreds of years, Choryo’s Yoshinosugi No Tarusake was born in 1964 as Japan’s first bottled tarusake. It was novel in that it encapsulated the distinctiveness provided from cedar barrels in a bottle format. Kanako Yagi of Choryo Brewery describes, “Cedar for these barrels comes from all over Japan, but it has been said since ancient times that cedar grown in the mountains of the Yoshino region located in southern Nara Prefecture is the best to use for sake because of the balance of aroma and taste.” We get notes of allspice, green apple, and nectarine, with a pleasing dryness of fresh cut cedar. For pairings Yagi-san adds, “Components derived from cedar barrels are said to easily emulsify with fats and oils, thereby rinsing away oily contents in the mouth, as well as enhancing the flavor compounds of a variety of foods.” Bring on the meatloaf, unagi, and tamago-yaki. Although this taruzake can be enjoyed chilled or at room temperature, we love it warm.
Shinomine Chokara Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu
Chiyo Shuzo (Nara, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yamada Nishiki 66%, SMV: +12, Acidity: 2.1
This junmai made with Yamada Nishiki rice has a crisp acidity that is satisfyingly refreshing – perfect for starting the new year! Indeed, President and Toji Tetsuya Sakai of the brewery echoes my sentiments, “We aim to create a drink that has a sharp taste and goes well with food. I believe that the beauty of the Yamada Nishiki variety is what makes this drink possible.” Sakai came to the brewery with experience in wine-making, and extends the concept of domaine to sake. Sakai says, “The phrase I’ve been using recently is that we value sake as a processed agricultural product. The sake brewer grows the rice himself and brews sake with that rice, similar to a domaine. We want to brew something that cannot be done without relying on the power of nature.” He adds that he designs the labels himself and wants the solid silver label to convey the sharp, crisp taste of his sake. Enjoy in a thin, stemless glass chilled or at room temperature with roasted poultry, gratin, or creamed spinach.
Kaze No Mori Yamadanishiki 807
Yucho Shuzo (Nara, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yamada Nishiki 80%, SMV: N/A, Yeast: 7
Visiting President Chobei Yamamoto at Yucho Shuzo in Gose City, was one of the most educational brewery visits I’ve ever had. He invited me into his meeting room, where he had piles of very old books on Nara’s history and sake-making. He eagerly pointed out obscure passages that hinted at how monks were making sake back in the 1400s. Yamamoto-san studies history to build upon it. He explained to me that he thinks of sake-making as “layering techniques.” That is to say, you can control flavors and aroma with techniques like bodaimoto, skipping pasteurization, filtration, or dilution. For the Kaze No Mori line, he uses nitrogen at bottling and uses hard water that is obtained by drilling down 100 meters. The nitrogen lends an effervescent layer to the sake, while the hard water (with high mineral content) allows for Kaze No Mori sakes to have their signature rich texture. Yamamoto labels his sake with three digits. The first two digits reveal the seimaibuai (rice polishing ratio) and the third tells you the yeast type. For the Yamada Nishiki 807, this means that the rice polishing ratio is 80% – meaning there’s less polish for more acidity and flavor. Yeast number 7 is known to result in sturdy flavors and fruity aromas. Enjoy lively notes of pineapple, tart apples, all with the signature fizz of Kaze no Mori namazakes. Enjoy chilled with roast chicken, smoked salmon, or fried brussel sprouts.
L-R: Kaze No Mori’s Master Brewer Haruna Nakagawa , me and President Chobei Yamamoto