Chichibu River, where Katanishi Sake Brewery draws their water
Sake is made of about 80% water. The other ingredients are rice, koji, and yeast. Because sake is mostly water, brewers often choose the location of their kura (brewery) based on its water source. Whether the brewery draws from an underground well in Shimane or from snow melt that travels 80 miles from Mt. Fuji to Tokyo, sake brewers boast the quality of their water when talking about their process.
Water can range from soft to hard, and can contain certain minerals that give the sake a unique flavor. Water hardness can be measured in mineral grains per gallon. The grains measured are most commonly calcium and magnesium. The more grains you measure, the harder the water.
Nansui (soft water) is most common in Japan, but some regions, like Kobe, is famous for its kosui (hard water). Both hard and soft waters can be used in sake making, but the brewer may tweak their method depending on the hardness of the water. Most of the water in the U.S. is hard. Las Vegas is known to have the hardest water in the states, while most of the midwest also has hard water. New Yorkers and Bay Area residents enjoy soft water.
While honoring the water that comes in the sake itself this month, I'd like to recommend some ways of adding a water element to sake. Whether it's enjoying sake on ice or adding a splash of soda water, it’s a great way to see how sake changes with the addition of water.
Adding water can open up the flavors in sake. It can make it taste more mellow or smooth, especially in the case of a genshu (undiliuted sake) or it can bring out new unique flavors in more complex sakes like junmai ginjos. I'd recommend adding some soft or distilled water to sake, since these waters have less minerals that may not alter the taste of the sake as much as hard water.
Summer is my favorite time to add ice or water to sake because it keeps me hydrated. I've also found myself having sake on the rocks more as we shelter in place because I can't go to the pros for a refreshing cocktail. Adding ice and a slice of lime to a sake is a simple way to enjoy cocktail hour at home.
Co-Founder + Sake Director
LEVEL 1: Introductory Membership (Two 300ml bottles)
Bunraku Aya Junmai Ginjo
Katanishi Sake Brewery (Saitama, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Sai No Kagayaki 60%, SMV: +1
Water: Medium Soft, Chichibu River
The brewer specifically made this sake for, “Warm areas with beautiful weather, and blue skies, like in Califonia. It has a nice aroma, it’s refreshing, a bit sweet, light on the palate, with a short aftertaste.” The lightness is best enjoyed at the beginning of the meal with lighter fare. We loved this one with rock cod ceviche or brocollini with ume dressing. This champagne-hued sake was delicious chilled, with notes of cantaloupe rind, banana, and cucumber. Adding a splash of soda water transforms this sake – making it reminiscent of a melon soda float.
Kan Nihonkai +15 Ultra Dry Junmai Genshu
Nihonkai Shuzo (Shimane, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Shimane Gohyaku Mangoku 65%, SMV: +15
Water: Soft, Misumi River wellwater (160 ft. deep)
Nihonkai Shuzo is located on Hamada wharf on the Sea of Japan coastline in Shimane Prefecture. Whenever the fishermen have a special catch, they bring it to the brewery for trade in sake. This symbiotic relationship resulted in this powerful, dry sake that pairs perfectly with rich seafood (nodoguro, blackthroat seaperch, a favorite in the region) while satisfying the fishermen who’ve been laboring all day. I loved this assertive sake for its brininess and hint of peppery sansho with miso-stewed mackerel. Try it chilled neat at first, then mellow out by adding ice to it. Also great with a brie topped with pinenuts hot from the toaster oven.
LEVEL 2: Premium Membership (Two 720ml bottles)
Kitaya Arabashiri Junmai Daiginjo Genshu
Kitaya Brewery (Fukuoka, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yamada Nishiki + Omachi 50%, SMV: +1~+3
Water: Medium Hard, Yabe River wellwater
Utilizing a special hose to transfer this sake from the tank and bottle, Kitaya is able to capture the fresh fizziness of a true nama, even though it actually goes through pasteurization. We went all-out with this indulgent, champagne-like sake that has notes of pineapple and grape, and minerality (thanks to the medium hard water), by pairing it with grilled wagyu, lobster and shiitake. Highlight the fizziness by adding a splash of soda water, or try this genshu with ice for a touch of dilution if you wish to bring down the 17% ABV.
Juemon Junmai Muroka Genshu
Toshimaya Shuzo (Tokyo, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Hattan Nishiki 60%, SMV: +3.5
Water: Soft, Snow melt from Mt. Fuji (150 ft. deep)
Toshimaya Sake Shop opened in 1596. While selling sake, customers asked if they would serve food alongside their sake. So they started serving tofu dengaku, and just like that, the first izakaya was born. The brewer credits the clean finish on this sake to the soft water pulled from their well. With a rich mix of tastes including, honey, cucumber, and burdock root. We love having Juemon with hearty dishes like miso-stewed mackerel. Serving it on the rocks with a slice of lime makes this sake crisp and refreshing. The izakaya closed for a period of time, but lucky for us, just reopened in Chiyoda-ku in July 2020!