Since Adam has been on a cider binge, then I guess it’s time for me to start my version of a low abv binge: a sake binge!
My palate usually looks for heavy flavors. Which is why I tend to go for long-fermented and/or pot-distilled spirits like Jamaican rum, Mezcal and non-neutered single malt like Springbank. But from time to time, I’ll crave for refreshing drinks like Aperol Spritzes and Japanese highballs. However, I’ve noticed that I’ve been craving more sake lately. Aside from it being cheaper and easier to serve (myself), I haven’t really found an answer for my cravings, until I returned to Kyoto in late February.
If you have read my Tokyo Bar Chronicle articles and other reviews involving Japan, you will have noticed that I’m an absolute fan of the country. With a very tranquil mind, I was enjoying some sake while observing my ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) room attendant as she was served the food for my Kaiseki dinner. That’s when the answers suddenly came to me.
I realized that Japanese sake can be reflective of the stereotypical temperament of the Japanese, which I admire. The flavors, like the people, are barely in your face. The sake I’ve tried so far were mostly light-bodied, slightly sweet and/or floral but sometimes dry. A lot of them were rather fleeting and elegant but I’ve had some that are creamy or a bit astringent. The Japanese usually greet you with a polite bow then quietly let you be until the need for their attention arises again. More sips sometimes call forth different flavors we didn’t get in previous sips just like we might get a different employee greeting us. This is sort of how I see the flavors of sake approach the drinker.
Because sake is usually a clear liquid and may seem unassuming to most, it holds a surprising treat for those curious enough to explore it. To know and understand what goes into making it is probably like knowing and understanding what goes into the intricate and serene design of traditional Japanese gardens. There is no extravagance or modern bullshit that goes into making sake. Just like traditional Japanese gardens don’t need to rely on bright or sparkly gimmicks to make their beauty felt. Quality products require time, patience and effort.
Just like I am sure I will spend the rest of my life exploring Japan, I am sure I will spend the rest of my life slowly getting to know more about sake. Knowing the terms on a sake bottle’s label doesn’t do anything for me. Yet? Maybe not ever. That mystery is very attractive to me. I guess there is a certain comfort that can be taken in not knowing. Maybe, it is beneficial for people to, at times, see certainty as an enemy.
I know what the basic terms like Junmai or Ginjo or Daiginjo mean. When I see terms like “peated Highland single malt aged in ex-bourbon casks from distillery X” my mental flavor map will immediately give me an idea as to what the whisky will most probably taste like. But it’s not the same for sake. Not all sake bottles indicate the kind of rice use. Did the brewer use table rice or sake rice? Is the sake a seasonal release? What makes it seasonal? Even fewer sake indicate the kind of yeast used. Much less the kind of koji-kin used. What will this rice variety taste like when polished to a certain percentage and fermented with a certain yeast? There is no mental flavor map for me to navigate and guess what an unfamiliar sake will taste like.
Terada Honke is a brewery from Chiba prefecture that’s been making sake for 340 years. They are also known for making organic sake. All ingredients are pesticide-free. I translated the label on the bottle and it says “brewers brewed with the microorganisms that settled in the brewery, keeping in mind the great number of predecessors”. I guess this means they use wild yeast? This is all possible because they have their own rice fields around the brewery. But they also source from 10 other farms who also practice organic farming. A kind of organic farming that they use is rice duck farming. Wherein ducks eat weed and insects, while roaming the rice fields freely.
The particular SKU I’m reviewing is called Gonin Musume Junmai. Gonin Musume means Five daughters. Junmai refers to sake made with pure rice. This SKU does not mention what kind of rice was used aside from being domestic rice. The polishing rate of the rice is 70%. This was bottled at 15% abv.
Terada Honke Gonin Musume Junmai – review
Color: diluted white tea.
On the nose: Some dry earthy funk. Jasmine tea, hints of almonds, chrysanthemum tea, hay and hints of lavender.
In the mouth: A bit of an astringent mouthfeel. Rice husk, hints of marzipan, a graceful and enveloping taste of lavender, a bit of grass jelly and nutty tastes.
A bit different from the type of sake I’m used to. The hints of astringency and dry flavors characteristics of sake I haven’t encountered yet. I don’t know if these characteristics are a result of the rice variety used and wild fermentation, or just the wild fermentation.